Four civic leaders of different ethnic backgrounds, including two African Americans, were named Tuesday by Mayor Betsy Price and the City Council to lead a city task force on race and culture aimed at addressing fallout from a December altercation between a black resident and a white police officer.
Rosa Navejar, former head of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Rios Group; Rabbi Andrew Bloom, with the Congregation Ahavath Sholom; Lillie Biggins, president of Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth; and Bob Ray Sanders, a former Star-Telegram columnist who is communications director with the Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce, will meet soon to create a structure for the group.
The task force, which will have as many as 25 members, is being formed in the wake of the arrest of Jacqueline Craig by police officer William Martin, which drew widespread attention after a video of the incident went viral. Craig called the police after a neighbor allegedly choked her son for littering, but an argument ensued and Martin was eventually suspended for using excessive force in arresting Craig and her daughter.
The incident heightened racial tensions in the city, leading some African-American leaders to demand that Martin be fired and to publicly rebuke Price, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald and City Manager David Cooke for how they handled the matter.
Cooke said the task force would hold community conversations, stressing that the intention is to be inclusive.
“We have multiple communities in our city,” he said. “It can’t be just black/white. It’s got to be about all the different cultures and all the different races.”
Price said Tuesday the city’s commitment as a compassionate community and the council’s reputation for being able to work together has been tested since the Craig event. But, she said, the council is committed to healing the community.
“Fort Worth is not perfect,” Price said. “I am certainly not perfect and have made many missteps as mayor, but I know this is a community that each of us loves dearly.
“There are race, income, education and cultural disparities in Fort Worth. As a council, we must be a united front in the community to help promote the work by the task force, all at the table and working together.”
The full task force won’t officially begin its work until August when the City Council returns from summer recess, with community meetings expected in September. Estrus Tucker, with Fairness Fort Worth, will serve as a paid consultant in the process. He is a former chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission.
We have multiple communities in our city; it can’t be just black/white. It’s got to be about all the different cultures and all the different races.
David Cooke, Fort Worth city manager
The group will work in tandem with the National League of Cities, which was invited to perform a community assessment for the city earlier this year and will now be used as a consultant.
The NLC’s Race Equity and Leadership program, or REAL, team conducted interviews and made observations in February, resulting in an 11-page report that offered recommendations that included taking a more comprehensive look into the perspectives, history and biases in Fort Worth.
It also recommended the community conversations.
The task force will also coordinate with the city’s Human Relations Commission, the Multicultural Alliance, Clergy and Police Alliance, Ministers Against Crime and Compassionate Fort Worth, the mayor’s faith-based committee.
And the city plans to begin a round of diversity training for city employees soon and will review city operations for disparity in the delivery of city services, Cooke said.
“It has taken us a really long time to get to this table today,” Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said. “But we are here. It has not been easy. I’m just asking that all of us have an open mind. We come to this very differently.”
‘We have a race issue’
Some minority leaders say they feel the Craig incident has reopened old wounds between the African-American community and the police department.
Since January, a small faction of the African-American community has frequently attended council meetings, demanding that the eight council members and Mayor Price do something — quickly and effectively.
“Let’s be honest, we have a race issue,” said Bishop Mark Kirkland of the Greater St. Mark Church in Fort Worth, at last week’s council meeting. “We have a police issue in the city of Fort Worth. We can no longer be in denial.
“If our mayor really wants our city to heal, quit trying to put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It’s going to be painful, but we’re going to have to lay everything on the table.”
Kirkland and the Rev. Michael Bell of Greater St. Stephen First Church are leaders of the group, which has expressed their anger during the citizen comment portion of council meetings.
Kevin “KL” Johnson, who unsuccessfully ran for the District 5 council seat in May, also often speaks. They’re joined in the audience by Craig, and sometimes a few dozen others.
Their criticisms against the council have included name calling and personal attacks. Much of it has been directed at Price, who has been called the “wicked witch of the south” and a liar. Several other council members and Cooke have also been called liars by the ministers.
Johnson told Cooke to “wipe the smirk off” his face, and Kirkland accused councilmen Cary Moon and Jungus Jordan of rolling their eyes when he spoke. Bell said to them, “You don’t give a fat rat about what happened to the community,” adding, “Fort Worth is a killing field,” and as racially divided as ever.
“You think we’re in antebellum days,” Bell said, referring to the years of slavery before the Civil War.
I don’t know what the answer is, but we’ve got to do something.
Brian Byrd, District 3 councilman
They have demanded that Fitzgerald and Cooke be fired, and that if Price doesn’t step up to the plate, that she be recalled. They also want a citizens’ review board with subpoena power on police practices. They want black officers Abdul Pridgen and Vance Keyes, who were demoted for their alleged involvement in leaking information in the Craig case, reinstated to their original ranks.
If their ultimatums are not met, they say they’ll return week after week until the mayor and council tire of their behavior and give in.
Council members have not responded during the meetings; they typically don’t respond to citizen presentations unless they’re directing someone to city staff for help.
However, some council members say they are meeting with African-American pastors in their districts about race issues.
Moon said frustration over the Craig incident has led to unnecessary name-calling, but said the council is addressing potential policy changes.
“In the end, I just try to put in perspective the sensitivity of the matter to everyone involved,” Moon said. “We as mayor and council are working to review and correct this sensitive matter.
“Investigations, administrative hearings, appeals and subsequent alternatives to the process take time. There is some citizen anxiousness and frustration that unfortunately leads to some unnecessary name-calling and personal attacks.”
Councilman Brian Byrd said he will start attending a prayer group this week with four African-American pastors in east Fort Worth including Jack Crane, pastor of Truevine Missionary Baptist Church on Miller Avenue.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but we’ve got to do something,” Byrd said. “This (council) needs to be in unity.”
Navejar and Bloom acknowledge that leading the task force will be a lot of work, but that the work is worth doing.
Navejar said she hopes the task force’s work will help to educate residents about ethnic and generational differences. It will also open up dialogue to get to the root of existing issues, she said.
“I love Fort Worth,” Navejar said. “The city has always embraced diversity. We need to work on building communities.”
Bloom said he sees his role as one of fostering trust. He said he also wants to advance the Bible teachings that God created man in his own image and to love your neighbor as yourself. Achieving peace in the community will mean listening more to each other, he said.
“To work on those two concepts as a community, we’ll see each other in a light that builds friendship, unity and trust,” Bloom said. “Trust is the key.”