A hashtag. A response. An outrage. Heartfelt. It ignited. It moved. #Blacklivesmatter resonated with individuals that repeatedly watched Black lives executed by hands of police or White folks who used their privilege to murder unarmed Black lives.
In 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the unnecessary slaughter of Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza posted using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter — and the rest is history. #BLM became a passion. Black Lives Matter started as a movement in a moment and became a principle. Black Lives Matter is a profound statement. A declaration. We have witnessed a profound uprising by those ignited by the fire of Black Lives Matter! Therefore, my question to those who are calling for the disregard of #BLM is: Shouldn’t Black lives matter? Why is it problematic to move in the moment that has ignited a historic movement? What harm is there in organizing around a principle? Why not allow a hashtag to become a living organism? Most that wear the shirts, hats, and so on, are NOT tied to a Black Lives Matter chapter. There are signs posted all around the nation and most that share those signs are NOT part of any formal organization. However, they have aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter PRINCIPLE.
About 2 months ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing around our country, a group of Safety Harbor residents asked the City of Safety Harbor to make a statement of solidarity with the movement. About a month ago, Mr. Lewis Ponds held a Unity Rally at Waterfront Park that discussed race relations in Safety Harbor. Following this, a group of 85 residents signed a petition asking the City of Safety Harbor to place a Black Lives Matter sign at City Hall and the Library. The Commission agreed, even with opposition from the current Mayor, Joe Ayoub. Outrage over the signs led to emails and phone calls pouring into City Hall at the Commission. Over 300 local community members subsequently signed a petition asking that the signs remain. WE want these Black Lives Matters- Justice for All signs displayed. The hope is that these signs would act as a small first step.
It is this concept that Safety Harbor, Florida is struggling with. On July 27, 2020, the Safety Harbor Commission met online via a Zoom meeting to revisit the issue of Black Lives Matter signs being placed in front of City Hall. This meeting happened after the Safety Harbor Commissioners initially decided to display the Black Lives Matter signs. The initial proposal originated from community residents asking city officials to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter principle as a commitment to racial justice. The original request was submitted on July 16 and requested two Black Lives Matter signs stand downtown, one at the public library and one at City Hall. Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter signs were not welcomed by all Safety Harbor citizens. As a result, Mayor Joe Ayoub cowardly rescinded the original decision to display the signs and proposed that Black Lives Matter signs should NOT be allowed. Mayor Ayoub called on the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King as justification for backtracking on supporting Black Lives Matter. He even went so far as to suggest signs with more inclusive and less political language: “African-American Lives Matter — All Lives Matter” or “Safety Harbor Stands United.” Ultimately, removing Black Lives Matter from the messaging demonstrates Mayor Ayoub’s attempt to make the white citizens of Safety Harbor feel more comfortable and less threatened, while forgetting the bold and courageous work of Dr. King against systemic racism.
Most of the excuses from Safety Harbor residents for not wanting signs supporting Black Lives Matter (the Organization) are that Black Lives Matter is a “terrorist group” and “Marxist led.” They also ranted that it would ignite fear and violence. Others felt the signs created further division as accusations of Black Lives Matter being an organized group standing against the “Nuclear” family and patriotism. Many residents argued that it’s a political issue and supports a political cause. However, if Mayor Ayoub had done his homework he would find that there are no Black Lives Matter chapters in Florida (https://blacklivesmatter.com/chapters/). As a matter of fact, there are no official deputized chapters in the South, period! So, the various arguments alluding to BLM as a political movement are baseless conjecture. Again, the passion of the statement Black Lives Matter is a response to the degradation that white America has displayed for Black lives.
References to the history of Safety Harbor were mentioned in the meeting. As referenced, residents who grew up in Safety Harbor where the school were still segregated past the 1960’s, Black residents were not allowed to even walk on the sidewalks in the 1970s. Up until the 1980s there was a local bar downtown which refused to serve the Black residents indoors, only serving drinks thru a back window that nested on a dirt lot. As recent as this past year, residents of a majority Black neighborhood spoke up about the City of Safety Harbor ignoring the cracked sidewalks, the failing and mis-installed playground equipment, and had to fight to get the city to address the issues at all. But many of the residents see the beautiful, well-manicured downtown and ignore the embedded racism and racist history of the community which sits like a glacier, the tip of it emerging from the depths of supremacy with the words “unity — all lives matter” displayed.
