Protesters demonstrated in Columbus, Ohio, in solidarity with nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images
As a Black man living in Florida’s state capital, Joshua Johnson believes that police procedures, particularly regarding communities of color, need to change.
He recalls the anxiety he felt when he encountered police during his teen years.
“I remember as early as high school, when we would go to the movies, there would be police officers out there because there was always stigma that people would rather be fighting. If you looked a certain way, the police officers automatically handled you a certain way,” said Johnson, a Florida A&M University graduate who is now 32.
He is the CEO of a political marketing firm and an adjunct faculty member in Tallahassee.
“That has been a natural progressed experience for me on up until manhood. Every time I am stopped by an officer, I don’t feel fear, but I do feel an extreme tension,” Johnson said. “I am not indicting all police officers, but I am saying that it is a culture of Black reticence and Black hypersensitivity.”
The killings of Black people by police officers, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have sparked protests, a magnified Black Lives Matter movement, and a nationwide debate about the urgent need for police reform and so-called “defunding” law enforcement agencies.
As the general election nears, Johnson and other African American voters in Florida weighed in with the Florida Phoenix about issues that affect people of color.
How will Black voters stand on some of the most pressing issues of the day, and how will they vote?
Voters trust Biden to handle racial issues
Former Vice President Joe Biden said in early June that he doesn’t support defunding the police, according to a CNN report. But he does support police reform and “calls to increase spending on social programs separate from local police budgets,” according to CNN.
Priorities USA, a liberal political action committee, released results of a poll of voters in battleground states including Florida and found that former vice president Joe Biden would be better than President Donald Trump in handling race relations and dealing with racism in the country. The question was related to leadership qualities of a president. Of those polled, 54 percent thought Biden was better on the race issue, compared to 14 percent for Trump.
The poll was conducted through a live phone survey in August with voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
“The racial tension that the country is seeing has been a result of a lack of de-escalation” by police during confrontations with people, Johnson said.
For him, defunding the police means “the reallocating of useful funds in some of our police budgets.”
“The name doesn’t always reflect that but that’s still what it means. So in that vein, I think that it’s extremely healthy to put funds into more social leaning programs like social workers, people who are trained to respond to something that is not violent that could escalate to violence if an officer takes it that way,” Johnson said.
In fact, most Americans agree that policing needs change, according to a July Gallup poll conducted between June 23 and July 6 of people 18 and older.
Fifty-eight percent of the respondents wanted major changes, compared to 36 percent who said minor changes would do. Only 6 percent said no changes are needed.
Most Black Americans (88 percent) surveyed wanted major change, “compared with 63 percent of Hispanic Americans and 51 percent of White Americans.”
Top priorities for black communities
Rasheedah Sharif, 66, is an author who lives in Broward County. She believes providing more mental health resources in Black communities should be a top priority.
“The reallocation of the funds should go to programs that address mental health matters such as racial trauma, discrimination, and myths from a historical perspective,” Sharif said in a phone conversation.
“The funds should be comfortably taken from the various police departments. Programs will serve to complement and enhance the department and community with a collaborative understanding.”
The idea of defunding police departments “took on a negative meaning and made it seem as though groups like Black Lives Matter wanted to dismiss the police departments,” Sharif said.
“Defund means to withdraw funds and this is what most people are focused on, especially certain groups of people.”
For Alanna Lamar, 33, racism and police reform is a big deal. Lamar is a lawyer in Broward County.
“As a black woman in the United States, race and police reform will always be of utmost importance to me. Issues of race and racial disparities impact everything from health and medical racism to police brutality and the criminal justice system. I do not have the privilege of being unaffected by race, racial issues, and the issues surrounding the need for police reform,” she said in an email to the Phoenix.
Lamar added that “race and police reform seems to be taking center stage in the upcoming election.”
“Republican candidates, including the president and vice president among others, have openly denied the existence of systemic racism. To see the most powerful leaders in the country deny something that you have personally experienced and witnessed your entire life is unsettling to say the least,” she said.
