The SEIU’s People’s Budget Review held a local forum on Thursday June 15th at The Sunshine Center so that the nine district 6 candidates could have an opportunity to hear out the concerns of the community. The description of the event read: “You’ll be able to engage in dialogue with candidates for the District 6 race and hear them respond to how they will be supporting the People’s agenda.”
The open forum quickly became a battle royale. Most candidates were obviously fighting in the interest of prime real estate, while others were engaged in a vested struggle against police violence and gentrification.
During introductions, it was clear that some candidates did not come to address the people, but rather to sling a mud at one another and cover up their recent scandalous conduct.
Corey Givens opened by stating, “[m]any of you already know me and if you don’t know me perhaps you’ve read allegations about me…”
He continued sternly, “I’ve addressed it!” Givens was referencing the recent reports of him taking a $500.00 campaign donation from an elderly woman and putting it in his personal account.
He was also referencing the exposé in 2012 that brought to light that Givens lied about his associates degree from St. Petersburg College, bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and having a master’s from University of South Florida.
Maria Scruggs was visibly nervous as she stated: “I will say to all, this is a race for student…[pauses] for City Council, not student council.” Scruggs was taking an obvious stab at the youngest candidate, 20-year-old Eritha Akilé Cainion who was student body president at St Petersburg Collegiate High School in 2015.
Eritha Akilé Cainion presented her opening statement: “Good evening, my name is Eritha Akilé Cainion running for District 6 city council and I am also the Chair of the Justice for the Three Drowned Black Girls Campaign. I feel it is important to acknowledge that because it shows a true, genuine person who’s been in the community fighting for social and economic justice.”
Cainion also agreed with the People’s Budget Review’s New Deal for St. Pete agenda. “Everything you just talked about is on my platform for reparations and economic development.” The crowd gave her a roaring applause.
The forum then opened up to the citizens of St Petersburg. A veteran St. Petersburg teacher stood up to say, “in my thirty plus years of service I have been led by some tremendous student leaders… so my question is, what are you going to do to protect the students of south side St. Pete against police harassment?”
One concerned African mother said, “I noticed other races get to gather freely without a military police presence at the function. But when black people want to gather we get heavy police presence that resembles Iraq or Afghanistan. So what are y’all going to do to stop that?”
“We need to come up with a strategy to help the homeless,” one woman said. A young Gibbs student made a powerful closing remark: “[l]ast year, Alton Witchard was murdered outside of my house and due to gentrification, a month later my family was forced out of our home. So what are y’all going to do to stop gentrification?”
The crowd consistently presented comments and questions that centered on concerns about police harassment, a failing school system, and the attacks from gentrification. A slew of commenters also asked the candidates if they could state their stance on reparations to the black community.
An elderly Caucasian woman said, “I know that our white communities have been systematically built at the expense of the black community, so I need a candidate that supports reparations. Can you speak to that?”
Jesse Nevel, the mayoral candidate running along with Akilé Cainion on a platform of unity through reparations, asked the candidates, “what you will do to end the legacy of gentrification, land grabbing and police containment represented by Karl Nurse?”
Sadly, most candidates ignored the plight of the roomful of citizens and continued to mudsling and defend their public image.
Scruggs again referred to 30 years of “proven results,” including her work as the President of the NAACP. To prove that she has fought for black interests, Scruggs cited her decision to move the Freedom Fund, a posh fundraising dinner for wealthy donors, from the Hilton to a location on the south side. Murmurs and stifled laughter rippled throughout the crowd of nearly 200.
Robert Blackmon, Jim Jackson, Corey Givens Jr. and James Scott responded by labeling the predicaments that the crowd laid out as “divisive rhetoric.” James Scott said, “I understand my ancestors hurt your ancestors…but now it’s time to hold hands.” Corey Givens, an African American, said the reparations that the crowd pleaded for were “unreasonable” and “too radical.”
Despite multiple attacks on her age and bold radical stance, Akilé Cainion handled herself with the poise of a natural born leader who connected with the passion of the crowd. “Uniting the people means addressing the injustice and oppression faced by our community,” stated Akilé as the crowd cheered.
Akilé laid out the specific policy plans she has developed to unify St. Pete through reparations to the black community. “Black community control of the schools, black community control of the police, genuine black community economic development,” Akilé explained. “The only reason these demands of the people are radical is because it’s going up against a status quo, an oppressive system of gentrification and politicians that sellout to land grabbers.” She also called out current District 6 Councilman Karl Nurse as “one of the biggest landgrabbers in the city.”
The moderators of the event could not contain the uproarious applause of the crowd as audience members leapt to their feet.
As Akilé took her seat and tried to hand the mic to another candidate to give their three-minute rebuttal, the other candidates stared in silence at the microphone like it was radioactive.
The debate was clear from the packed room and the exuberance of the over 200 people that this campaign will define the future of the black community in district 6. A participant was asked, “Why do you think so many people came out tonight?” Jordan Smith, 16, responded, “They say black people don’t vote, but the real issue is that black people have never had anything to vote for. Well, now we do.”
The primary election is August 29th.