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Bridging the RACIAL DIVIDE

Updated: Dec 27, 2017

Is the local struggle for equality gaining or losing ground?


by CLAIRE GOFORTH


In Jacksonville, as in other places, the scenery and the statistics look different on various sides of town: Schools, jobs, poverty, roads, infrastructure, nutrition, crime — a lot is influenced by your ZIP code. On one side of town, police are friends and neighbors, there to keep the peace. On another, they’re an invading force, violent, dangerous, even deadly.

As a summer storm raged outside an Aug. 1 forum at Florida State Community College of Jacksonville’s Downtown campus, candidates for the Florida House of Representatives — all black, save one — debated the best way to address the issues facing their communities: criminal justice reform, police accountability, civil rights, crumbling infrastructure and equal economic opportunity were high on the list.


This was nothing new. But lately, local tensions over civil rights and racial inequality have been running high and getting higher. In the packed auditorium that night, there was a sense that black people in Jacksonville are fed up with a status quo that neglects their communities and keeps them, their friends and their neighbors in a prison of inequality.


CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM In recent years, police departments across the country have been hit with scandal after scandal associated with officers brutalizing and killing black people, many unarmed, some handcuffed or complying with officers’ commands when they were assaulted or killed.

After leading police on 3.7-mile high-speed chase on May 22, Vernell Bing Jr. was fatally shot by a Jacksonville police officer as he staggered from the car he’d crashed head-on into a police cruiser on the corner of Liberty and Ninth streets. Protestors and Bing’s family decried the shooting as police choosing to use deadly force when other means of detaining the unarmed 22-year-old were available. “He could have been apprehended another way than shot at like that, with the patrol that they had around. It could have been better than the way they dealt with it,” his father, Vernell Bing Sr., told News4Jax.


Statistics compiled by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference found that from 2002-’14, there were 135 shootings by officers of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, 74 of which were fatal. Of those fatally shot, 65 percent were black. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2015, 30.1 percent of Jacksonville’s population is black.Bing’s killing reinvigorated local calls to establish civilian review boards for police shootings, open the police boards that review shootings to the public (they have been closed to the public since 2010) and fund body cameras for officers. Kemetic Empire organizer, Diallo Sekou, 44, is a local activist who has planned and participated in numerous protests, including one in December 2014 when he and other protesters, the “Jacksonville 19,” were arrested for blocking the Hart Bridge, a type of civil disobedience he says is intended to make city leadership pay attention to the community’s concerns.


“The issue was, again, officers getting away with murder of unarmed black men, the underfunding of the Northside,” Sekou told Folio Weekly Magazine. Although police killings of black people have lately generated much publicity, FBI statistics indicate and researchers have found that police officers are actually less likely to use lethal force on African-Americans. The National Review reported that Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., a well-known researcher of racial matters, called his findings “the most surprising result I have found in my entire career.” However, Fryer also found that racial bias increased officers’ use of non-deadly force. So statistics indicate that while officers are less likely to kill a black person, they are more likely to use violence against that person as a means of enforcing the law.

In recent years, there have been numerous local incidents of police violence against black people that may support this conclusion, such as the November 2014 slamming of the handcuffed minor Deandre Ezell’s head into a concrete wall at the Duval County Pretrial Detention Facility, the multiple facial fractures David Kemp attained in police custody, and the broken jaw Larue Perkins received while allegedly complying with officers’ directives.

The local State Attorney’s Office is also frequently criticized by civil rights activists for being racially biased against minorities. At a July forum hosted by the D.W. Perkins Bar Association, the association for local black attorneys, according to The Florida Times-Union, State Attorney Angela Corey took issue with the perception that her office is racially biased, saying that perception was due to misinformation circulated by the media. Arguably, if local police alone were racially biased, it would naturally lead to statistical bias in prosecutions through no fault of the SAO.

Regardless of the cause, the perception of racial bias in local law enforcement remains.

Of the 21 people who were sentenced to death in Duval County from 2009-’14, 67 percent, or 14 of them, were black. A handout distributed at an Aug. 4 Criminal Justice Reform Summit at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church reported that in recent years, the racial disparity has become even more extreme; it states that from 2012-’15, “86 [percent] of those sentenced to death in Duval County are African-American.” At the summit, Pastor Reginald “R.L.” Gundy said, “The death penalty doesn’t make us safe. If it did, Duval County would be the safest county in the nation.”


