Placing the blame on everything from “media misinformation” to the tortured legacy of the Jim Crow era, a high-powered panel of Jacksonville officials held forth on racial tensions in the city at a conference sponsored by the Jacksonville Bar Association and Florida Coastal Law School.
Unsurprisingly, the most frank comments came from Edward Waters College president and former Duval County Sheriff Nat Glover (in a bit of poor optics, he was also the only African-American panelist on hand).
“There’s no question as to how bad it was,” said Glover, the first African-American sheriff to be elected in Florida since the Reconstruction era.
And, as is well-known locally, Glover was present in downtown Jacksonville on Ax Handle Saturday, a 1960 riot that broke out during the height of civil rights demonstrations to integrate downtown lunch counters. On that infamous day, a crowd of angry whites brought ax handles to the city center to attack young black demonstrators.
“I struggle with how much of that history we should tell the young generation, because they see things differently and don’t have our baggage. We still have areas in Jacksonville that are challenged in the area of trust.”
Sheriff Mike Williams was also frank about ongoing challenges in gaining community trust, particularly in majority African-American neighborhoods.
“When you go back to the civil rights era, and see photos of how law enforcement treated the young activists, it’s not a good picture. Fast forward to Rodney King, or issues like we’ve seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, that impacts all of law enforcement nationwide. Just one of those incidents undoes all the good work we’ve trying to do in the community.”
State Attorney Angela Corey blamed much of the disconnect on the media. “I worry a lot about media and social media interpretation of complex litigation, and how media outlets explain issues around such things as justifiable use of deadly force,” she said. Corey, of course, has come in for her fair share of media criticism, much of it at the national level, around several highly racially charged cases.
“We’ve got to keep engaging the community to let them know about the good work we’re doing,” she said. “We divert hundreds and hundreds of cases every year.”
“Trust is earned,” said Mayor Lenny Curry (who came in for some criticism of his own around this issue during his campaign against former Mayor Alvin Brown, an African-American.)
“Look at this through a national lens. Americans feel that they’ve been let down, that institutions have failed them. We certainly have our issues here in Jacksonville. To gain trust, you have to start with transparency. I go door-to-door talking with people. And we’ve got to demonstrate a real commitment to invest in neighborhoods and zip codes that didn’t experience the recovery, or who have just been left behind.”
That of course, is the perennial challenge in Jacksonville. After Curry’s triumphant journey getting a pension deal for the city passed in Tallahassee, he must now sell a referendum on the issue to local voters. Any economic development initiatives for the long-distressed Northwest Side would presumably depend on that successful second phase.
Meanwhile, a 2013 JCCI study on racism in the 904 found that for the first time, both whites and blacks share about equally in perceptions that race relations are a problem that must be addressed. In a city that’s long had tensions, that’s seen as progress.