In one of the highest profile appearances since her election in July as chair the Hillsborough County NAACP, Yvette Lewis took a shot at some of the most prominent establishment names in Tampa.
During Friday’s Cafe Con Tampa at the Oxford Exchange, Lewis shared brutally honest thoughts on several topics: A lack of diversity at the University of South Florida, issues with former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor‘s policies and her failure to connect with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
For seven years, Lewis served as chair of the political action committee for the longtime civil rights organization, before moving up to lead the group this summer. Through that, she had become very familiar with the issues roiling the black community in Tampa and Hillsborough County over the past decade.
On example was two years ago, when the NAACP was prominent in calling for the formation of a citizens review board to review the Tampa Police Department’s policies and procedures following the Tampa Bay Times “biking while black” expose in the spring of 2015.
The Times reported the TPD had written more bike tickets from 2012-2014 than police departments in St. Petersburg, Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando combined, and that eight of 10 were black. A subsequent review in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice surmised that the policy was neither discriminatory nor effective.
“We have never received an apology from the Tampa Police Department,” Lewis said at the well-attended breakfast meeting.
At the time, Jane Castor led the TPB. Castor has already formed a political action committee as she eyes a run for Tampa Mayor in 2019. But if she does run, the “biking while black” story will be something that she will have to address.
“She knew what she was doing,” Lewis said. “She was targeting African-American people on bicycles.”
There are also significant concerns in Tampa’s black community about representation on the City Council.
For decades, the District 5 seat, currently held by Frank Reddick, has been considered the Council’s “black seat,” but there is concern that Tampa voting maps will change as county officials start the process of redistricting ahead of the 2019 city elections.
Hillsborough County planning officials say that since the last redistricting process, the African-American population in district 5 has already dropped from 61 percent to 53.8 percent. Lewis and other members of the black community fear if the Channelside district is included in the zone, there will be no African-American representation on Council.
“If someone decides to run for that district in Channelside, our voice has been silenced, and it is gone,” she intoned dramatically.
While former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena agreed with Lewis about the importance of black elected officials on the council, she said it was as essential to elect like-minded lawmakers.
“You need four votes to make anything happen,” she said about getting anything passed on the seven-member board. Saul-Sena also noted that it was crucial to get people out to vote and that East Tampa has the worst voting percentage of any part of the city.
“You need four votes to make anything happen,” Saul-Sena said about getting anything passed on the seven-member board. It was important to get people out to vote, she added, saying that East Tampa has the worst voting percentage of any part of the city.
The voting percentage is weak because you haven’t given people a reason to vote, Lewis shot back.
But it was USF — the institution as well as its main players — receiving Lewis’s greatest wrath Friday.
Joanne Sullivan, community relations director for USF Health, said some members of the NAACP spoke at the USF Board of Trustee’s meeting Thursday. They had “made a very eloquent statement about what they are hoping to see at USF,” she said, adding: “On behalf of USF, let me just say that your voice has been heard, and there are interests at making things better.”
If that was intended to mollify Lewis, it didn’t work.
“What about the students who look like me who have not received their degree who have been told, you should not be in school? What about the faculty … that don’t look like me?” she said about professors with tenure at the university.
“USF has a long way to go. USF has been an island out to their own, and they figured they didn’t need the African American people.”
A lack of diversity isn’t a new topic at the north Tampa campus. Two years ago, students rallied for diversity, saying the university had a problem.
Lewis said that black members of the faculty had been so intimidated to meet with her organization, they refused to come to their office, instead meeting at a nearby McDonald’s on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
“You tell Dr. [Ralph] Wilcox, you tell Judy Genshaft that she needs to come and have a sit-down conversation with the NAACP ASAP,” she said to Sullivan, naming those officials who had declined to meet with the group.
In fact, lots of people refused to meet with Lewis and her group, after giving lip service about how much they care about the organization.she’s tired of it.
And she’s tired of it.
That includes Tampa’s mayor, who noticeably got cross-eyed with the NAACP during the controversy over the call for a police citizens’ review board in 2015. The NAACP, the ACLU, and several other organizations wanted it, but Buckhorn fought against it before he ultimately agreed to form the committee.
Many of those same activists have never been happy with how it was formed or the powers it had.
“We’re supposed to have yearly meetings with the mayor that has been requested, many times,” she said. “As of right now, we have been denied a meeting with the mayor. [The] same mayor that comes and visits all the old African-American churches … but he refused to meet with the NAACP.”
Buckhorn spokesperson Ashley Bauman responded that there is no regular scheduled yearly meeting and there has never been.
“He would go periodically at the request of Carolyn Collins, the former president of the local branch, if she requested but it was not a standing event,” Bauman told Florida Politics. “He has never heard from the current president and to the best of his knowledge she has never interacted with our office.”
Bauman went on to say that the city has supported the organization through funding for its ACT-SO youth programming; the mayor did so again for the most recently approved budget. ACT-SO is the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, a yearlong NAACP achievement program formed to recruit and encourage academic and cultural achievement among African-American high schoolers.
Lewis says that the past NAACP president, Benny Smalls, did call to request a meeting and received no response
“That’s his choice,” Lewis told the crowd about her lack of communications with Buckhorn. “He’s missing out on a good thing because I could give him a good conversation because I’m a beautiful black woman,” she said as the audience cheered.