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Study circles to share ideas about race

By Rochelle Brenner, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Sunday, September 28, 2003

BELLE GLADE -- While the city for months has been rocked by racial discord that attracted international attention, plans to ease long-simmering tensions were put on hold.

But even though residents are still sharply divided about the hanging death of Feraris "Ray" Golden, city officials are now moving forward with plans to bring in an outside group to spur residents to talk openly about issues that have haunted the segregated town for years.

Beginning Oct. 14, members of Toward A More Perfect Union will assemble five study circles -- groups of up to 15 people -- to share ideas about race and ways to improve relations. The discussions will culminate in an open forum six weeks later.

"The dam sort of burst," City Manager Tony Smith said of why plans for the discussions were delayed. "You had issues of tension rise to the top before we could get our system to deal with it in place."

Participants in the study circles will represent the city's diverse groups and the city commission -- which is split between three black and two white members. The discussions are designed to be an open dialogue on race to give people a better understanding of culture, said Barbara Cheives, president of the West Palm Beach-based organization.

While thoughts of Golden's death will undoubtedly loom large over the discussions, Cheives said it won't be a focal point.

"We want this to be not about politics and not about people's positions and not about any current incidents. We want this to be about a community ready to work together and move forward," Cheives said.

And, she said, problems won't be resolved in six weeks. "I don't know that there's ever a done," Cheives said. "It's not like a roast where it's cooked. It's an ongoing process of dialogue leading to action."

The nonprofit group, financed by three local foundations, has held similar forums in Jupiter and the Northwood area of West Palm Beach. It has also led a teen summit on race and brokers talks with public safety officials and the community.

After the first round of study circles ends, Cheives hopes the discussions continue with more meetings.

"Because of the demographics of Palm Beach County, our diversity is really our strength, but it can also create issues of people living and working together," she said.

Florida Rep. James "Hank" Harper, who represents the area, said he called Cheives last month to encourage her to set up groups in Belle Glade. He said the city's racial strife is comparable to other small towns, but "overall neglect" has recently rubbed the wound.

"You can't continue ignoring a problem that's festering and not expect it to ooze," the West Palm Beach Democrat said.

Harper, along with some civil rights groups, blame an inadequate police investigation of Golden's May 28 hanging death for spawning rumors that are dividing the city. For instance, Belle Glade police initially reported Golden was hanging from a man's dark-colored work shirt, but later said that it was a sheet. Police Chief Michael Miller said it initially appeared to be a shirt and wasn't looked at closely until later.

Police also immediately cut the body down, believing they were responding to a suicide call. But, Harper said, in their haste they could have trampled key evidence. He has called for Miller's resignation.

The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, and police, a judge and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agree. Miller contends it's Harper's unfounded accusations against police that are dividing the city.

But they both agree on the positive influence of study circles.

Harper, who will not participate in the discussions, said he plans to help pay for the project.

Miller was one of the group's founding directors and now serves on its advisory board. He and his staff will participate.

"When you're talking about people and citizens and groups getting along, it's not like a straight line," Miller said. "There are steps forward and then there are problems that come up and then there are steps forward again."

Jupiter police officer Reggie Scurry participated in Jupiter's study circles last year.

"Even for someone like myself who's open-minded, I'd recommend they go," said Scurry, a young black officer. "Understand you may not agree with everything, you can't change deep-rooted opinions, but at least people will understand where others are coming from."

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