Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard holds back tears as he talks about the fears he has on a simple ride home.

In a moment of vulnerability, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard said he was afraid.

As a lawyer, he knew his rights if pulled over in a traffic stop. But the experience would be different as a black man.

Bernard said following a peaceful George Floyd protest in West Palm Beach on Sunday, he received calls from constituents angry about looting and vandalism.

“I’m completely against it (the looting),” Bernard told his fellow commissioners Tuesday, choking back tears. “But you don’t know how I feel, that I have to go home to talk to my kids, and I’m not sure if I’m going to make it home.”

It’s an experience shared by state Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, who said he has had a gun pointed at him three times where his “skin has been weaponized.”

“If it’s happening to me — at a level where I graduated from a couple of colleges, matriculated to the level of being a state senator, and still with a badge that says ‘state senator’ I have trouble getting into the Capitol — it’s problematic for everyone everywhere,” Powell said.

Black leaders, including Bernard and Powell, called for local and state officials to step up to support conversations about racial inequities and changes in policing, following days of nationwide protests and rioting over Floyd’s videotaped death in police custody on a Minneapolis street.

“The senseless killing of an unarmed black man, the haunting words ‘I can’t breathe,’ and the horror of witnessing his life passing, George Floyd should compel us all to take a stand against evil that is racism,” Bernard said. “We must recommit ourselves to leading the changes that will make this country, this state and our great county, Palm Beach County, a more inclusive, inviting, safe and secure place for everyone.”

County Mayor Dave Kerner admitted to his colleagues that as a white man and former police officer he never would understand Bernard’s fears. But it will take support from people like him to make a change, he said.

“I recognize now what I used to say was untrue, that nobody hates a bad cop like a good cop hates a bad cop. I can tell you that I’ve learned that George Floyd’s family probably hates a bad cop more than I do,” Kerner said. “That should inspire us as members of a privileged class – generally speaking, white people — that this evil cannot be resolved in our society by just the voices and actions of the minority community.”

‘This has got to stop’

Lawrence Gordon, president of the Palm Beach County Caucus of Black Elected Officials and Haverhill vice mayor, said that the organization is insisting that local and state leaders approve rules that prohibit the use of excessive force by police such as chokeholds or pressure on the neck or throat.

Representing the caucus, Gordon also called for independent investigations of police-involved deaths and a registry of complaints filed against officers.

“It has been more than 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the black community is still forced to have conversations with our children, especially black males, about how to behave when we’re contacted and forced to deal with the police,” Gordon said. “This has got to stop. We need to move past this right now.”

It didn’t start with Floyd, Gordon said. There was Breonna Taylor, shot in her Louisville apartment in March. There was Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by Cleveland police in 2014 while holding a toy gun. There was Corey Jones, killed by a plainclothes Palm Beach Gardens police officer in 2015. And so many others who won’t get justice without “systemic and institutional changes,” Gordon said.

The caucus’ future support will be based on how officials respond, he said.

“If you are not willing to take decisive action to safeguard the lives of ourselves and our children, we as individuals will not endorse or support your candidacy or election,” he said.

‘Time is long overdue’

Westlake Vice Mayor Katrina Long-Robinson said she hoped that county leaders would be open to the dialogue.

“I think it’s fair to say to each of you … that all of us are hurt. We’re confused. But I think we can agree we’re each willing to work together collectively to mobilize and to strategize,” she said.

County Commissioner Gregg Weiss agreed.

“This time is long overdue for a painstaking and painful dialogue with the purpose of seeking real change and true equality in this country,” Weiss said. “At the end of the day, we must vote. If our leaders won’t change, then we must change our leaders. Black lives matter.”

Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Omari Hardy pointed to the county’s $5 billion budget.

“I believe, and we believe, that you have the power to force a conversation on common sense reforms that can be enacted locally to reform the way policing happens in our community,” he said.

County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw did not attend the meeting.

In a video decrying the Minneapolis officer’s use of force, Bradshaw said officers are taught to put a knee on someone’s back only if the suspect is resisting arrest. Pressing a knee to a person’s neck is “not anything that is taught here.”

A sheriff’s office spokeswoman did not say whether the policy explicitly forbids the action.

These measures are a start, state Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, said, but the change must go deeper.

“Here’s the red herring. Everyone wants to put Band-Aids — everyone wants to talk about just the policing. But what we need to be focused about is how many of our higher ups in the ranks within a police department look like me? How many school teachers in the classroom look like me? How many county commissioners, how many of our elected officials look like me? That’s where the root of solving the problem begins,” he told reporters.

“We need to change the image in America how valuable a black life is,” Jacquet said.

By Hannah Morse

Palm Beach Post