The clouds cleared moments before the first attendee arrived to start setting up the tent in the parking lot of the Southern Hospitality shopping plaza for Tuesday’s Black Lives Matter protest.
It was the third protest in seven days in Plant City. The tagline said “We may look different, we may talk different, but we are all equal” and called for the community to join together for a peaceful protest and time of prayer. Attendees were encouraged to wear black or black hoodies to show respect to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.
When the community began to arrive they were greeted by several of the organizers, who were toting clipboards and asked them if they were registered to vote. Those who said no were given the opportunity to register on the spot.
“We are registering people to vote because, honestly and truly, the way to get things done and the way to make change is to impact policy,” Katrice Jackson said. “It’s the American way. We live in a democracy. If you want to have your voice be heard and you really want to feel the impact, the two ways to do that are economically and to vote. My hope is that there is more accountability, not just for police, but for citizens in general. We’ve seen too many times where it hasn’t just been police brutality, it’s also been citizen brutality and I really hope to see accountability for all citizens, especially the police department.”
The proposed method making waves across the nation is the act of defunding the police and reallocating a large portion of those funds to areas of need within communities. Social media alone has proven there is a general confusion as to what society would look like with a nationwide move to defund police departments. The call to action lies moreso in budget cuts than it does abolishment of the departments. The portion of the city’s annual budget that is allocated toward the Plant City Police Department would hypothetically be reduced.
Jackson said her hope is to see some of the funding for PCPD disbursed toward other needs in the community, like helping the homeless, leveling the playing field for healthcare options for all local residents regardless of the color of their skin or socio-economic status and to boost local education efforts. As a public educator, Jackson said she knows firsthand the impact the ever-growing budget cuts on schools have on the community, so she thinks it would be a great place to start.
It’s by no means a new concept and several cities have already altered their police budgets. For example, in Austin, Texas, the city added millions of dollars toward helping mental health issues and developed an operator system that would inquire whether the caller needed police, fire or a mental health service.
One city is being highlighted above the rest as it encompasses both of the calls to action. It started with defunding and then transitioned to a new style of policing altogether. Camden, New Jersey once had a homicide rate that was a near-mirror image of that in El Salvador. City leaders decided to completely alter its funding and implemented a list of reforms. Crime peaked in 2012 and then, with a lower budget, the city’s police force was disbanded and a county community force was created instead. It saved the city an average of $82,563 per officer and it now has the lowest murder rate the town has seen since 1987.
Policy as a whole was the main topic of discussion Tuesday evening and many in attendance stood in the parking lot discussing the future they hoped to see by getting civically and politically engaged. Accountability was a major topic. Funding for programs in what many felt are neglected areas of the community, as well as reevaluating the budget for certain projects to help float funds toward education, was also discussed.
Reverend Antonio Wilkerson from Mt. Olive Baptist Church opened the protest by leading the group in a prayer for the city. He thanked God for the opportunity for the community to be united and said he hopes God would continue to give all of the young people gathered “the courage to take a stand.” He said the time for talking about change is done and prayed that God would help them be the change-makers they want to see in this world.
“Sometimes we often wonder what Heaven is going to look like, and you’re giving us the opportunity right here on Earth where all nationalities all can come together, all ethnic groups can come together. So we thank you, Lord, for this opportunity because we realize that Jesus didn’t come to save skin color, Jesus Christ came to save souls,” Wilkerson prayed.
By 6 p.m., approximately 50 people were ready to march. The group walked, chanted and waved their signs down James L. Redman Parkway toward Alexander Street and eventually ended at the police department. No one emerged from the building to meet with them, so Promise Goodwine led the group in prayer as they took a knee by the front gate. Then they marched back.
Promise Goodwine’s aunt, Shirley Goodwine, made a hearty barbecue spread for the attendees and they dug right into the savory food when they returned. As the group began to disperse, many shook hands and said they’d see each other next Tuesday at the next rally.
“The good thing about living in a small city like Plant City is you’re able to see the impact of your involvement, you’re able to see those changes faster than on a state level or a federal level,” Jackson said. “I definitely think this is something that is doable if both sides are willing to meeting in the middle… If you can’t change your home then how can you expect to change the state or the country? You have to start here, you have to start at home.”
The next Black Lives Matter protest will be held at 5 p.m. June 16 at the Southern Hospitality parking lot. There will also be another protest downtown on June 19.