Congressional hopeful from Florida’s 19th district makes stand with peaceful protesters, calls for removal of divisive statue as symbolic step toward dismantling systemic racism
Fort Myers, FL — June 1, 2020 — The murder of George Floyd has no place in our society. The United States was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet the way in which our society currently exists, black people face significant barriers to the pursuit of life and liberty, and in turn, happiness. When African Americans are murdered by police officers that are not upholding the sworn oath they took to serve and protect then our society is a shadow of what it should be.
Dr. Banyai laments “Local, state, and national leaders have failed to protect our black communities. Local leaders are more focused on helping themselves than helping the communities they serve, something I have seen repeatedly over the past decade as I have watched leaders disregard reports I have made on minority communities as nothing more than just a piece of paper that they use to cross off their checklists. Politicians want to demean protesters, yet they don’t offer any solutions to the problems at hand of systemic racism and police brutality.”
The protesters who march peacefully through our streets are doing everything in their power to demand accountability for the murder of George Floyd and for an end to racism in the United States. Dr. Banyai expresses her support for the protesters. “With all my heart, I would like to be out supporting the protesters, however due to the pandemic and having a vulnerable daughter with underlying health conditions, I am still unable to leave my house for her safety. I support the protesters that are marching through the streets and peacefully protesting that leaders be held accountable for the murder of George Floyd, and I share my condolences to his family and all the families across this country that have been affected by racially motivated violence. This must end now.”
Working to dismantle systemic racism here is especially important given the fraught racial history in Southwest Florida. Lee County School District did not desegregate until 1999 and come out of federal oversight until 2004, despite the initial lawsuit being filed in 1964. Dunbar High School in Fort Myers was the only black high school in Southwest Florida with black students bused in from Punta Gorda, Naples, and across Lee and Collier Counties. It was not until 1963 when black people were allowed to sit in the Lee County Courthouse and Commission chamber where a painting of General Lee has hung since 1931. The Fort Myers train station closed in 1971 never having desegregated. Fort Myers was a Union fort and the county was named after General Robert E. Lee as a direct affront to the victory of the United States over the confederate rebellion in the Civil War. Robert E. Lee has no other affiliation with the area other than the honorary designation and the commission of the statue by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1966, a time period that coincides with the desegregation movement in the area. There is also a history of lynching, continued de facto residential segregation, as well as internal and external racial issues with the Fort Myers Police Department as documented by the Freeh Report.
Call to Action
It is necessary to craft solutions together to ensure the safety of all members of our community. The first step is removing the bust of General Robert E. Lee from downtown Fort Myers, as well as all other public effigies of the leader of this unsuccessful rebellion against the United States of America. This small effort would demonstrate the commitment of Southwest Florida leaders to dismantling systemic racism, first from the public image, then from the institutions themselves.
Next steps include a commitment to invest in building positive relations between the police and the community and implicit bias training for law enforcement and public officials, as well as enacting recommendations to eliminate the racial problems in the Fort Myers Police Department. Efforts need to be made around criminal justice reform and reinterpreting qualified immunity related to racially motivated incidents and violence. Local leaders should also be working on a community-led process for reconciliation for the years of harsh and unequal treatment levied against the black community by the powerful of the region. Dr. Banyai implores “Let’s work together to make that change now.”