In the wake of recent killings of black people by police, and the protests, outrage and pain that followed, conversations about police reform are happening around the nation.
In Florida, civil rights leaders have been focusing not only on tackling systemic racism and building better relationships between people of color and police departments, but holding elected officials and the judicial system more accountable for changing policing operations.
George Floyd, the unarmed black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, is at the center of the crisis, especially in communities of color.
A video surfaced online for the world to see, showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Protesters have marched in the streets, from the Panhandle to Tampa, Orlando, Miami and cities across the nation and the world.
In Florida’s state capital of Tallahassee, protesters have raised awareness of three fatal officer-involved shootings in just two months, according to a Tallahassee Democrat report.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a major civil rights organization, is fighting for equal rights and justice for people of color.
The Phoenix interviewed three Florida NAACP branch presidents who spoke out about a variety of issues in their respective communities, from protests in various counties to reforming police procedures and how elected officials can play an important role in police reform.
Here’s what these three presidents said in a question-and-answer format. We interviewed two of the presidents by phone, and the other at a Tallahassee rally.
Beverlye Colson Neal, president of the Orange County (FL) Branch NAACP.
What is your overall message to people in your area fighting for change?
“We need to deem a black male as an endangered species, because he is in harm and with the death of George Floyd, it is more clear now…I am not sure what it is going to take to stop, other than people being consistent with their requests and their follow through.
We have got to vote, that is the main thing I think that is holding us back. We don’t vote but we complain when things don’t go as we want them to go, we are not putting people in office. We’ve got to do better.”
Any plans on the county level that you are pushing for?
“I have a meeting Thursday with the mayor here in Orlando (Mayor Buddy Dyer), he is the one who appoints the chief of police.
What we’ve got to do is sit down with him and have him to take a look through the lens of African Americans…the relationships with the police officers and the community, on a scale of one to ten, I would give it about a four and a half.
And that’s because so much has happened in the past and things have gone unchanged. Old wounds don’t heal, what they do is become infected. And when you have an infection, you got to clean it out bit by bit – and this is what’s going to have to happen with the approaches that we take with our law enforcement as well as the citizens in the community.
We have to educate them about what their responsibility is, and we have got to really work with our elected officials and these unions. A lot of people don’t realize the power that unions have.”
Any final thoughts on how to influence change in police reform?
“Those police officers got more rights than the average citizen…It’s a lot we need to know about as citizens. We need change but you have to change the structure, you have to get inside the system and begin to change there first.
The only way we are going to be able to change the system is we need to know the rules before we try to play the game…we need to get back and start educating our communities more.”
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch
What is the overall message that your group is sending in your area? Are you pushing for anything?
“We’re pushing for standard operating procedures with the law enforcement. We are asking for more accountability, being able to hold them (police) more accountable – definitely with the state attorney’s office. And how can we implement change when it comes to their standard operating procedures…the one thing is, and here in the city of Tampa, it has been systemic racism throughout the years. It is exploding now, and people are looking at it.”
In terms of the protests in your area, I assume your group has been out there on the streets. And how have those protests been going?
“They (protests) are very aggressive. The first night, (and) the second night had a little bit more unrest to it as well. NAACP (Hillsborough branch) has not gotten out there. We have not gotten out there but, of course, we’ve been watching everything and talking and having conversations. But we have had a city of unrest for a couple of days.
And one day we did have a peaceful protest but the police arrested people at the peaceful protest, which is ironic…they ended up getting out of jail. We don’t quite understand why that happened. Buildings have been burned, and businesses have been looted. But the main purpose is that the people are upset. In the city of Tampa this has a lot more to do with George Floyd.”
Any incidents involving a person of color in Tampa that you are raising awareness of?
“A couple of years ago we had a gentleman by the name of Arthur Green Jr. …they pulled him over, saying that he was intoxicated. But he really wasn’t, he was going through a diabetic episode.
When they (police) got to the car, they didn’t do anything. And then they ran him to the ground and handcuffed him. They had their knee on his back, and he eventually died of asphyxiation. The police department in the city of Tampa has been fighting a lawsuit this whole time.”
(According to a 2017 Tampa Bay Times report, the widow of community activist Arthur Green Jr., had filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in April of 2017 “against the city of Tampa on behalf of his estate.”
The suit “accuses two officers of using excessive force while trying to arrest Green and failing to recognize he was in the grips of a medical episode. He stopped breathing and later died,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.)
Adner Marcelin, president, Tallahassee Branch NAACP. (He made his comments to a reporter after providing advice to protesters at a recent rally in Tallahassee.)
So what was your message to the folks here? It sounds like you were giving legal advice.
“We organized a meeting with our sheriff, the chief of police and the state attorney to get…answers (related to recent police shootings of three African American men).
What we were seeking was we heard the cries of the community that they wanted answers and we brought the officials that had the answers into a room with the leaders of these groups in order to get those answers out.
What we are experiencing…and what I’m speaking to them about is doing things in a peaceful and in a calm manner and doing things in a rational manner in order to get the answers and the change that we need.
We don’t want black lives matter to be like a hashtag. We just don’t want everything that just happened overnight and things to be gone. I’m certainly appreciative of the men and women in law enforcement….We want positive interactions with our police officers. We want to help build relationships with our police officers…
We’ve discouraged looting. That does not help us in the situation that we’re in.
We’re working to collectively bring back change. We’re working to collectively make positive change within our community to strengthen our community and to improve the long-strained relationships between particularly the African American community and the law enforcement community.
What we are concerned about is as we know that there are other individuals with ulterior motives that are here, that are doing things that are counterproductive to the movement and we are trying to separate ourselves from those folks and ensuring that we are moving forward and moving the city of Tallahassee in a positive direction.
And that is including with the help of our leadership; that is including with our city and county leadership, and with our judicial arm there.“
I thought I heard you mention to that group that many people are here for different reasons
“Absolutely. And in that context, what I was saying was that, you know, we have different people that are here for different things. You know, there are people that…it’s just not shootings that are the issue. It’s policing and community policing as we call those concepts. And different individuals are looking for different things that are across the spectrum of our community.
And what we want to do is we want to get together and find out what is everyone’s issues and what can we do to work together to solve those problems. So whatever issues those folks are there for, that’s what we’re trying to solve.
My plan is to support the people when they came to me and they said, ‘hey, we’re not getting our city leadership to respond’, my goal was to bring the city leadership to them and to make sure that they’re heard and that they’re equally members of our community and that they have their voices heard as well.”
Journalist Peter T. Reinwald contributed to this report.