ST. PETERSBURG — In recent weeks, countless black professionals have stepped forward to offer help to a city reeling from the slayings of three police officers in less than a month.
Last week I received a call from James E. Flynn Jr., president of the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association, a volunteer group for black lawyers. He was concerned about perceptions of the African-American community since police say the officers, all white, died at the hands of black suspects.
As prosecutors, Flynn and colleague John Richardson are all too familiar with young African-American males in the court system. They were looking for ways for the Minnis group to help unite the city while also reaching out to young black males who may "fall through the cracks" and wind up like 16-year-old Nicholas Lindsey, accused of murdering Officer David Crawford.
A week earlier, black ministers under the leadership of the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, tried to set the tone in the black community by encouraging cooperation with police as they searched for Crawford's killer. There were similar calls in the black community for cooperation, which helped lead to Lindsey's arrest.
Since then, Pinellas County school officials, through the 5,000 Role Models program, have been counseling students as they struggle to understand how a contemporary could be the suspect in the Crawford slaying.
More than a month ago, City Council Chairman Jim Kennedy, who is white, proposed a forum for an open dialogue on race. The goal would be to create a "general assembly of about 52 people that would be inclusive to not just race issues, but also diverse faiths and gay and lesbian issues — where everyone has a seat at the table," said Kennedy.
In each instance, the leaders' goal was to nurture, foster and unite a wounded city, not just the black community.
"This issue is on everyone's mind," said County Commissioner Ken Welch. "I think there's overwhelming support for those officers' families, and at the same time it also highlights the fact that we need to reach those kids who don't have a mentor or an adult male figure in their lives."
No doubt, there are countless opportunities for teachable moments in all of this.
But sadly, the event that may end up having greater impact is Friday's firing of Goliath Davis III, the city's senior administrator of community enrichment and police chief from 1997 to 2001, and how the black community reacts.
Up until Thursday afternoon, the tone — away from radio talk shows — seemed to be that of a healing city that had organized countless fundraisers to help the widows of the slain officers. Carwashes, T-shirt sales and a touching, makeshift memorial at the police station — all of that was seemingly overtaken in the span of eight hours Friday.
Shortly after Mayor Bill Foster dismissed him, Davis called a news conference. And during that conference, intentional or not, the tone seemed to be one of division, not unity.
Davis said that during his tenure as officer, police chief and senior administrator he tried to be a fair and inclusive advocate for public policy and community building. But his remarks, which were largely measured, were quickly overshadowed when he invited Omali Yeshitela, the fiery leader of the People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, to speak.
Like it or not, the community at large views Davis as a leader in the African-American community. In the minds of many, no other elected official, neighborhood association president or NAACP leader comes close.
Sadly, Davis will be remembered for his decision to forgo the funerals of the three slain officers, thus adding to a legacy of being a polarizing figure, regardless of whether he really deserves it.
Many consider his decision to attend the funeral of Hydra Lacy Jr., who murdered two of the officers, and skip the funerals of the officers — who served under him — as willful acts.
Moving forward, city leaders — elected and grass roots, business professionals and retired volunteers — must be vigilant to ensure that poor decisions made in the past six weeks don't further divide this city.
The city will be facing a host of complex issues as leaders from the NAACP, Agenda 2010 and the Uhurus raise questions about access for residents of a community with a history of being underserved.
So where do we go from here?
Will efforts to reach at-risk kids be successful?
Or will the fact that one of the city's most accomplished African-Americans was fired have a lingering effect on how the black community views city leaders?
Which efforts will have a more lasting impression on our youth? Only time will tell.
Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.