TAMPA — Shortly after the city’s first in-person City Council meeting since March began Thursday, tensions quickly rose over a council member’s use of the word “thug” to describe those who looted stores and destroyed property during recent protests in the city.
In his opening comments, council member John Dingfelder used the term about those who destroyed property and stole goods last weekend.
“The looting was done by thugs. And shame on them,” Dingfelder said.
At least six speakers said Dingfelder’s use of the word “thug” to describe looters was racially offensive. The exchange illuminated the tensions swirling around the city after nearly a week of protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
“It’s a buzz word,” for the n-word, said Tony Daniel, a frequent harsh critic of the city government. Several other speakers echoed Daniel’s position.
Dingfelder said, as an attorney, he has focused on civil rights and has advocated for racial equity. But he didn’t initially apologize for using the word.
“When people cross the line and they go in and they steal things for themselves and they break windows and they burn buildings. I will call them thugs, I will call them thieves, I will call them looters. It has nothing to do with the color of their skin,” Dingfelder said.
Elvis Piggott, a pastor and former county commission candidate, again criticized Dingfelder for using “thug" later in the meeting.
“We understand that is a statement typically that has always been used for an African-American person,” Piggott said.
Dingfelder then apologized, saying he wasn’t aware the term has a racial connotation. Dingfelder said he watched mob movies growing up that used the term referring to white people.
“If that term has now taken on a meaning to refer to black people, I wasn’t aware of it,” Dingfelder said.
Orlando Gudes, the council’s lone black member, was embroiled in his own controversy in January when he used the anti-Semitic term “getting Jewed” to describe what he described as overcharging on city contracts.
On Thursday, Gudes said he stood by Dingfelder, calling him his friend and accepting his apology. Gudes said everyone needs to learn the changing acceptability of language.
The exchanges were part of a passionate return to live meeting in Florida’s third-largest city. For the first time since March 12, all seven City Council members met in person. It was their first meeting at the city’s Convention Center, where they are scheduled to hold their gatherings this month.
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Among the three major Tampa Bay cities, Tampa is the first to hold a public meeting since the coronavirus pandemic shut down everyday life nearly three months ago. St. Petersburg and Clearwater are scheduled to hold live meetings next month.
The socially-distanced layout didn’t tamp down the emotion.
Council members said the recent days of protest, which has included looting and burning of stores, have exposed deep-seated wounds in the city.
And they want a bigger role in the healing.
“We can’t have the National Guard coming and the City Council not know about it,” said Gudes. “I can’t be in a restaurant somewhere and people ask me for information and I look like a fool.”
Gudes also asked for police officers involved in a recent incident involving a gunshot victim’s family at Tampa General Hospital be placed on administrative leave. Council members unanimously approved a motion to have Mayor Jane Castor’s administration report back to the council by June 25.
Bill Carlson said the city has a long history of poor decisions. He mentioned the Tampa Bay Times’ 2015 investigation into the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists. He pointed to the city’s inaction on saving the historic African-American landmark, the Jackson House. And he mentioned a recent controversy at the Fair Oaks Community Center in East Tampa where residents complained about a rodent infestation.
“We can’t even get rid of the rats in a community center?" said Carlson, who represents South Tampa. “We’re making horrific choices in this city.”
The council did support Mayor Jane Castor’s recent decision to refinance a bond issue to pay to equip police officers with body cameras. They voted unanimously to support the $952,000 measure.
“The landscape of policing has changed dramatically in the last five days,” Police Chief Brian Dugan said. " If there’s a police officer in the city of Tampa that does not want a body-worn camera, then I suggest you turn your badge in."
In another police matter, Carlson’s move to delay a $179,475 purchase of training ammunition for three weeks failed by a 6-1 vote. Carlson said it was bad timing. Dugan said he didn’t see the point of delaying training.
Much of the meeting was devoted to wrestling with the turmoil surrounding the protests.
Luis Viera, who represents North Tampa, the area of the city most damaged in last weekend’s protest, said the city needs to do a better job of talking about race and equity.
“If you’re not pushing like hell for it, the burden’s on you. I wish I’d been better on that in the last few years,” Viera said. “Let’s take a look at (the police department’s) crowd displacement policy. Let’s have meetings about that. Let’s talk about that.”
Carlson and Joseph Citro wondered why a racial sensitivity training program proposed by a city charter review board they served on in 2018 still hasn’t been implemented.
Citro also apologized for using offensive language in a recent Facebook post. He said he used the terms “yellow” and “red” to refer to Asians and Native Americans without realizing such language was offensive. He said he has already apologized to his Asian-American legislative aide.
Chairman Guido Maniscalco broke down in tears when he was giving his comments.
“This is not the world I want to live in,” Maniscalco said. “We need change.”