This week, Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters asked what under different circumstances could have been an innocent question: She wanted to clarify the rules on which digital backdrops commissioners could use for online Zoom meetings. But she did it by picking a silly fight over whether a fellow commissioner should show support for Black Lives Matter. At best, the issue distracts from the important conversations commissioners should be having — about the coronavirus, police reform or the more substantial elements of race relations. At worst, it’s a reflection of the ongoing discomfort at the idea of racism being addressed in public spaces.
Coronavirus has forced local governments to hold meetings online, with elected officials often joining in from their homes. Zoom, the popular meeting app, gives users the option of creating custom backgrounds, similar to a screensaver for a computer. In Pinellas, some commissioners have chosen to use the county commission logo. Commissioner Ken Welch used a photo of a mural the spells out Black Lives Matter recently painted on the street outside of the Carter G. Woodson African American History museum in St. Petersburg. Each letter in Black Lives Matter contains its own mini mural completed by 16 local artists in celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
Welch’s backdrop clearly didn’t sit well with Peters. She said commissioners who did not want to use their home as a backdrop were told to use the county commission logo. She added that constituents were “offended” by artwork backgrounds used by commissioners on Zoom. “Whether it’s right or wrong that they be offended, people are offended,” she told her fellow commissioners.
But that’s ridiculous. Constituents’ offense at a Zoom backdrop of a Black Lives Matter mural is hardly worthy to take up at a commission meeting, and it’s something Peters should have rejected explicitly to her constituents.
At a time when the economy is struggling and commissioners have debated whether to close beaches and mandate masks, is this really what a local governing body should spend its time discussing?
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