The mood at Sunday night’s town hall discussion on the “State of Black Birmingham” can perhaps be summed up with a comment made by panelist Martez Files as he abruptly got up and left the daïs.
“People are in the streets dying and the mayor can’t stop playing solitaire on his phone,” he said referring to fellow panelist Mayor William Bell.
Bell, who was 45 minutes late to the event, maintained he was merely texting his constituents in the audience.
The town hall event was hosted by the Jefferson County Millennial Democrats and featured speakers such as Bell, Files (a community activist), Birmingham School Board President Wardine Alexander, Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin, community activist Frank Matthews and Democratic nominee for District Attorney Charles Henderson, who filled in after Brandon Falls declined to attend.
According to Le’Darius Hillard, president of the Millennial Democrats and one of the town hall’s moderators, Falls initially agreed to attend but later backed out, saying, “I don’t have anything to add to the conversation since I’m not black.” Falls did not return calls seeking clarification.
Falls’ absence was the cause for Matthews to get up and leave halfway through the event as well. “I’m sick of panels, personally,” Matthews said, explaining to the audience that he had only agreed to participate if Falls were in attendance. “Since he didn’t show up, the biggest problem I have with Brandon Falls…anytime the police shoot somebody, he justifies more than 99 percent of police shootings in the city of Birmingham. I need to ask him why.”
Matthews also cited a situation in which a “white police officer pepper sprayed a black police officer, put his hand on his service revolver and said he was going to end up in a body bag.” While Matthews did not specify the details of the incident he was referring to, he said that discrepancies in the way certain people are prosecuted is an issue that plague black communities in Birmingham.
Panelists all seemed to agree, however, that problems for African-American communities in Birmingham can be traced to educational opportunities, or the lack thereof, in the city.
“One of the primary goals we have is to ensure that we have not only a graduate, but a qualified graduate,” Alexander said. “We want to make sure our students are college and career ready.” As of 2014, Birmingham posted a 78 percent graduation rate, a 12 percent increase from 2013. But according to a recent ACT Aspire reading assessment only 35 percent of Central Alabama third graders were on grade level, which, according to some of those on the panel, is cause for concern, regardless of the city schools increasing graduation rates.
“We miss key populations of students,” Files said, prior to his departure. “There are programs for our high performing students and there are programs for our low performing students. But we miss this group in the middle called striving students, C-plus students. There’s never initiatives targeted at them.
“We also need to do away with the notion that black parents don’t care about their kids,” Files said. “They love their kids just like everybody else. It’s not that they don’t want to show up for PTA meetings, it’s that many of them work 4:00 to 12:00. It’s that education seems only accessible to certain people. We have to change the way we engage communities.”
In 2015 Birmingham voted to increase the ad valorem tax in order to fund an expansion of pre-K classes offered. Bell believes this was a step in the right direction.
“When you look back upon the history of Birmingham School Systems, integration took the place of segregation,” Bell said. “Not only did people flee the city school system but they took the resources with them. When you have a declining population and a declining property base that affects the funding for the schools that are collected through those taxes. When you couple that with the fact that legislation down in the state capital are set up more to help suburban schools as opposed to inner city schools, it’s a continuation of the decline of resources coming to schools.”
From a law enforcement perspective, Henderson said that education is strongly correlated to the criminal justice system. “Everything goes back to education being the foundation… If we’re investing our resources there, the criminal justice system will take care of itself,” Henderson said.
“We don’t need prison reform, what we really need [is] criminal justice reform,” Henderson continued. “That includes setting up policies that prevent racial profiling that has been done in our criminal justice system. Now, I’m a white boy. Here’s what a white boy sees when he walks into a courtroom: He sees a white judge. He sees a white prosecutor and he’s represented by white guy. If he’s black what’s the perception there? ‘I don’t have a chance.’”
While Birmingham has been able to skirt the high-profile racial unrest between police and civilians that has broken out across the country in recent years, members of the community still have their doubts about the effectiveness of the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative which targets individuals who may be likely to commit a violent crime.
“As it relates to policing, every African-American male in here, at some point in time has had a run in with the police, whether justified or unjustified,” Bell said. “It’s not all black and white. We have individuals who are preying on our communities. We have individuals who are robbing, stealing, hitting people upside the head. And we expect police to take control of this.”
Asked what he believes the definition of community policing is, Bell responded, “It’s making people aware of what they can do in their own communities to reduce crime. It’s understanding the root cause of poverty and crime…We want police and citizens on the same chord. We don’t want the wild, wild west out there.”
Speaking to the issues surrounding poverty in Birmingham, Austin touched on a piece of legislation he hopes can have a positive impact on households that may be struggling to put food on the table.
“We’re working right now on a neighborhood stabilization program,” Austin said. “We’ve submitted this information to the law department as well as a food tax rebate program.”
The neighborhood stabilization program, Austin explained, would address issues surrounding gentrification. “We’re not saying we don’t want our neighborhoods to grow,” Austin said. “What we’re not going to do is stand by and let citizens who have invested their lives and generations into a neighborhood be pushed out by higher rent and things like that to make way for new development. We want new development too. Part of that program would be put in place to address that.”
While the city has invested millions of dollars into downtown, Austin said the council needs to focus their efforts more on neighborhoods. That is something Austin said he hopes the food tax rebate can accomplish.
“A large portion of our citizens are suffering,” Austin said. “We have an opportunity to put in place a program that would allow our seniors and anyone below poverty a rebate on the taxes they are spending on food.”
In a memo dated August 9, 2016, Assistant City Attorney Tracy Roberts outlined several issues with the aforementioned proposed city ordinances. “While the concept of Food Sales Tax Rebate is laudable, I find no statutory authority for the city to provide tax rebate of sales tax collected. A municipality may not exceed its corporate power.” Roberts also said that it remains unclear who would be entitled to the rebate and cited concerns about the “self-reporting” of the applicant’s household income.
The proposed ordinance states that applicants must be full-time citizens and must submit their applications for the rebate to the city’s law department. Applicants may be eligible if they are over 65 years of age or if their income falls below the minimum household requirement of $13,450 for an individual.
Austin said he is hopeful this proposed ordinance can alleviate some of the stress on poor communities in Birmingham.