During the meeting, there was also some pushback from the Commission to the Mayor about revisiting the previous decision. Many felt like it would be a disservice to the Black community to change its stance just a week later. Unfortunately, that opposition was not strong enough. Mayor Ayoub was adamant about having a sign that showed no blackness and no power fist. Keep in mind – the power fist historically represents self-determination and is a proper representation of the struggle of Black people in America. This symbol is a call against Colonialism and White Supremacy. White Supremacists have always found ways to create and encourage disenfranchisement; to keep Blacks, and all other races, inferior. Waving a power fist in no way harms anyone. It historically was and is symbolic for African Americans to demonstrate empowerment and determine their own paths to economics and political freedom. Self-determination is simply Black people controlling their own narrative, especially when it comes to racism and disparities. Black led. White people listening. The Safety Harbor Commission has a long way to go on grasping this idea.
It appears that the Commission is formulating a Diversity Committee that will assist in the process of overcoming racial issues and educating other white residents and officials in Safety Harbor. The visible problems I see with this idea are that the Commission itself is predominantly white. The Diversity Committee presently consists of two Blacks; a man and a woman who eloquently expressed their heartfelt concerns. It was heartbreaking to hear them slightly concede. They were torn between leaving the signs up in support of racial pride versus not wanting to further cause issues within the community. The Mayor did little to ease their stress as he pounced on the opportunity to twist the narrative. Some officials did point out that they were not hearing total resolve — that these two individuals were trying to be fair in spite of the damaging blowback the Black community was experiencing.
It must be stated that Mr. Lewis Ponds, one of the Diversity members said, “Let me be clear. I stand by the signs … and them being in front of City Hall.” Unfortunately, this sentiment was neutralized by Mayor Ayoub as he made it appear as though these two individuals’ desires were more in-step with his authority. The evening meeting concluded with a 3-2 vote in favor of removing the Black Lives Matter signs. Much political and legal jargon was used to justify this (Mayor Ayoub’s) decision. Also, the dialogue amongst the Commission during this meeting was disturbing as it was demonstrative of a predominantly white group making decisions for Black people. White folks sharing their thoughts on the lived experiences of Black people. This behavior is problematic, only perpetuates racial divide, and serves as the perfect example of why Black Lives Matter is important.
The hypocrisy and racism of the Mayor and Commission of Safety Harbor, Florida must be called out. There was nothing democratic or equitable about the events of this meeting (the 3 ½ hour meeting can be found on the city website:
If those in attendance were truly concerned about Safety Harbor’s Black citizens, they would recognize the disparities of Black communities nationally. They would strive to be in touch with what is going on globally to repair the harm.
If Mayor Ayoub and Commission were committed to rectifying the racial bias in their community, they would have been vocally strong about examining the racial demographics in Safety Harbor. The population in short is White: 89.50%, Black or African American: 4.74%. So, the question to the Mayor of Safety Harbor should be: how do you allow bullying of a 90% white community to prevail, while you ignore the hearts and requests of 5% of your Black community? These citizens were not just ignored — they were silenced. This type of polite erasure and quiet violence has been historical in the South. These Klan-ish tactics have been prominent in Amerikkka since its founding. White people getting their way in the name of God, family, country and supposedly — diversity. Systemic racism was on full display in Safety Harbor on July 27, 2020.
Now is a time for conversation and learning and self reflection. There are racial injustices happening in every town, we cannot deny or ignore it. We must stand together as one unified voice. If we ignore it, we are a part of the problem, not the solution. Ignoring this needed message shows that the elected leaders are lacking the conviction to stand for a value that we all believe in, EQUITY. How are we expected to move forward without even being willing to have a conversation, when even a sign causes the feathers to be ruffled on the wing of white fragility?
It is true that signs don’t make a difference, but the removal of them does. No, the Black community did not lose or take steps back. The white community in Safety Harbor did not move forward. They remained safely tucked in with their White Supremacy. The stench of white fragility remains in the air. In today’s political and social climate, many cities, countries, and nations have and are endeavoring to honestly and openly listen to the voice of its Black citizens. This cannot be said about Safety Harbor. Many that opposed the Black Lives Matter Signs urged that they should not be put-up because since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement post-murder of George Floyd, uprisings and burnings have taken place.
Perhaps we need to remind white citizens of Safety Harbor of the 500 years of burnings, lynching, rapes, murders, Jim Crow and, various other Black Codes. And, these actions were all legalized. Should Florida’s white citizens, including Safety Harbor, be reminded of murder, rioting, and stealing land from Florida’s Indigenous people? Perhaps if there was real concern and remorse for Florida’s racist history and Safety Harbor’s sincerity in repairing these injustices, this meeting would have had a different result. Instead of taking a small step forward, Safety Harbor just took a step back and solidified its footing of racial inequality.
— Robin Harris
Green Party of Florida