A Constant State of Rage

In Delray Beach, cops have a remarkable history of shooting black suspects — with impunity

The shooting came at a time when the city's relationship with the black community was particularly strained. One of the most valuable lines of communication between the two groups had been the Village Foundation, a black-oriented nonprofit that ran afterschool and summer programs and also organized homeowner groups. But the foundation shut down last year after losing most of its funding because of questions about how it handled public funds. At the same time, the local NAACP and some black leaders have squabbled about how to proceed during the weeks after the shooting.

"Before, with the foundation, the city used to have someone they could talk to and figure it all out," explains William Harris, a consultant for nonprofit agencies in South Florida involved with black issues. "There's no one to go to now, no bridges that exist."

Thus, when Delray Mayor Jeff Perlman formed an advisory committee to review what steps could be taken to bridge the fissure between the black community and the Police Department, some questioned its legitimacy.

Mayor Jeff Perlman concedes that many of Delray's black citizens mistrust City Hall, but he's made working on race relations a priority.
Mayor Jeff Perlman concedes that many of Delray's black citizens mistrust City Hall, but he's made working on race relations a priority.
Romaine Martin, with the NAACP, criticizes Delray's mayor for not listening to the people who have been affected most by racism.
Colby Katz
Romaine Martin, with the NAACP, criticizes Delray's mayor for not listening to the people who have been affected most by racism.
Delray Beach

"We felt strongly that if you're going to address the problem, you need people who are affected by the problem to be part of the dialogue," says Romaine Martin, president of the local NAACP chapter.

The initial fury over the shooting has metastasized into a general cynicism for some of Delray's black citizens. The 31-member Black Community Task Force, which formed during a period of unity after Jerrod's death, is now largely dormant — but the reasons it came into existence in the first place live on. In June, the task force sent a memo outlining the race-related issues it believed the city must face. "To be black in Delray," the memo began, "is to live in a constant state of rage."

Black and white residents of Delray Beach coexisted agreeably during the first part of the 20th Century, although the town was clearly segregated. Swinton Avenue, which runs north and south a few blocks west of U.S. Highway 1, was — and in many ways still is — the dividing line: whites to the east, blacks to the west. In fact, a concrete wall along the avenue once partitioned off much of the black neighborhood, which had unpaved roads and shanties into the 1950s. Blacks still had access to the beach, however, and the town had one of the few high schools for blacks, which teenagers from surrounding towns attended.

But as the town's farm-based economy gave way to tourism after World War II, tensions built. By the early 1950s, tourism accounted for about 75 percent of the city's revenues, and many of Delray's officials and business owners discouraged blacks, who numbered almost half of the 8,300 residents, from using the beach. As a result, some of Delray's black residents staged a "wade-in" on the public beach in 1955, according to a documentary produced around that time by WTVK-TV Channel 4 in Miami. Their demands for the use of a decent stretch of beach or a new swimming pool were met by the City Commission's "exclusion resolution," which proposed ejecting the black neighborhoods from the city. One former mayor told the TV station that integration was "bad for the economy."

The city eventually built the swimming pool on the west side of town, but the Swinton Avenue dividing line has remained a formidable one, even after full school integration came in 1970.

"The blacks knew their place in that order," explains Dennis Murray, a black Delray native who worked for the city for 30 years. With longish hair and a face that looks much younger than his 60 years, Murray speaks deliberately about how race relations in his hometown mirror the nation's. "If you went to a restaurant, you were not allowed to go inside and order; they had a hole in the back where the blacks had to go to order the food. For a lot of the older folks, the perception is still that you can't go across Swinton at certain times."

The contrast between the east and west sides are glaring. On any given night, well-heeled diners exit I-95 on Atlantic Avenue. As they travel east, they pass brick sidewalks, lamp lighting, luscious landscaping, and newly built retail space — much of which replaced the razed stores and eateries that once served the black neighborhood. Downtown Delray, just east of Swinton, is now home to swank restaurants with alfresco dining beneath elegant canopies. After 5 p.m., on-street parking spaces convert to valet only. The crowd is mostly white.

This high-end playground didn't happen by accident; it evolved from the city's years-long redevelopment plan, which includes condo/townhouse projects with lofty names like the Strand, Astor, and City Walk. None is aimed at affordable housing in any practical sense. And although some black residents benefited when the city bought their properties to make way for development, many residents of western Delray wonder why some of this money hasn't been lobbed in their direction.

"Right now, it's about money, about Caucasian people coming and spending money downtown," says Willie Potts, a black activist and a member of the black task force. "That's fine, but they gotta understand, that's not our scene. We can't afford no $10 for a drink or $40 for a meal. There's a lot of people in the community that make $200 a week."

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