CLEARWATER — On Tuesday afternoon, Elijah McGill led about 200 marchers with a message through the North Greenwood neighborhood where he was born and raised.
Silence after the killing of another unarmed black American by police was not an option. But he asked the crowd to focus on strategies for change. When they arrived at downtown’s Coachman Park, McGill, 34, spelled out actions the community should demand, like legislation to make baseless calls to police about innocent black people a felony and to hold police personally accountable for misconduct.
Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter was there listening. So was the mayor, two city council members, the city manager and the Pinellas County sheriff. It ended after speeches and prayers. In an interview days later, Pastor Carlton Childs called McGill “the next Tal Rutledge,” a nod to the late civil rights icon from the historically black North Greenwood neighborhood.
Hours after McGill’s Clearwater march on Tuesday, peaceful protests in St. Petersburg and Tampa turned chaotic, ending in police using crowd-control weapons and making dozens of arrests.
The current uprising against racism in America, ignited by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, has so far played out drastically differently in Clearwater than its sister cities in Tampa Bay. Protesters have not publicly clashed with the mayor and police as they did in Tampa and St. Petersburg. But as Clearwater residents grieve, community conversations are still percolating — and city officials say they are listening.
“We’re hurting just like everybody else is hurting, we’re grieving with our brothers across America, however we know the way to get real change in our community, or at least a seat at the table, has got to be peace and communication,” McGill said.
In the days after Floyd’s killing, and amid protests across the nation, Clearwater officials have been moved to confront what local changes could come from this national reckoning.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said he has begun early discussions with county officials about organizing a regional summit to discuss issues, from race relations to economic opportunities.
Hibbard, along with Slaughter and city manager Bill Horne, also attended the city’s second protest this week: a Friday sit-in at Coachman Park where more than 200 chanted, shared stories and held signs calling for change.
When one of the organizers asked anyone in the crowd who was a black ally to raise a fist, all three city officials held up their arms.
On June 1, the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County branch of the NAACP called for all local law enforcement entities to create citizen review boards with subpoena power to review use of force, disciplinary records and officer conduct. On Thursday, resident Marcus Afzali, 35, addressed the City Council and implored them to adopt body cameras for police. The council agreed to discuss both issues at its July meeting.
Slaughter said he’s open to discussing a review board and body cameras. But he said misconduct could be better prevented with wise hiring, sound training and good leadership, which he believes exists in the city.
“Minneapolis has had civilian oversight since 1990, they’ve had body cameras for a long time, and we’re still seeing the same behavior that clearly infuriates our citizens,” Slaughter told the council. “The concern they have is police misconduct, and it’s not going to make that go away.”
But Slaughter, who has publicly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death, said the killing has made him reflect on his department’s policies.
The department already prohibits neck restraints, but Slaughter said he wants to clarify the policy to fully address any form of compression to the neck. Clearwater Police Department regulations also already require officers to stop and report misconduct of their colleagues, but Slaughter said he wants to add it to the use of force policy.
McGill credits the success of his march to the community members who participated. But he also said the city’s track record of building relationships in the community helped make it more impactful.
McGill, a pastor, already knew Slaughter from several years ago, when the chief provided assistance to a youth mentoring camp he was running. McGill refers to city manager Bill Horne as his high school mentor. On the day of the demonstration, Hibbard, the mayor, walked up “and he told me he heard my concerns,” McGill said.
“When we’re able to have open conversations with our city officials and have long-lasting relationships with city officials, then we’re able to come to the table so we don’t have to protest in front of the station,” McGill said.
That doesn’t mean there still isn’t distrust of the police department, or areas of local government that residents want to see improve, McGill said.
The North Greenwood neighborhood is still blighted, to the point a group of residents have led a proposal to create a special taxing district to fund revitalization.
“What I hope comes out of all of this is that we start looking at things for what they really are,” said resident Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, 64. “The economic power and economic engine coming into this city is not getting into the North Greenwood area that really needs it the most.”
The Clearwater Police Department’s long history of community engagement has allowed officers to get to know residents, but there is still a sense of inequity, said LeeDrilla Jenkins, 62, a lifelong resident.
Jenkins questions the need for a police substation in the largely African American neighborhood when there are not substations in all of the predominantly white areas of the city. Slaughter notes the substation is not staffed full-time and is mostly used by police as a break area.
Her husband, Wallace Jenkins, also recalled a time when he was driving along Tangerine Street and was pulled over for what the officer said was illegal window tint.
“I started to laugh,” Jenkins said. “I said ‘you stopped me because this is supposedly a high crime area and we slowed down in front of a house’ ... that’s the kind of stuff that bothers me and it still happens."
At Thursday’s council meeting, Javante Scott, 18, wanted his elected officials to know this moment is about more than one incident of police brutality.
“It’s bigger than that, and it stems back to the foundation of our country that has a system that was built to oppress a certain group of people, so the system we have has to be fixed," Scott said over the meeting’s call-in phone line.
He thanked city officials by name for attending McGill’s march and acknowledged they were leaders willing to have the conversation. Then he challenged them to act on those conversations.
“This is something that has to continue,” Scott said. “I think we’re all left with that question, what are we doing now. What are we going to do now, what is going to happen next. I’m willing to be part of that conversation.”