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Florida Matters: Black Voices In Tampa Bay Matter

Brian Butler is a former Army officer, president and CEO of his own Tampa company, and African American.

That last definition has defined much of his life - including being stopped several times for no reason other than his color. In the wake of protests and riots after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Butler was moved to write an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times.

Florida Matters talks to Butler about whether he's grown accustomed to being profiled and whether he harbors any bitterness because of it.

The pent-up anger of many people - people of all races - is evident in the voices of some of the people who were peacefully protesting this weekend in Tampa. We talk to several of them, and to WUSF multimedia reporter Daylina Miller, who recorded their concerns.

This is a portion of our conversation with Brian Butler, President and Founder of Vistra Communications, LLC, in Tampa. He wrote this opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times.

A lot of people have been really amazed at the intensity of the demonstrations that have rippled through the country in the wake of George Floyd being killed at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. Does this intensity and the widespreadness of the response surprise you at all?

No, actually, it does not surprise me. And there's been indications over the last couple of years, as we've seen so many episodes explored across the country, that people are generally tired. And while much of the frustration is directed at the local law enforcement agencies, it's really, in my opinion, it goes well beyond that, that tiredness, when you see it goes well beyond this.

Have you been personally affected by this? You're a successful business leader, retired officer. And you obviously have a certain gravitas about you. Have you had any run-ins personally, that you can tell us about?

Brian Butler
Credit courtesy Brian Butler
Brian Butler

I think that people of color, African Americans, often experience different types of biases in their normal everyday life. You know, if you and I were to walk into a high-end department store, and you went in one door and I went in the other, there's a greater chance that some undercover security person is going to follow me around than follow you; there's a greater chance that if you and I were both doing the same thing, that the cameras in the store would pick up on me well before they picked up on you; if you and I were stopped by law enforcement, and we both were doing 12 miles over (the speed limit), there's just a greater chance that I'd get a ticket and you won't.

And those biases and unconscious biases that many carry with them every day affect decisions they make that affect others. And those are just things that many people live with every day, how they look. How long is their hair, the things that they wear, you know, whether they're represented in a boardroom, whether their viewpoints are represented.

When people don't understand things, they tend to fear them. Because people fear those things they tend to not want to let go or to not really appreciate a lot to be a part of change, to help things get better, mainly out of fear.

You just mentioned a lack of understanding. Do you think that you, even after all this time that has elapsed since the Civil Rights Movement really got underway in the 50s, that there is still a lack of understanding between groups in this country or is it getting any better?

Yeah, I do think it's better. It's much better, but we're still not there. We're a long way from being there. Because there is truly a lack of understanding.

Let's see what my parents fought in the Civil Rights Movement.  My mama was at the March on Washington in 1963, she took the Freedom Train there. And she has to have a conversation with her grandkids today - the same conversation that she had with me and my siblings 45 years ago, close to 50 years ago.

You tell me - are things changing?

You had a very interesting passage in your op-ed that you wrote about your experiences when you were an Army captain and you were in Georgia and you got pulled over. Could you just reach back there and give us a picture of what happened to you then?

New truck, headed down to the Tallahassee area. Go spend Thanksgiving with my family. I was speeding, be the first admit I was speeding, listening to music late in the evening, and it was raining. And I passed the police officer. You know, we passed each other, he turned, I started looking for a place to pull over because I knew I was speeding. I found a place to pull off and he approached me.

Like I shared with my son - roll the window down, put your hands up on the on the steering wheel, because I knew I needed to do that. And when he got to the car, his gun was pulled and he literally had it in my face. And he was screaming, and he tried to, you know, his point was I was trying to get away from him, which was just ridiculous.

And as I got out of the car, you know, he spread my legs and pushed my head down onto the hood. And I'm still yelling, and by the end, there's a couple more cops there. And then a supervisor pulls up.

