By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The cop in the white polo shirt and black dress pants halted suddenly and took a step back, apparently shocked to see a white guy in the crowd. The officer leaned awkwardly on a banister just out of earshot.
"You see that? The only reason he didn't come over and harass us is because you're white," 13-year-old Jacob Cadet told a New Timesreporter on a recent Saturday night. Cadet and a crowd of his teenage friends had spent the evening hanging around in front of the Muvico theater at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. And as usual, a cop had told them every few minutes that loitering is prohibited by city law.
"We can't stand in one spot? What are all those white folks doing right over there?" Daniel Meant, age 15, asked rhetorically, pointing to perhaps two dozen whites who milled about in front of the theater without interference.
Just seconds after the white reporter left the crowd of black teens, the polo-shirted officer ordered the youths to move on. Approached later, the cop wouldn't say whether he was targeting blacks. The kids, meanwhile, mostly laughed off what they called racial prejudice. Darrin Virgil, a 14-year-old in a baggy T-shirt over low-hanging jeans, summed up their frustration: "We don't have anywhere else to go on the weekends, so we just spend the night getting moved around by these cops."
What Jacob, Darrin, and their friends didn't know is that CityPlace and West Palm Beach officials are trying to relocate them to the predominantly minority neighborhood north of downtown. Since CityPlace, a collection of bars and shops that has revived downtown, opened two years ago in October, police have responded to 106 reports of crimes ranging from loitering to aggravated assault outside Muvico. In response, CityPlace property managers asked the police department this past September to organize an event to attract kids; it began as a late-night pickup game called "midnight basketball," and most kids still call it that, though it has expanded to include a talent show and a dance.
Midnight basketball might be a decent nickname, but some community leaders simply call it racism. Edith Bush, a retired school teacher and president of the Progressive Northwest Neighborhood Association, says CityPlace has centered its efforts only on black kids. "Yes, it's racial," Bush says. "You bet it's racial. We need people to speak out about the injustice to our children. This is police prejudice."
Addie Greene, the lone African-American on the seven-member Palm Beach County Commission, helped get funding for the midnight basketball program. But she also believes CityPlace isn't treating black teens fairly. She acknowledges that CityPlace is trying to move black teenagers back to their neighborhood: "I know it's a conflict [to support this event when I believe it's unfair], but where are we going to send our children?"
CityPlace Director of Operations John Eudy wouldn't comment via telephone for this report or respond to written questions. Instead, CityPlace hired a public relations firm to send New Times a written response. An e-mail says the facilities' managers are "delighted with the success of the new basketball program" and called the second-story plaza between the movie theater and Blue Martini "an inappropriate environment for children." The no-loitering policy is similar to rules at other shopping centers and is a "common sense" answer to safety, the response reads.
Indeed, the midnight basketball organizers are a well-intentioned group. Their leader is Sgt. Greg Key, a former homicide detective who now works in community policing. Key became a cop in 1986 after spending four seasons playing minor-league baseball. Eddie Murphy-handsome, with short-cropped hair and a well-trimmed moustache, Key says he left the homicide department in part because the unsolved cases weighed on his conscience.
Key says West Palm Chief of Police Ric Bradshaw told him it was a top priority to start midnight basketball and help alleviate the trouble at CityPlace. He began the program by hanging donated sports jerseys on the fences at the Salvation Army basketball courts and daring kids to play for them. When crowds started forming on Saturday nights late last year and teenagers played rap music on boom boxes, Salvation Army officials objected to foul language in the songs. So Key inquired about holding the games at the Harriet Himmel Gilman Theater, CityPlace's centerpiece, which is empty most of the summer. But Key says managers claimed he'd need to book the place a year in advance. (In its e-mailed response, CityPlace asserts that "The Harriet" couldn't be used for the program because it doesn't have basketball backboards and isn't appropriate for sporting events.)
After using a park in the northwest side of town, Key talked the school district into allowing the event at the Roosevelt Full Service Center just off Australian Avenue in a mostly black part of town. When Key attracted $8000 in federal grants, he expanded the program to include a dance and talent show. With another $20,000 from the county and $4000 from CityPlace, he's managed to attract more than 300 kids some Saturday nights. He now heads a team of five parks department employees and five other officers who work overtime to supervise the kids.