ST. PETERSBURG — A panel discussion at a black history museum Thursday night started on a heated note and only got hotter, reminding both the guests and speakers that conversations about race are almost always complicated.
Titled "Don't Shoot," the event at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum invited locals to participate in a "community conversation" about gun violence after the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Nearly 50 people arrived to listen to and talk with the panelists, Luke Williams, assistant chief of the St. Petersburg Police Department; Dallas Jackson, principal of Sligh Middle Magnet School in Tampa; and LaShante Keys, diversity and equity manager for the city of Clearwater.
Museum director Terri Lipsey Scott spoke first about the importance of conversations about race.
"Typically we find ourselves talking to ourselves," she said to an audience that was mostly African-American. "Tonight is designed for one purpose, and that is to get ahead of something."
Before handing off the microphone, she asked the crowd to remain respectful. The civility didn't last long.
Museum office manager Cranstan Cumberbatch spoke of the tension between residents and the police force, and the importance of teaching children to trust law enforcement, not fear it.
"But it's not just about being shot by a police officer," he said. "It's about being shot by each other."
Almost immediately, attendees shot up their hands, took the microphone and aired their frustrations with the concept of "black on black" crime, saying that when a white man shoots another white man, it isn't called "white on white" crime.
The tension in the room only escalated. The conversation bounced from the importance of early intervention in education to parental involvement to economic inequality.
Williams fielded many questions, emphasizing that under newly appointed Chief Tony Holloway, the police force will be more integrated into the community.
"In order to be a part of your community, you can't be apart from your community," he said.
After some people left the room, Keys, who grew up in St. Petersburg, tried to bring the room together. He called for solutions.
One young woman said encouraging young people to vote is essential. Another, an employee at Melrose Elementary, challenged the room to volunteer or mentor young kids. Francette Mohamed-Moore, an art student in Atlanta who grew up in St. Petersburg, said the answer is just to listen.
Scott said this will not be the last time the museum holds a community conversation about race.
"There will be another opportunity," she said.
Contact Katie Mettler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8913.