SAFETY HARBOR — A decision by Safety Harbor officials to soon place two Black Lives Matter signs in front of City Hall has led to a social media backlash, prompted phone calls to city officials and inspired a stream of emails to Mayor Joe Ayoub.
Safety Harbor commissioners decided Monday during a virtual meeting to display the Black Lives Matter signs at City Hall after a proposal by some community residents asked city officials to join neighborhoods in speaking out for racial justice.
The premise of the letter — originally submitted to the commission on July 16 — was a call for two Black Lives Matter signs to be placed in front of City Hall with the “intent to make all residents welcome — in all parts of town.” The letter had 85 signatures.
For some in this town of 18,000, of which less than 5 percent are Black, the subsequent denunciations of the decision serve as a reminder of a not-too-distant era when the town was plagued by racial segregation and the presence of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to a number of city residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting, many of Safety Harbor’s Black residents do not patronize downtown because they don’t feel welcome. Some recollected The Harbor Bar — sometimes just The Tavern — where up until the 1980s, Black patrons were served through a window in the back that opened to a dirt lot, while white patrons sat inside. This bar sat where the library is now and is separate from Harbor Bar currently on Main St.
“Many people still carry that burden from the Jim Crow days,” said Amy Bryant, a Black author and poet who lives a mile south of the city and supports the placement of the signs.
City officials started getting heat soon after Monday’s decision. A Facebook post by resident Laura McCullough that mentioned the decision got nearly 400 comments and more than 100 reactions.
Many residents responded in support. A few called for a citywide referendum. Others urged that “White Lives Matter,” “Back the Blue,” and “All Lives Matter” displays be set up in response.
“Where’s the white lives matter sign being installed…?” read one comment. “Keeps that crap out of our streets!!!!” read another.
In a separate post, one resident announced intentions to hold a gun rally with armed demonstrators at the same time the city planned to set up a Black Lives Matter display. That post has since been taken down.
“This is a test of moral values,” said Lewis Ponds, one of Safety Harbor’s Black residents who signed the letter, during the meeting. “I need help making my life matter.”
Prior to the meeting, Ponds told the Times, “This is about leadership.” He added, “I’m still not too sure what kind of leaders we have in our City Hall.”
Since Monday’s decision, Mayor Joe Ayoub has backtracked. In a Facebook post Wednesday, Ayoub wrote, ”While I think systemic racism and social justice issues need to be addressed at all levels in government, I think the way we went about it on Monday night was wrong.”
Ayoub announced next Monday’s city budget meeting will, also, “reexamine the decision to allow these or any other political signs on government property.”
“One of my primary responsibilities is to unite the city,” Ayoub told the Times. “It concerns me that (the decision) is not uniting everyone.”
During Monday’s city commission meeting when Ayoub suggested that the signs to be placed near City Hall using words other than “Black Lives Matter”, community leaders pushed back.
Ayoub suggested “together we stand, together we rise, standing in unity,” but for a number of residents and city officials, a sign without the words “Black Lives Matter” wouldn’t be as meaningful.
“You’re watering down the message here,” said City Commissioner Andy Zodrow. “The message is, right now, we’re recognizing there’s some systemic racism going on in the U.S. in 2020.”
The recent push for racial justice signs in the city began as a grassroots initiative to raise money and create signs to be distributed to any business or individual who wanted one.
As they crafted the Black Lives Matter signs, the group — made up of city residents — intentionally opted for subtle imagery as opposed to more militant images of raised fists, said Charrie Moscardini, the coordinator of Indivisible Safety Harbor and co-signer of the letter to city commission.
The message is one of unity rather than division, according to Ponds and Moscardini.
However, response to the signs has been anything but unifying. Some signs placed around the city have since been stolen and slashed, said Moscardini.
Still, the group is busy replacing signs for those who request more. Other residents object to even seeing them.
A sign like this “has no place, not only in Safety Harbor but anywhere,” said Sonia Hass, a Safety Harbor resident. Hass is concerned that if the city promotes the Black Lives Matter message, it will invite protesters to the city to “wreak havoc.”
“I think they should be ashamed of putting up a sign like this,” said Hass. “They are dividing the people.”