Tensions Flare As Jacksonville City Council Discusses Need To Address Racial Inequality

Jun 2, 2020

Tensions flared during a special meeting Tuesday when Jacksonville City Council members discussed the need to address racial inequality.

The meeting was called so Mayor Lenny Curry could explain his decision to declare a state of emergency and enact a curfew Sunday night, in response to violence and vandalism following the weekend’s peaceful protests demanding justice for the killing of George Floyd.

Related: Mayor Curry Announced There Will Be No Monday Night Curfew

“For these perpetrators who are destroying and creating this harm through our city, are they going to be treated as domestic terrorists?” District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro asked following Mayor Curry’s brief presentation.

District 10 Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson took issue with Ferraro’s framing, pointing to the peaceful protests organized and led by the Northside Coalition.

“I don’t want us to give labels. We’re not going to call people terrorists, no more than we’re going to say, ‘All police officers are bad,’” she said. “We’re going to be able to identify individuals who don’t act in the best interest and make certain as a city we are united in providing opportunity equally to all.”

Mayor Curry later echoed that same point.

“We really, really need to make sure that we understand that the violent group that was vandalizing is separate and apart from, [has] nothing to do with, the group that organized and assembled peacefully, from all walks of life in our city,” he said.

In response to Councilwoman Priestly Jackson, Councilman Ferraro said he understands that there were peaceful protestors and that he wants to work with them.

“The only reason I’m bringing this up is we have to be able to meet without the fear of thinking that somebody is going to do something,” he said.

To answer Ferraro’s initial question, Sheriff Mike Williams said federal partners are investigating those who were arrested over the weekend — more than 80 arrests with charges that ranged from assembling illegally to battery on a police officer.

Related: Peaceful Protests Turn Into Violence In Downtown Jacksonville

District 1 Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, who was also careful to differentiate between peaceful protestors and those who were “rioting and burning,” followed up by asking Curry how he thinks the city should move forward and be “proactive, rather than remaining in a reactive posture.”

“I've had a number of meetings, conversations - very real conversations - with people in our city about the inequities of the past, the broken promises of consolidation, and while there's a heck of a long way to go, we've made some progress there in terms of infrastructure and budgets. I know that our sheriff and our state attorney have also met and continue to meet with folks to hear their concerns and try to reach common ground,” Curry responded. “If there are additional voices that need to be heard, let's organize a meeting and let's open the dialogue to a wider group.”

But Priestly Jackson, who said she was looking forward to working with her colleagues on improving equity within the city, again took issue with how the conversation was being framed. 

“It’s not just a legacy of consolidation. It's a real-time impact on the outcomes for young people, particularly African Americans, in the city in Florida that has the largest percentage of African Americans,” she said.

“I think right now the community, the city, is looking for leadership from us. We’re not adversaries. We’re in this together. This is our city,” District 9 Councilman Garrett Dennis said. Evoking Selma, he called for a march by elected officials and residents.

“What better statement to come out, arm in arm, with our masks on and cross the Main Street Bridge together, showing unity?” Dennis said.

“The people are hurting and they have pent-up frustration. When they look at the TV what they see is us in our nice cozy homes, talking about what we’re going to do. Now it’s time for action,” he said.

District 8 Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman said she liked the idea of a march, but, she said it’s not enough.

“The healing process takes place when action is taken. And I think now is a really good time for us to address some of those actions that we need to take place as a community,” she said, asking for the city to come up with and implement a plan for the next few months to help restore peace.

“We need the mayor, we need the sheriff, we need [State Attorney] Melissa Nelson, and we need us, together, as a team. And so I am willing to do whatever it takes to show solidarity and unity in this community and that it is okay to disagree sometimes, but we also have a plan in place to make it a better place to live and provide the funding that it would take for some of these things to occur, not just in certain communities, but in all communities,” Councilwoman Pittman went on to say.

Council Vice President and At-Large Group 3 Councilman Tommy Hazouri, who was recently elected Council President and will assume those new duties later this month, said he feels like he’s living through Groundhog Day.

“Every time protests and violence occurs, we talk, we walk, and then we don't have any action. That's got to stop and it will stop,” he said, outlining three major categories he believes need to be addressed:

  • Social issues and social justice
  • Law enforcement
  • Economic development

“Body cams are a big issue. We need to resolve that,” he went on to say. “I know there’s a liability issue, but what’s the problem with transparency? I know you believe in that, sheriff.”

Williams is expected to speak about body camera laws at the next Public Health and Safety Committee meeting on June 15.

At-Large Group 5 Councilman Sam Newby, who will be the Council vice president, recommended a roundtable with the mayor, the sheriff, the city council, the state attorney, and members of the community.

“Before we have a solution, we’ve got to have a discussion,” he said.

Similarly, District 3 Councilman Aaron Bowman suggested calling together a committee after Hazouri takes over as Council President.

“I think the loudest actions we can have right now is to say, ‘Yep, we've got it,' and, 'Here's how we're starting, here's where we're going.’ And I'm ready to be a part of that and I’ll give it as much as I can,” he said.

Outgoing Council President Scott Wilson committed to working with Hazouri and Newby to begin putting together that committee.

But Priestly Jackson urged caution.

“There is a history in Jacksonville of a perception to dilute the impact and effect of the African American community’s voice and vote. Some think that's why we have at-large council members. Let's just call the thing a thing. So I am very concerned when I see other entities wanting to be created to manage and legislate priorities for the minority-access districts without direct engagement of the elected members from those communities,” said Priestly Jackson. She urged her fellow councilmembers to defer to people who live in Jacksonville’s majority-black neighborhoods in order to make progress.

Related: Jacksonville Councilwoman Calls Protests ‘Culmination Of Decades Of Frustration’

District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor said, "When I started running for office, I remember someone telling me, ‘You know Randy, we have two Jacksonvilles.’ And the truth of the matter is that was never true. We have one Jacksonville."

She went on to say, “What's hurtful to me is when I look in the eyes of the mothers and they talk about what their children have gone through in Jacksonville, and that's just not acceptable. I mean, we have got to fight for the future of our city. If we don't, there's no hope for our city." Defoor then pledged her support for both a march and a community conversation.

“You might think there’s only one Jacksonville, but ladies and gentlemen, there are two Jacksonvilles,” Councilwoman Morgan said. “Do not kid yourself to believe because you want it to be so, that there is only one Jacksonville. There are still two Jacksonvilles and we still have a lot of work to do.”

But, she said, this is the right Council to deal with these issues.

“Our response needs to be a proactive response. And we need to do it now. So I stand with you, and I stand beside you,” she said.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.