TAMPA — Long before George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, it was routine for Freddy Barton to warn young black men that any interaction with law enforcement could be fatal.
The Safe and Sound Hillsborough nonprofit that he leads works to keep minority teens on track at school and out of trouble. He has given teenage boys he mentors the same stark talk he gave his own two sons when they first learned to drive. If stopped by police, keep your hands on the steering wheel and only move them with permission, he tells them.
“Your job is not to justify that you’re in the right when you get pulled over; your job is to get home,” he says.
Barton and other leaders of groups that work in black communities can recall people taking to the streets after the killing of other black men, including Trayvon Martin. But they can’t recall protests as long, loud and far reaching as those sparked by the killing of Floyd.
The “Black Lives Matter” chant from progressives and activists now is being echoed by people around the world. For the first time, it feels like mainstream America is acknowledging the concerns about the mistreatment of black people that they have been voicing for years, Barton said.
“The nation has awakened and said, ‘Something has to break. Something has to stop,’” he said. “The protests are bringing that awareness on a national and global level.”
Protests have largely focused on reforming the police, but Barton and other local groups want to go deeper and say that the United States also must address generational poverty and the systemic and economic disadvantages that black communities face.
Even before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for older black teenagers was above 20 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The gap between average wages of white and black workers is larger now than it was in 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Blacks who are arrested are more likely to have to rely on a public defender than their white counterparts. And young black males are more likely to be saddled with a criminal record that makes it tougher for them to get work and housing, according to the Pew Research Center.
For Barton, reform needs to start in schools. Many black high school students start their senior year with fewer credits than their white counterparts, he said. His group works with 10th-graders at Blake High School and provides a summer camp with classes staffed by black teachers to give students a chance to catch up.
The criminal justice system also needs to be examined, especially in its handling of juveniles. In 2018, blacks made up 21 percent of Florida’s population of children ages 10 to 17, but accounted for 51 percent of juvenile arrests, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
That disparity is worse in Hillsborough where black youths make up nearly 58 percent of all juvenile arrests. In Pinellas County, 51 percent of juveniles charged by the police are black.
Two years ago, Barton’s group went into Hillsborough’s juvenile detention center to talk to teenagers. How did they end up there? What could have been different? The message from two thirds of the youth was the same: They needed guidance, like a mentor, and a chance at a job, Barton said.
On June 6, his group held a town hall attended by more than a dozen local leaders, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta, State Attorney Andrew Warren and representatives from local law enforcement agencies.
The event was designed for them to listen to community members who discussed and then voted on reforms they say are urgently needed. Those included eliminating bail payments, automatic expunging of juvenile crime records once a person reaches adulthood and teaching more about black history and the United States’ history of racial injustice in school.
Barton credits the impetus for change to a millennial generation adept at using social media to connect with the whole world and possessing the energy “not to let this go.” But that same social media bombards young black people with images, such as the video of Floyd’s death and others, that show they are not treated the same.
“It’s instant overload and instant trauma for our community," Barton said.
When he was just 14, Robert Blount III convinced his friend to let him borrow his car.
Within five minutes, the car was wrapped around a tree. He ended up in front of a judge who ordered the young man to write a 2,000-word essay on the merits of making good choices.
Now, 48, Blount is the president of Abe Brown Ministries, which works with offenders and ex-offenders. Many were first arrested as juveniles.
“Things I did in the folly of my youth, kids are going to jail for,” Blount said. “We could have a fight, and after, you got up and shook hands. Today, it’s an assault, and you go to jail.”
Blount said there has long been a bias in the nation’s criminal justice system, making black people more likely to be arrested and more likely to get longer prison sentences. In 2017, black Floridians were incarcerated at 3.6 times the rate of white people, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
One example was the longer sentences given for offenses for crack cocaine compared to those for powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act was intended to fix that, but still left those convicted of using or selling crack facing sentences that were on average 18 times more severe than those for powder cocaine, according to an ACLU study. The majority of people arrested for crack are black.
“There are systemic policies that have contributed to that,” Blount said. “These laws, these policies aren’t writing themselves.”
Blount wants to see more support for ex-offenders who are “starting from square one.” His group works with more than 200 Hillsborough residents who need help finding work, housing and transportation. Some may need mental health care or help with substance abuse.
“We all can rally around the innocent, but who will love the guilty?” he asked. “Who’s willing to advocate and go to bat for that person?”
Ross Anderson has worked with black teenage boys since 2006 when he co-founded Men of Vision, a Hillsborough group that works with middle- and high-school boys to help them succeed at school.
The group, which is open to all races, provides mentoring and encourages boys to do community service and work toward attending college or enrolling in the military.
The group this year was asked to expand its program and work with students as young as 7 at James and Edison elementary schools, both of which have a high number of minority students. Repeated studies have shown that third-grade students who are behind at reading struggle to catch up.
Anderson says his program works. About 98 percent of its students graduate with a diploma, compared to the district rate of 79 percent for black students. But only 175 boys are enrolled in the program, which is offered at a handful of schools.
Anderson likens the current wave of protests to a pot boiling over. Now 53, he had never taken part in a protest until the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a member of a neighborhood watch group in Sanford. Then came the 2018 death of Markeis “Keis” McGlockton, shot outside a Clearwater convenience store. Then came George Floyd.
“We all watched in horror for 8 minutes," he said. “We’ve seen this happen over and over again. When will it end? Who will be next?”
Anderson’s Men of Vision program helped MarQuav’is Hamilton stay out of trouble.
Raised in Sulphur Springs, Hamilton’s father was in and out of prison. When he was 14, Hamilton and a friend were stopped by a police officer who ran their names and asked the boy if he was going to follow his father’s path into crime.
“It motivated me to show him my family’s name through a different light and to make sure I was doing the right things,” Hamilton said.
Still, the young man didn’t understand how much his skin color affected the way people viewed him until he attended Steinbrenner High School in 2011, the first time he had attended a school with a majority of white students.
During recess, there was one corner where black students often congregated.
“(White students) called it the zoo. They called us monkeys," he said. “I saw how Caucasians viewed us in the world.”
The school opened his eyes in other ways. It had better after-school programs and better equipment for its sports teams than those in his neighborhood. Until he went there, he was unaware that he could take college-level classes toward an associate’s degree.
Hamilton, now 22, teaches college readiness at Woodmont Charter School and is on track to earn his teaching certificate this year.
He credits his mom and step dad as the “support system" that kept him out of local gangs and other temptations, something many of his childhood friends did not have.
“Even with the support system, I still gambled and thought about selling drugs and doing all the other bad things,” he said. “That’s just the nature of where we’re growing up and what we see.”
Correction: Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in 2012 by a member of a neighborhood watch group in Sanford. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year of the killing and the location.
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.