Allegations of racial bias in prosecutions also creep into the juvenile justice system. The Human Rights Watch, in its 2014 report “Branded for Life,” which examined the controversial direct-file statute that grants prosecutors discretion to prosecute any 16- or 17-year-old charged with a felony as an adult, determined that “there is evidence that racial bias is affecting that exercise of discretion with respect to certain crimes.” The handout distributed at the summit stated that “[s]ince 2010, over 70 percent of youth sentenced in the 4th Judicial Circuit have been transferred to adult prisons or jails.” The 4th circuit includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.Repeated studies have shown that after a young person spends time in jail, they are more likely to re-offend.“Jail is a training ground for criminals, it’s a breeding ground for criminals and we know if we get them at a young age, we have our jails full for life,” said Pastor Elder Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church.


Though the Washington Post reported in February that the incarceration rate has been steadily decreasing for black people since 2000, it remains appallingly high. Last year, the Center for American Progress reported that although black people comprise only 13 percent of the population, they make up 40 percent of the prison population. White people, who make up 64 percent of the nation’s population, comprise 34 percent of the prison population. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that black people in Florida are four times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. Some believe that laws in the U.S. are written and enforced in order to maintain control over black people. Both Harris and Sekou believe that today’s prisons essentially continue the plantation system, with black people as slaves enriching the owners of private prisons.


“This prison industrial complex is big business,” Pastor Harris said. “… it is the same system of plantation; we just have different plantations.”Racial disparity in enforcing rules begins long before a juvenile offender sees their first day in grown-up court. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that black children were 3.8 times more likely than white children to be suspended from school. Black children in the South may be even more likely to be suspended. According to a 2015 report by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, more than half of the 1.2 million black children suspended in an academic year were in 13 states in the South, including Florida. In Duval County, black children are 1.3 times more likely to be suspended than white children, according to the report. Children who have been suspended are more likely to continue on a path that ultimately leads to expulsion from school and, eventually, incarceration via what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.


“When you talk about injustices of the South, it’s not just the South, but it’s more prevalent in certain areas and Jacksonville is one of the premier. It’s deeply embedded,” Harris said. The deprivation of freedom does not end with release from prison, however, because of felony disenfranchisement laws. Thanks to such laws, nearly a quarter of Florida’s 3.4 million black citizens cannot vote, serve on a jury or hold public office. These people are essentially voiceless in our government. At the Aug. 4 summit, clergy, including Pastor Gundy of Mt. Sinai, Darien Bolden of Baptist Ministers Conference, Mark Griffin of Wayman Temple AME Church and Pastor Harris, spoke about the challenge of re-entering society and how disenfranchisement exacerbates the difficulties one faces readjusting to civilian life.

At the summit, Natishia June, regional organizer for the Northeast FL Regional Office of the ACLU, pointed out that not only are individuals disenfranchised in Florida after they’ve paid their debt to society, many don’t realize they can’t vote and may attempt to register to vote, which is itself a felony.


“There’s a lot of mis-education as well as people in the prison system giving misinformation,” June said. June also noted that there is no transparency for people who seek restoration of their rights from the Board of Executive Clemency, which meets just four times a year and includes Governor Rick Scott, State Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Adam H. Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. All four are white. Under Scott, the Sun-Sentinel reported in 2015 that just 1,534 — or 12 percent — of the more than 12,500 nonviolent felons who had applied were granted rights restoration. Advocates are collecting signatures to amend the state constitution’s felony disenfranchisement law.


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RACE-BASED ECONOMIC INJUSTICE In 2013, the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper School for Public Service used 2010 census data to create a map of the nation with each individual’s domicile represented by a color-coded dot that corresponds to their race (see above). The map shows that, like in many cities, black people in Jacksonville are more likely to be segregated in racially-homogenous areas. Cross-referencing that data with information compiled by City-Data.com utilizing census, Internal Revenue Service and other records from 2012 and 2013 paints a stark, and alarming, picture of how the city is not only divided by race, but also by economics. ZIP codes that the map shows to have the highest percentage of African-American residents, such as 32208, 32209, 32202 and 32254, have drastically higher rates of unemployment rates, poverty rates, and citizens who receive food stamps/SNAP benefits, as well as lower annual incomes and property values. (See chart, above.) Similarly, ZIP codes with higher percentages of white residents, such as 32266 (Neptune Beach), where merely one percent of the population is black and more than 90 percent is white, have lower rates of unemployment and poverty, fewer residents who receive food stamps or SNAP benefits and higher property values and annual incomes. Sekou believes that myriad inequality issues facing the black community would be vastly improved, perhaps solved, by dismantling economic oppression such as that reflected in such data.


