Water Cooler Wednesday: Ferguson & Delray

Ferguson, Missouri.

Ferguson, Missouri.

The disturbing images from Ferguson, Missouri have been dominating the news for over a week now.

My friends from outside of Delray Beach have reacted with a mixture of reactions; most of them have tuned it out and turned the channel to preseason football.

But for those of us who lived in Delray Beach in February 2005, the reaction is quite different and can be summed up with this phrase: “this could have happened here.”

Yes, it could have.

And I have been asked repeatedly in the past week why it didn’t.

The short answer is: I don’t know for sure. But I do know some things that I think helped.

For those unaware, on a February night in 2005, a rookie police officer shot and killed 15-year-old Jerrod Miller outside a school dance at the Delray Full Service Center.

The officer was white. Jerrod was African American.

Jerrod was shot after he was stopped by the officer outside the dance while driving his uncle’s car. He did not have a license. In a split second–that would forever alter this community and several lives–Jerrod made the decision to hit the gas and pull away from the officer.  The officer fired and….

So Ferguson is different for those of us who were in Delray in February ‘O5. It feels closer, it rekindles memories, it triggers anxieties and it touches nerves we thought were long ago soothed.

It turns out they weren’t. Sure, life goes on. It always does, but we were altered by the experience.

And Ferguson brings it back.

So did Trayvon Martin, which happened exactly five years to the day after Jerrod Miller.

The Miller shooting was big news in 2005. We had protests and demonstrations. Delray felt tense and emotions were very, very high. But we did not have violence. The community did not break apart.

A local journalist called me this week and asked about Jerrod and why Delray did not spiral out of control like Ferguson. A former head of our Clergy Association who is now the Episcopal Bishop in New Jersey also reached out to share a sermon he plans to deliver this Sunday. Several friends and former colleagues emailed, texted and called just to talk about Ferguson and our experience in Delray.

I’d like to think that the strength of our community kept things in check. We did have protests. We did have anger. We experienced lots of emotion, but we didn’t become Ferguson or Sanford. Maybe, we were lucky; or maybe 15 years plus of community policing and decent leadership helped to keep things from getting violent and destructive. I do know that our elders stood up for keeping the peace. So did our clergy, elected officials, city staff, police officers, non-profit leaders, educators and everyday stakeholders. I think all of that and some things I don’t know about helped.

When I was first elected way back in 2000, I was a young man with lots of dreams, drive and ambition. I was also a tad naïve—especially about politics. Sometimes being naïve can be a good thing—you don’t know your limits so you strive. And sometimes it can bite you. But I was also very coachable and eager to learn from those who came before me.

As a rookie commissioner I went to visit our then Police Chief Rick Overman. Rick was older than I was. He had already had a career in Orlando before coming to Delray where he transformed our department. By the time I was elected he had been in Delray for almost a decade. As a newspaper reporter, I had gotten to know him and I was a student of his reform strategies and his leadership style. I saw him as a visionary and a highly effective leader. Arguably the best I’ve seen, up close and personal.

So I was all ears when I went to talk to him in my new role as a commissioner. I told Chief Overman that I wanted to heal some community divisions and invest in some neighborhoods that I felt had been neglected. I wanted to build on some of the relationships and successes he had made possible as a result of community policing.

Rick looked me in the eye and said the following: “In my line of work, and now yours, it’s not a matter of if something is going to happen, but when. That’s why every day I look for opportunities to build up a reservoir of good will, because I know someday I will be forced to draw down on that reservoir and when I do I need to know there is something to draw down on.”

Those words resonated with me and with many others that Rick influenced during his tenure in Delray.

There is no playbook when tragedy strikes. But it helps to have a reservoir. It helps to have relationships.

I am reading lots of stories about promises to change Ferguson. “If only people would get off the streets and go home, we will do x, y and z.  These are after the fact attempts at reform. Reactive not proactive.

Truth is, we were busy community building in Delray long, long before that sad night in 2005. I think that helped us. We drew down on the reservoir, but we at least we had one.

I hope and pray we still do.

Because you don’t just fill a reservoir and forget about it. Like a garden, a city and the relationships within the city, need to be tended to or weeds start to grow.

If problems aren’t addressed they don’t magically disappear, they fester and tend to get worse.

I think Delray’s history of working together, Delray’s track record of engagement and community policing helped us in the wake of Jerrod’s shooting. We had leaders we could turn too, successes we could point too and most important of all, we recognized we had a lot more work we had to do and that was acknowledged.  We also acknowledged that this community has had a long and troubled history with race relations. We were attempting to discuss and address some of those issues prior to the shooting.

We also had earned some trust, which isn’t built overnight (although it can be lost in an instant) and we knew that trust is always fragile and that relationships require a lot of dedication and more listening than talking.

