Eleven years ago today I got a call from the Police Department informing me that there was a fatal shooting outside a school dance in Delray Beach.
Jerrod Miller, 15, was shot and killed while driving his uncle’s car near a breezeway at the Full Service Center, in our southwest neighborhood. A rookie police officer pulled the trigger.
I was mayor at the time and had the spent the evening at Donald Trump’s Mar A Lago (who would have guessed about the Donald?) for a charity fundraiser. I left Palm Beach feeling on top of the world.
That feeling ended when the phone rang in the early morning hours. There is no playbook to reach for when a 15 year-old child is shot and killed by a police officer in America.
The shooting happened exactly 10 years before Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, way before Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and the volatile shooting in Chicago that has engulfed that city’s mayor and cost the police chief his job.
My daughter, now 26, was also 15 when Jerrod was killed. I think that may be why the loss affected me in a very deep and very personal way. I couldn’t imagine losing a child. There are still mornings when I wake up to image’s of Jerrod’s face from a dream.
Never let them tell you that being a small town mayor is an easy job.
I share this because it’s important to remember these types of events because they tend to shape who you are and what you become as a community. The incident—which was a tragedy for all involved—was remembered last year— the 10 year anniversary. But these critical events need to be remembered every year, because it’s important to do so.
History can be a great guide for your present and your future if you take the time to understand it.
The Commissioners I served with valued race relations and we were working on improving our dialogue before the shooting. I think our efforts and the huge strides made before we arrived—especially by our Police Department—helped us cope with a terrible tragedy without widespread violence and recrimination. The leadership of people like Elizabeth Wesley, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Pompey, Vera Farrington, Commissioner David Randolph, Zach Straghn, Evelyn Dobson, Pame Williams, Carolyn and Joe Gholston and many others also made a difference in our community. We had a deep reservoir of work, dialogue and progress to draw on when tragedy struck.
That does not mean that the situation wasn’t deeply painful or easy—I can assure you it wasn’t. But we never came apart as a community because there were relationships and efforts under way for years to address deep seated issues. And because we dug even deeper after Jerrod. We found that we shared a common love for our city and a common passion for improving the lives of all people in the village. So we talked, we met, we cried, we prayed and yes at times we argued–but we never wavered from a foundational commitment to each other and to Delray.
That commitment was not lip service, it was real. Significant dollars were spent in impoverished neighborhoods, programs were supported, strategies to help schools, families and children were not just talked about but were implemented. Community policing built bridges and made people feel safer in their homes and neighborhoods. It was a commitment–a covenant–and it went both ways because citizens were asked to volunteer, step up, lead and take risks and they did and it made a difference. There is never an end to this type of work. Nor should there be. But it’s about more than dollars, even though money and investment is important. It’s about relationships and building community. And it’s about trust and love.
That’s why we made it through, even though there was pain that words cannot describe.
Race has been America’s Achilles heel since our nation’s founding and it has been an issue in Delray for over 100 years.
Recently, there have been mentions of race and the Swinton dividing line on issues ranging from the design of Old School Square Park and where to direct CRA investment to the makeup of city boards and the staff, board and audience of the Arts Garage.
These are issues that need to be surfaced and understood—but the worst thing we can do is apply lipstick and declare victory.
When we started the Race Relations initiative as part of the Downtown Master Planning process it was meant as a long term initiative and this type of work needs to be considered as a long term commitment to fostering better relationships, more understanding and more opportunity.
I think Community Benefits Agreements are good in concept, but the true goal ought to be broad based, long lasting opportunity and prosperity. The only way to achieve that is to improve the capacity of the communities we are trying to lift up. You have to talk about developing human capital and we have a huge amount of it. Otherwise, it becomes about steering money to the politically connected few at the expense of the many.
Efforts like Delray Students First, Village Academy, Milagro Center, Dare 2 Be Great, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the Achievement Center, Delray Library and yes Old School Square and Arts Garage are all valuable tools for growing capacity and developing human capital.
But there are gaps—we are in an entrepreneurial and technological age and we ought to be investing in programs that teach both—like Girls Who Code, Wyncode, General Assembly etc.
In addition, there are tools and programs to strengthen neighborhoods. We were once very active in Neighborhoods USA and worked with local foundations on leadership training and capacity building. These are valuable tools to help encourage and inspire current and future leaders.
If you don’t do these types of things, you end up with spray paint “solutions” that wash away when it rains—and it will rain.
Optics will not work over the long haul. The term implies that you are merely concerned with how things look. Nope. Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. Your work has to be real and it has to be meaningful. And your commitment has to be long lasting.
You have to dig deep.
It has to be about love.