There’s an old adage that sometimes a “good listen is more important than real action,” but the scores of protestors who spoke during the public forum portion of the Tuesday, June 9 meeting of the Wellington Village Council consistently demanded tangible action from local officials to make Wellington a more welcoming place for black residents and other minorities.
In mostly polite, three-minute segments, the meeting went on for more than four hours, as local residents and others from across the region offered public comment relative to the growing Black Lives Matter national movement.
Some speakers cited America’s hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, along with current issues of systemic racism in the country, white privilege, white supremacy, white entitlement, white silence and the genocide of indigenous people.
Others advocated banning choke holds and racial profiling, defunding the police and investing more in opportunities for people of color, and many demanded an apology for a recent comment on Facebook by Mayor Anne Gerwig. One asked the council members to hold up their arms in support of the concept of Black Lives Matter, while another brought a banner with the names of people who have died in police custody in Palm Beach County.
While there have been protests and marches throughout Palm Beach County since the shocking May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protest at the Wellington meeting appears to have been brought on by a June 1 comment by Gerwig on social media that some felt downplayed the growing national protests. The mayor apologized several times and said that her words were misinterpreted.
“I made a poor choice of words,” said Gerwig of her comments, clarifying that she was only against violent protests and was attempting to express concerns about large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She apologized for the specific part of her comment that raised the most objection, namely that she thought the cause of the protesters’ anger was due to “something that happened far away.” Many of the speakers told Gerwig and the council that while the Floyd incident happened far away, Wellington is not a welcoming place for minorities.
People all skin tones, from teenagers to seniors, offered comments that were often touchingly personal, delivered through tears, anger and hope, punctuated with applause, despite Gerwig reminding the crowd that outbursts were not allowed.
Several speakers related their stories of misbehavior inflicted upon them by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in Wellington. Others referred to the civil rights movement and the Stonewall riots in New York City that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement. Still others quoted the Bible and Confucius, and many repeated phrases by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
While many speakers were from outside the community, many were from Wellington and discussed what it was like to live and grow up as a minority in the village.
The event began before the meeting itself when a crowd estimated in the hundreds chanted and held signs outside Wellington Village Hall. In small groups, with social distancing, they entered the chambers to await their turn to speak.
Renel Brown is a single mother of an 18-year-old son who plays sports and jogs for exercise. “Not all people are racist, but I fear for his safety,” she said. “When you peel the skin off of us, we are all the same.”
She commented on the look of confusion on the mayor and complained about the body language and facial expressions of the council. “You should have uncomfortable discussions and wipe those smirks off of your faces,” Brown said.
Kadisha Dean asked the council to help make Wellington a more welcoming place. “Do you want to be the change, or do you want to be the problem?” she asked. “I could scream all day long, but you could make two or three calls, and something happens.”
“I come from a place of love when I protest,” Brooklyn Duval added. “We are better. We can do better.”
Taylor Davis said that Wellington should repurpose some of the money that goes to the PBSO. “Can we use some of that money in the police budget for counseling to keep people out of the [criminal justice] system?” she asked.
Lois Spatz supported the goals of the protestors but said that targeting Gerwig, in particular, is unfair. “My heart is breaking, for our community and for our mayor,” she said. “I want you guys to know [that] I know our mayor, and she could have said something better… I’ve seen her help people and our community. We have an opportunity to make a real, definitive change.”
After all the speakers had their say, council members and village staff responded, highlighting Wellington programs designed to support the minority community, while also acknowledging that more must be done.
“There is no me and you,” Gerwig said. “We are in the same fight, and we are on the same side.”
She thanked the speakers for their decorum. “This protest is peaceful, and we are all working together,” Gerwig said.
Village Manager Paul Schofield noted all the change that he has seen in his lifetime, while agreeing that more must be done. He noted that back when he entered his profession, the person sitting in his chair would have taken action to keep such a meeting from occurring and instead silence the protestors.
“I apologize if some of you saw me texting during the meeting,” Schofield continued. “It was with staff members who were asking, ‘Is it OK if we go home?’ I told them ‘No, we are going to sit here, and we are going to listen.’”
In answer to the numerous comments about spending money on social programs supporting minorities, Schofield said that Wellington annually budgets $2.5 million for such programs. He introduced Community Services Director Paulette Edwards, one of several black department heads in the village. She described youth services, senior services and community policing, along with other outreach programs.
Councilman John McGovern thanked the protestors for sharing their stories. “Thank you for being here. This is what democracy looks like,” he said.
“I am sorry if I have been complacent. I can do better,” he added, assuring the crowd that Wellington council meetings are a safe place to have uncomfortable discussions. “There isn’t going to be an answer tonight. We have to build that together.”
Councilman Michael Napoleone also supported the speakers. “You spoke from the heart. We hear you. ‘Equal justice under the law’ should not be just a slogan,” he said.
He encouraged everyone to vote and to run for office. “Become the change you want to see,” Napoleone said.
Councilman Michael Drahos complimented the passionate speakers and said that the council is a supporter of “your constitutional rights to speak out.”
Vice Mayor Tanya Siskind agreed that more must be done. “Systemic racism must be addressed and dismantled. It is despicable,” she said. Schofield promised the council and the crowd an action plan. “You’ll hear things coming back from me,” he promised.