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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.
Winners of the talent show receive $375 in gift certificates provided by the Palm Beach Mall, which is located in a predominantly black area of town. CityPlace managers have contributed T-shirts, umbrellas, and hats with its logo. About $1500 in CityPlace donations came from the fountains where shoppers throw coins. Key spent a few hours one day cleaning $900 in corroded pennies in an acid bath.
Key's work earned praise in a Palm Beach Postarticle earlier this month. The headline claimed the program "scores a slam dunk with teens." The piece glossed over the issue of racial bias.
On the same Saturday night that Jacob, Darrin, and their friends were being pushed around CityPlace, Key auditioned teens for a talent show in an office above the gymnasium. "What 'chu going to do, freestyle rap?" Key asked a group of three nervous-looking boys.
One of them was 15-year-old John Reddick, who named his group B-Ware and learned to sing in his church chorus. Reddick's performance began with the phrase: "I'm the real pretty boy..." and ended with the memorable (particularly from a 15-year-old) line, "That girl was just a nooner."
Later on, Reddick admitted that his friends attended midnight basketball only to compete for the gift certificates (which they later won). Usually, they go to CityPlace to hang out. "But it gets old the way they tell you to move on just if your pants are too low," he says. "No offense, but if you're Caucasian, you don't have a problem there."
Christopher Preston, the youngest member of the group at age 13, recalls a little history: "They put [CityPlace] right in our neighborhood; where do they expect us to go? We ought to be able to enjoy it."
In fact, tax dollars paid by their parents helped fund the 77-acre shopping district. Original planners of what would become CityPlace bulldozed hundreds of homes in a predominantly black neighborhood for the development. Five years ago, West Palm Beach guaranteed a $55 million bond issue for the project that will be repaid with tax revenues.
On the night Jacob and his friends were shooed away from the movie theater, West Palm Lt. Mark Anderson had ten officers under his supervision at CityPlace, nearly twice as many as those stationed at midnight basketball. He stopped on a balcony overlooking the main courtyard to explain the no-loitering rules this way: "The only time we ask people to move on is when they congregate in a huge group. It doesn't have anything to do with what color they are." Asked why whites are allowed to hang out in front of the theater, Anderson replied that patrons awaiting tables at nearby restaurants or waiting to buy movie tickets can stay.
Anyone hanging out along a walkway overlooking the CityPlace courtyard, as Jacob and his friends were, is told to move, Anderson said. "We've had kids stand up on these balconies and piss and spit and throw objects. Obviously, we're not going to let that continue."