Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown had an “open and frank conversation” that appeared to some observers to be more of a spirited dispute with Ben “Ben America” Weaver, a local Democratic activist, on Saturday afternoon at Hemming Park. The confrontation between Brown and Weaver, currently affiliated with the Northeast Florida LGBT Leadership PAC, had to do with LGBT issues.
Matt Killen posted a video to his Facebook page that showed Brown near the Jax Young Voters Coalition booth after the exchange. A female voice says, “He’s yelling at them, not talking to them” in what may be a reference to Brown.
A young man in an Alvin Brown campaign T-shirt trying to cover the recording device likely indicates the exchange was less than cordial. A different man then says, “It’s freedom of speech.”
Brown then walks away with purpose, as an unidentified voice calls out, “Bye, Felicia.”
On his Facebook page, Killen mentioned that “Northeast Florida LGBT asked him some questions that he found off-topic, then they started screaming at each other,” Killen said, adding it “wasn’t very diplomatic on any party.”
I contacted Killen for further comment, but it reflected no better on Brown. Killen said:
The LGBT PAC asked him why he didn’t support a full HRO. The mayor then went on to say to Ben America (Weaver), “You see Ben? You see what you’re doing? That’s evil.” Ben looked at him puzzled then Rusty from LGBT started to yell at him, then another man came from LGBT and yelled at him. Then the mayor started yelling back, they yelled at each other for a bit. I tried to film it but his assistant started blocking my camera.
Ben America felt really bad because he felt in his conversation that he was getting somewhere with the mayor. So to recap when the conversation first started, it was calm, then when the group asked questions the mayor didn’t like, nor the tone. After that it escalated into a yelling match which was mostly inaudible and kind of scary. I filmed it because a man with that much power should use a little more tact. His assistant was like 16 years old and obviously doesn’t understand the rules on public figures.
As one might expect, Killen’s Facebook page contained commentary on the event, including from PAC Chairwoman Carrington “Rusty” Mead.
“He started putting his hands on our members when we asked him about an inclusive HRO and he didn’t like that,” Mead said. “He responded with telling us about the work he had done for the park.”
“When we told him we didn’t want to hear about the park but equality, he started pushing some of us and saying ‘That’s why I can’t talk to you guys!’” Mead said.
The PAC did not endorse Brown in Tuesday’s election, instead backing Bill Bishop, who does support an inclusive Human Rights Ordinance. The mayor has been reluctant to take a position on the HRO, something many of his supporters expected since the 2011 campaign, but which has not happened this campaign.
With just two days before the election, any movement by Brown on the issue likely won’t happen.
Of the incident, Weaver said, “A constructive dialogue with someone I’ve known for 10 years was derailed by passionate members of our organization. I want to get back to discussion of this issue instead of what happens when an exhausted politician … [feels] ambushed.
“The mayor felt ambushed and took it personally. After a couple of months of campaigning, that happens,” Weaver said.
“It’s hard for a black Democrat to see white liberals who claim to be progressive but don’t belong to the party of progressive values,” Weaver said, referring to “Republican candidates”.
“I can’t imagine the pressure of someone doing what the mayor’s doing, but I can imagine what it’s like to feel your campaign is being sabotaged,” he said. “It’s easy to feel like people have it out for you.”
Weaver mentioned the “polarizing” dynamic between the Mayor and LGBT activists, a relationship said has a “lot of facets.”
Weaver described the incident as a miscommunication: “The mayor made it clear that economic development and downtown improvement are key parts of his strategy. My point was that discrimination has an economic impact.”
Weaver said he seeks a “constructive dialogue.”
“I’ve known the mayor for a long time and hope we can get past this and move forward.”
We contacted Fabien Levy of the Brown campaign on Saturday evening; he described Ben as a friend of the Mayor’s, and this “constructive discussion” as one of the “open and frank conversations” that the Mayor has with citizens:
Mayor Brown is always willing to have open and frank conversations with citizens and today’s conversation with Ben was no different. The mayor has known Ben and considered him a friend for many years, and they have always been able to work together on the important issues facing Jacksonville. During a constructive discussion today, a number of issues were brought up, including downtown development, small business growth, and the HRO. The mayor listened to what Ben had to say, and, as the mayor has repeatedly said in the past, reaffirmed his opposition to all forms of discrimination. Mayor Brown will continue to work with Ben and every citizen who wants to make Jacksonville a better place. Any effort to turn this discussion into something it was not is unfortunate and takes attention away from the effort to find common ground.