Law enforcement against “defunding”
The idea of reducing or reallocating resources from police has gotten push-back from law enforcement organizations and sheriffs in Florida.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told a Fox News host during an interview in June that the concept is “political rhetoric” and “unrealistic.”
Gualtieri warned that eliminating funds would harm people seeking emergency assistance.
“That means cops, that means boots on the ground. That means the people you call at 3 a.m. when you call 911 and someone is breaking in your house. To those people I say, ‘What will it feel like when you call 911 and somebody says we are on a 30-minute delay because we don’t have the people?'” he said.
Orange County Sheriff John Mina said in an Orlando Sentinel column that defunding the police could result in unsafe communities.
“First, I want to be clear: Criminal-justice reform is critically important, is under way, and is something we wholeheartedly support — but not at the expense of our community’s safety,” he wrote.
“The way a community allocates its money is a reflection of its values — and we are fortunate in Orange County to have leaders who understand that public safety is a cornerstone to safe and healthy communities.”
Meanwhile, earlier this summer, the Florida Police Benevolent Association endorsed President Trump, as did at least 48 Florida sheriffs, according to a news release from the Republican National Committee’s Florida Press Secretary.
Gov. DeSantis proposes anti-protest bill
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in late September that he will push for legislation mandating harsher criminal penalties against protesters in Florida.
The Republican governor insisted the state will not support defunding the police and threatened to withhold state money from municipalities that do it.
“If you defund the police, then the state is going to defund any grants or aids coming to you,” DeSantis said during a news conference last month.
Meanwhile, organizations including the ACLU of Florida support diverting police resources to social programs in Black communities. The group also condemned the governor for his proposed criminalization of protest, according to a press release.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in an email to the Phoenix that “it is time to divest from law enforcement and reinvest in the Black and Brown communities they unjustly target.”
“Black communities in the United States continue to live under a persistent fear of being killed by the police that is justified by the incessant state-funded violence against the community. The core issue at the heart of our broken policing institution is the broadening of the scope and responsibilities that are given to law enforcement agencies that are social issues best solved by social and political leadership, and this broadened scope has led to the unlawful use of excessive force and the killing of Black people,” Kubic said.
“These inherently systemic issues require immediate and permanent solutions. That requires a bold reimagining of the role police play in our society,” he said. “The policing institutions in our country are deeply entrenched in racism and brutality.”
NAACP Hillsborough branch holds regular meetings with police chiefs
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County branch, said in a phone conversation that her organization doesn’t support defunding the police but does support reform.
“It needs to be done. There is a strong need, and it is every police department and sheriff department. Everything in law enforcement, it all needs to be reformed,” Lewis said.
Lewis thinks money should be allocated “for more police training, community policing and … programs that help build confidence.”
She told the Phoenix that her branch has meeting monthly with law enforcement agencies in Tampa.
“The protests have kicked the door in for us to come in to have a conversation to which people were not willing to have the conversation before. It has pulled the Band-Aid off a scab that had been festering. Society had put a Band-Aid on racism.”
Gun debate in Florida
Another issue in Florida has been gun violence, including the mass shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016.
Gun safety groups and advocates were unable to gather enough signatures to place a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot banning military-style assault weapons in Florida. And anti-gun legislation didn’t move in the Florida House and Senate during the 2020 legislative session.
Ban Assault Weapons Now, an advocacy group in Florida, has said it will continue to push to for an amendment banning military-grade assault weapons such as the AR-15.
Signatures collected for the 2020 ballot proposal will be applied toward the 2022 ballot.
According to a Facebook post by the organization, the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court could jeopardize the fight to change gun laws in the nation.
“This change to the SCOTUS could make it easier for courts to strike down gun regulations as unconstitutional. #VoteBlueToSaveAmerica,” the organization said in an October Facebook post.
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