There is a lot of anger in society today.  There is desperation, dysfunction, crime, abuse of all sorts and economic despair. We can point fingers, we can cast blame and we do. But that doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

We were fortunate not to have the unrest we are witnessing in Ferguson. But we ignore the signals at our own peril.

In cities, issues are always interconnected and memories are long.

I used to get frustrated when slights from years ago were laid at my feet as if I had been responsible. Until I realized I was responsible, for at least trying to understand, listen and solve problems. When you step into a leadership position, you inherit it all, the good, the bad and the ugly and there’s plenty of all three. It’s your responsibility. Not to take it all on your own, a common mistake that “hero” leaders often make. But to lead a discussion and challenge others to work together to leave things better than before.

But the key piece to remember is that the moving parts all relate: you may not want development, but someone in the community needs a construction job or may work at a store, restaurant or office that you don’t want to see built. We may want to get tough with our cops on pensions, wages and benefits (and all are legitimate and important concerns to have) but you better realize that we need good officers to protect and serve a very complex community and that they deal with very dangerous situations multiple times a shift in this city. That costs money. Real money.

We may want to cut support to a library, a non-profit, an arts center or an afterschool program but you have to realize there’s a kid and a parent that find those services and programs important.

Filling the reservoir is always complicated. But it begins with constant conversation between leaders and they people they serve. They don’t serve you, you serve them.

You can’t serve if you don’t listen. And if you don’t listen…well turn on the TV and tune into Ferguson.


Happy Birthday Martin

In Delray, MLK has remained a highly relevant figure not an historical abstraction.

In Delray, MLK has remained a highly relevant figure not an historical abstraction.

For many, MLK Day is a just another Monday.
For me, it isn’t a typical day.
I have always admired Martin Luther King. I find his writing to be astonishing.
I’ve never heard a better orator.
He was an idealist and a dreamer. And it’s the idealists and the dreamers who matter, they are the ones who move the needle in our society.
He envisioned a world where color didn’t matter, where children of all races, creeds and religions would be judged on the content of their characters not the color of their skin.
In his time, this was a brave stance. Ultimately, it cost him his life. He seemed to know that it would.
But his example, his vision, his ideals and his dream continue to inspire and resonate today.
Have we made strides in America?
For sure.
Have we achieved the dream?
Not yet.
Race is still an issue in our country and in our community.
Which is why for me and many, many others MLK remains a relevant figure, 46 years after his tragic assassination.
I can’t really speak without any insight about racial issues in Boca Raton, but I have a little bit of experience with race relations in Delray Beach.
Improving race relations  was a priority of mine throughout my seven years in office.
I believed and still do, that’s Delray’s diversity was a strength.
We are America in 16 square miles. We have all the wealth, poverty, ethnic diversity, promise, challenges and opportunities imaginable.
As such, I believed–some said naively–that we could make a difference by bringing people together.
So while we did formal initiatives and issued reports and studies, we also did the little things and the big things because we thought we could bridge the divide.
And so we began study circles and we hosted neighborhood dinners designed to bring neighbors who ordinarily might not mingle together.
We did a Downtown Master Plan that announced–for the first time–that our downtown stretched from I-95 to the beach, symbolically erasing the Swinton Avenue dividing line. We invited residents from our northwest and southwest neighborhoods to the table and listened to their dreams and aspirations and we tried to do our best to work on those dreams together.
Some people feared displacement, so we formed and funded a Community Land Trust. Other residents were concerned about education, youth  and neighborhood livability so we supported The Village Academy, adopted the Southwest Plan, relocated the library, built the first ever park in the southwest and invested millions in streets and infrastructure. We supported the Spady Museum and restored 5th Avenue. It was a team effort.
We worked together.

We laughed together.

We argued, we debated. We got frustrated by the pace of progress and we cried together when a young man named Jerrod Miller was shot and killed.
We did not get it all right. We missed some opportunities. We were tone deaf on some issues, but we made an effort. We got some things done, but we all know there is more to do.
We brought our children back home when we relocated and expanded Atlantic High School. but too many kids are still not achieving. Too many are still being lost to crime, drugs, neglect and gangs.
There is more work to do.
But we proved–at least I believe we did–that progress and dialogue are possible. That there is more in common than there are differences.
We took up MLK’s challenge.
And so–on this special day marking his birth, not his tragic death, we celebrate those efforts and renew our commitment to a dream that belongs to many.
Sure it is elusive, many good things in life are.
Our race relations consultant Sam Mathis–who passed last year–used to say that the sweetest fruit lies on the top branches of the tree. Keep climbing, he would tell me and others. And so we did.
And so we should….