In April, Tampa’s Tiger Bay Club hosted the event, “After The Marches: Social Justice in Tampa Bay today.” Panelists and guests gathered to ask the big question: Has anything really changed in the Tampa Bay area since the George Floyd uprisings last year?
Representatives from the NAACP and The Urban League of Hillsborough County, and a protest leader from last summer showed up to have lunch and a conversation. But law enforcement, although invited, was noticeably missing.
Bernice Lauredan, who organizes with the Dream Defenders and helped lead protests last year, said that she thinks that part of the reason TPD didn’t show up is because of a lawsuit against the City of Tampa waged by a veteran who was shot in the back of the head by a bullet during protests.
“I think there’s a lot of fear around even starting these discussions. But, we have to start somewhere,” Lauredan told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “So I think opening up those lines of communication as much as possible is the first step.”
Yvette Lewis of the NAACP encouraged attendees to contact the Mayor’s office, saying people should “flood” her office with calls and written communication. She mentioned that the police have incentives to harass people, and that there needs to be action to address the issue.
“That’s how we got ‘Biking While Black’. Because they had a quota to meet in our neighborhoods,” she said. “Now, who did that fall under? Who was the chief of police at that time? And who has not taken ownership of that?”
Jane Castor was chief of police at that time, she pointed out, and she encouraged the crowd to ask the question: Why aren’t they (local politicians and the police) listening to the African-American community?
Wayne Garcia, Master Instructor at the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Communications at USF, said he was struck by law enforcement's absence.
“I wonder how much we can really accomplish and how we can try to solve this problem if not only can we not get them to the table in a substantive way, but we can’t even get them to lunch?” Garcia asked at the forum. He appealed to the panelists, asking how he and all of the other attendees can make sure that all aspects of the criminal justice system are coming to the table in a serious way in the future.
Last month, when Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reached out to the Castor’s office to ask why TPD nor a representative of the mayor’s office were present at the meeting, spokesperson Janelle McGregor said that the mayor was not invited.
But Tiger Bay Club President Tom Scherberger says that he did reach out to Castor’s administrative assistant to invite both Castor and her chief of staff to attend. He also said that Tiger Bay Club invited Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, and at first got a tentative yes, but then was told there was a scheduling conflict. They then reached out to a deputy chief of the police department to attend, but never heard back.
When Scherberger expressed his concern over not having law enforcement present at the event, he said that Castor suggested having a representative of the fire department attend instead. He didn’t reach out to the fire department because Tiger Bay Club felt it was important to have law enforcement in attendance.
TPD Public Safety Information Coordinator Jamel Lanee says that TPD does not have records of a follow-up request for police attendance after Dugan declined.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister was invited, but HCSO was unable to attend because of a charity golf tournament scheduled for the same day.
During the event, it was pointed out that State Attorney Andrew Warren was in attendance to hear the concerns of the community. Both panelists and guests were thankful for that.
Still, there was a tension in the air about the lack of attendance from the police and lack of care from Tampa politicians.
“If you’re not supporting organizations that are trying to better this African American community, then you don’t stand accountable,” said panelist Stanley Gray of the Urban League, in reference to leaders who don’t respond to African American issues. “And you should not be one who represents this community.”
But almost a month later, on May 18, Dugan sat on an ACLU panel with Warren and Lauredan to talk about the effects of HB-1 on the Tampa Bay community. Lauredan says that during the meeting, Dugan made it clear that he doesn’t plan on changing the way policing operates in Tampa.
“I was surprised at Dugan saying they didn't plan to change how they police, because we know how they were very violent last year,” says Lauredan.
She’s referring to a statement made by Dugan about the law during the meeting, saying that he is not sure what DeSantis was trying to accomplish with HB-1, saying that, “I’m not sure it really changes our philosophy on how we’re going to deal with people in these situations.” He included that the Tampa police have always worked with protesters, and that they will continue to, despite several incidents last year where the police initiated violence toward protesters.
At the same time, Dugan said he is worried about protester’s safety, specifically in regards to violent drivers hitting them, which has been an unfortunate trend over the past year.
TPD spokesperson Lanee said that the ACLU sent a letter to Dugan following the community forum and thanked him for his insight into bill HB1, and that his response and tone helped provide comfort to demonstrators to know they’ll be able to take to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Lauredan says that despite what the police may say, under this law, it’s very important for protesters to know their rights, to avoid law enforcement intimidation and unlawful abuse or arrest. She points to resources and information from the ACLU, and encourages people to educate themselves and stay activated.
“We have less freedom than we did last year, but I urge folks to stay engaged and continue to work towards justice,” says Lauredan.
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