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Belle Glade study circle picks actions to close racial gap

Tuesday, November 25 Belle Glade study circle picks actions to close racial gap

By Rochelle Brenner, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2003

BELLE GLADE -- Participating in study circles on race for six weeks was sometimes painfully honest.

For NAACP Glades Chapter President Linda Johnson, it even hurt to show up.

"The whites were seated on one side and blacks were on the other. I walked in and said 'Ouch' " Johnson said, sharing her experiences at Monday night's forum to mark the end of the first round of study circles. "I tried to squeeze between them."

The study circles on race were designed to try to ease racial tensions in the city. The five city commissioners, along with several police and fire officials, city employees and spiritual leaders participated.

The 64 participants of the study circle say they not only are more comfortable sitting next to each other, they say they understand each other better. But, they say, their work isn't done.

"This is not the end. This is the beginning," said Barbara Cheives, president of West Palm Beach-based Toward a More Perfect Union, which organized the study circles.

At the end of the feel-good forum, participants voted for actions they will work on to improve the community.

Some ideas voted on included: Find other people to participate in future study circles; start talking openly with others about race relations in the city; take steps to make sure the police and fire departments are racially diverse. Each member of the racially divided city commission joined a study circle, although only two -- Commissioners Gwen Asia-Williams and Mary Kendall -- made it to Monday's forum,

At the last commission meeting Nov. 17, every split vote fell along racial lines. A new seating arrangement on the dais left the commission with an even greater appearance of separation, with the three black commissioners on one side and two white commissioners on the other.

Asia-Williams acknowledged the appearance of racial tension on the commission, but said she gets along with all of her colleagues.

"That is one of the obstacles that needs to be clarified," she said.

Tensions heated up after the Nov. 17 meeting when Commissioner Donald Garrett, who is white, approached black Commissioner Kendall.

"You're a racist, and I'm going to tell you that to your face," Garrett said.

The next day, Belle Glade Police Chief Michael Miller, who is white, alleged corruption among the three black commissioners.

In response, Kendall wrote a letter to the state attorney's office in West Palm Beach requesting additional law enforcement protection. Her request was denied because there were no physical threats.

Cheives said she purposefully stayed out of politics, but said the effort to improve race relations is an ongoing battle.

A meeting on the planned actions is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at city hall. A few weeks after that, the next round of study circles will begin.

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