And as a supervisor pulls up, I guess one of the cops was talking to him and he came over and he just immediately de-escalated the situation. But I think about what may have happened, had the supervisor not pulled up.

Do you have any bitterness from these experiences? You don't sound like a bitter person. You sound like somebody who's prone to more forgiveness and bitterness. But, I mean, there's got to be some kind of bitter feelings left over from all this - do you do you feel that way at all?

I don't have time to be bitter. If I chose to be bitter, it would likely get in the way of the things that I believe are the most important. So I think we all have to make decisions. I think there's a lot of bitter people out there right now, and I understand why, but I'd rather be a part of the solution and help advance the ball forward for the next generation of kids, for my kids, and my one day grandkids. So I just refuse to settle and be better.

The outrage that has engulfed cities throughout the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd has some comparing it to the riots after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in 1968. The pent-up anger of many people, people of all races, was evident in the voices of some of the people who peacefully protested this past weekend in Tampa.

WUSF multimedia reporter Daylina Miller interviewed several people at Sunday’s protests in Tampa.

Daylina, tell me about the mood of the crowds you witnessed and what was the main message that they're trying to get across?

Daylina Miller
Credit WUSF Public Media
Daylina Miller

So I was out at Cypress Green Park in East Tampa on Sunday, and most of the protesters there were just trying to convey their grief and their anger over the killing of George Floyd and others by police in recent months.

Many of them said that most of the people associated with burning down the Champs Sports store in Tampa, and some of the vandalism that happened, were not associated with the daytime protests and events that were happening. So there was a lot of frustration with that, a lot of conflicting feelings on everything else that was happening.

But the people that were there Sunday were really trying to express their grief and their anger over a system that they feel is oppressing them. And so most of the people I spoke to just wanted to meet up in solidarity, especially during a time where most of us have been at home for a few months because of the coronavirus pandemic. So they wanted to get together in person as safely as possible for everybody to feel this sense of solidarity and community in a way that you really can't do online.

People were handing out water, people were handing out masks, people were stationed around as medics, so everybody was trying to do their best to balance what we need to do to be safe with the coronavirus and also what we need to do to be safe when it comes to institutionalized racism because public health experts have said racism is just as much of a hazard to our health as the coronavirus is, if not more so.

The sense I'm getting from most of the stories that I've been reading, in the video footage that I've been seeing, is a sense of frustration, a lack of progress, despite all the talk that's been done over the decades. Is that what you saw, or was there a more hopeful note, at least in the daytime protests?

I think it was both. I think it was both frustration and hope, sort of that idea of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. So these demonstrations have been happening in various forms for a long time. And a lot of people don't feel like the dial has moved at all, especially since 2016. And so people are very hopeful that moving forward that their message is going to be received, but they're not really seeing a lot of change.

You know, we've seen a lot of peaceful protests over the years, and people have lost their jobs over peaceful protests, people have been banned from sports associations because of protests. And so some people feel like this is the only way for them to be heard, for things to get a little more loud, and some people feel more volatile.

Protests are as American as apple pie, going back to the founding of this republic. The violence that happened afterwards and a lot of people are going to try to play that up, but let's stick to the underlying message that these people are trying to get across. Did you feel a message of hopefulness or maybe of people shrugging their shoulders saying things where there were changes to the way it's always been?

People seem to be hopeful that this will make a difference because it has made a difference in the past. I mean, racism is something that we've been battling for a very long time. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to be anything that goes away anytime soon.

But change has been made that we have made, baby steps forward in terms of rights for various vulnerable populations. And so people are hopeful that now is the time for that to happen again.

And so I did sense a lot of hopefulness from people and there was a lot, you know, it was a serious march, and people were sad and frustrated, and there were some yelling at police officers and angry chanting, but people were also laughing and enjoying each other's company and supporting one another and helping people that got sick in the heat and handing out water bottles.

Protesters march in Tampa
Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Protesters at Cyrus Greene Park in Tampa

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Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.