TV cameras roll and hate spews forth

Published Feb. 14, 1997|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

This is what passes for political discourse in America:

A man who was once elected sheriff here stands before the television cameras, clad in a shirt bearing the emblem of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, defending a man sentenced to prison for racial intimidation.

A young woman addresses the microphone, lips curled in a snarl, explaining how conflicts with a black woman have led her to feel hostility toward all black people.

Well, a white man responds, I've never been attacked riding my bicycle in a black neighborhood, and I like black people so much, I'm trying to join an all-black church.

Another man stands, his sizable belly filling out an olive-green T-shirt that reads: Mark Fuhrman For President. He says the FBI and the CIA are conspiring to take away white men's rights.

Jerry Springer had come to town.

The Chicago-based talk show host lighted in Lakeland for a few hours Thursday, hosting what he billed as a "town meeting" on the case of a local man recently sentenced to 21 months in prison for using threats of force, racial slurs and profanity to drive away an African-American family building a home next door to his.

Springer, who has aired shows on a man married to nine women and whether large or small chested women are sexier, hit Florida to explore the implications of David P. Broome's sentence.

Testimony and a videotape made by FBI agents showed that Broome used racial slurs and planted a Confederate battle flag on the property line between the homes to scare off black home buyers.

"When TV is at its best, it's like a mirror," the wavy-haired talk show host said, minutes before jumping in a limo to catch another plane out of town. "If this does nothing more than get people to sit around the dinner table and discuss this, it's done some good."

But the question remained, long after Springer's 40-minute town meeting concluded: Just what reflection were we all seeing?

Judging by what transpired Thursday, it looked mostly like two groups of people who don't trust or believe each other yelling into a microphone. This, it seems, is political discourse in the television age.

Like many daytime talk shows, Springer's program features a small panel of people facing an audience that comments on their discussion. In this case, the panel included three family members of Alonzo and Clarissa Watkins _ the black couple whom Broome harassed _ and Broome's wife, daughter, attorney and the man himself.

The mid-size conference room at the Lakeland Civic Center accommodated an audience of only about 50 people _ divided mostly between the white members and sympathizers of the National Association for the Advancement of White People; and black friends and family of the Watkins, plus a few assorted Springer fans.

No Lakeland elected officials or community leaders, beyond a few ministers from the Watkins' church. No one involved with prosecuting the case. Not even the Watkinses themselves. (Springer says the couple was prevented from sitting on the panel by a court order that keeps the two families separate, but couldn't they have arranged a closed-circuit TV hookup?)

Kicked off by a passionate exchange between Clarissa Watkins' mother, Mary Chandler, and Broome, the discussion quickly degenerated, with comments falling into one of two categories _ white people sitting in the NAAWP section who defended Broome's free speech rights and supporters of the Watkins who say Broome got what he deserved.

"I watched the FBI tapes and I didn't pick up on a direct, positive threat made," said Dan Daniels, who resigned as Polk County sheriff in 1987 after a grand jury described his policies as "disastrous" and his department as a "joke."

Several medals pinned to his NAAWP shirt glittered in the camera lights as he went on: "In America, there should be a legal right for someone to express their own opinion."

Hattie Hill, a black woman who has lived most of her 48 years in Lakeland, recalled times during the era of segregation when black people had to enter restaurants from the rear and cross the street to make room for any white people walking by.

"We're coming to the year 2000," she said, looking toward the Broomes with a mixture of anger and urgency clouding her face. "When will the madness end?"

As the show progressed, Springer raised a few good issues, asking if Broome's sentence was too harsh and chiding those who used one bad experience as an excuse for racism. But as he rushed from one audience member to another, barely allowing enough time for one to speak before another began, it quickly became obvious this debate wasn't moving beyond a surface level.

Had he spent a little more time researching the issue, Springer might have talked about Broome's attorney James McPherson, a former adviser to U.S. Senate candidate and ex-Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. He might have replayed the FBI videotape of Broome's actions, which showed him telling two black agents posing as a married couple he would "cause trouble" if they moved in.

He might have discussed the history of racial tension in Polk County, sometimes known as Imperial Polk County, which boasts a town, Mulberry, named for what was its lynching tree. It also boasts one of only five NAAWP chapters in the state.

Perhaps these issues will be covered in separate interviews with the Broomes and Watkins that Springer's crew filmed earlier. They've set no air date for the show, which will blend footage from the interviews and Thursday's town meeting.

Broome himself struck the same conciliatory tone he has advanced since his sentencing in January _ which in addition to the prison term included $9,500 in restitution to the Watkins _ expressing sorrow for his actions and denouncing the racist comments of many supporters in the audience.

Broome's wife, Linda, said her husband lost his temper because of their experiences living in another neighborhood where black people threatened and cursed her. She did not see the stereotyping in assuming the same thing might happen if any black people moved near their current home.

"We have to sell our house and our business is going under," said Linda Broome, who says the couple's carpet-laying business lost a major account when a black store executive contracted another firm after Broome's conviction. "Is this worth us losing everything?"

In a game like this, it seems, the best sound bite wins _ and Broome provided a zinger that closed out Springer's taping with a bang.

"If I'm such a criminal, how come the people who burned and looted St. Petersburg got love, compassion and $20-million to do it all over again?" he asked.

Springer didn't answer; he headed for the door.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.