“If we control economics, we can eliminate crime, if we control economics, we can eliminate children going to prison. If we control economics, we can have black banks … where people can walk into and see black people actually giving them loans,” he opined.

Some believe that economic disparity between the races has been exacerbated locally over the years. They believe highways built through the middle of neighborhoods, gentrification that amounts to pricing out poor people and, many believe, consolidation, have all harmed the black community. “People don’t remember, the LaVilla area, the Davis area Downtown that had historically been an African-American community … there’s almost no sign of that now,” said Harris, who has lived in Jacksonville for 24 years.


Since the city consolidated in 1968, many have complained that consolidation enabled the city to collect tax dollars from black residents to spend on improvements in white neighborhoods while neglecting black neighborhoods.“One of the things that I have challenges with is what happens to the ad valorem tax dollars that are generated off the African-American community,” Pastor Harris said. He noted that although he lives a mere eight-minute drive from Downtown, his neighborhood has no sidewalks and is still on septic tanks. Sekou said that the Northwest quadrant has the highest percentage of home ownership but city leadership doesn’t spend money on infrastructure there because, he says, they claim the Southside is the fastest-growing.


Others pointed out that city funds, such as those from the half-penny sales tax approved under the Better Jacksonville Plan, seem to never quite make it to black communities. A recent example can be found in an audit revealing that nearly a million dollars, including approximately $400,000 in tax-exempt bond funds earmarked for District 10 in the city’s Northwest, had been illegally funneled to Infinity Global Solutions. 

Infinity Global Solutions is a consultancy that Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of staff, Kerri Stewart, who initiated a no-bid contract with the consultancy in 2007 when she worked for then-Mayor John Peyton as Director of Housing and Neighborhoods, later went to work for as a senior vice president.


Not only are black communities possibly losing out on city funds, African-American-owned businesses also seem to be getting the short end of city contracts, despite the fact that under the Jacksonville Small & Emerging Business program, the city has a goal of awarding 20 percent of the total value of city projects to such businesses, including those owned by women and minorities.


For years, black contractors and leaders have been sharply critical of the way the city circumvents the JSEB program. A 2013 Mason Tillman Associates analysis of the program confirmed their claims. The public policy consulting firm found that from 2005-’10, only six percent of construction subcontracts were awarded to companies owned by African-Americans, though the same comprised 19 percent of the city’s construction contractors. It also found that 50 percent of city contract dollars, or a half-billion dollars in that time frame went to 17 non-minority, male-owned companies.The analysis included a list of recommendations for how the city could improve its system of awarding contracts; since then, it seems that none of those recommendations has been implemented.


Due in part to unwillingness of city leadership to change, Harris said, black people are worse off now than they were when he moved here more than two decades ago.

“I think this city has regressed tremendously,” Pastor Harris said. Of course, like any community, there are differences of opinion.“This is how shit works in Jacksonville: There’s a divided black community. You have people in the so-called upper echelon who think that grassroots activists don’t really have a word because they’re making their 50, 60 thousand dollars and they can pass laws with lawyers,” Sekou said of the schism that hinders the community from working together to accomplish a shared purpose.

On the other hand, grassroots activists may utilize techniques, such as sit-in demonstrations and blocking bridges, that are unpalatable to others. And then there’s the reality that black people may not trust those in their community who publicly support issues and leaders unpopular with others. “I had to explain this to [Sheriff] Mike Williams, I’m like, ‘Listen man, when black people take pictures with y’all, nobody trusts them. And when y’all did that press conference with the preachers, you split the black community,’” Sekou said.


Some even believe that Jacksonville leadership utilizes that tactic specifically to divide the black community. Although not everyone agrees on the best approach to tackle the serious issues facing the community, there is one thing that seems universally agreed on: the importance of being involved. “If we exercise our right to get out, go to the ballot box, that many have suffered and died for the right and we do not just take what someone tells us they’re going to do but actually look at the issues, get involved in the issues and vote and vote and vote, we can put people in place who do care, who are concerned,” Pastor Harris said.

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