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The NAACP's national convention this past week in Miami Beach was a big deal. It's an honor that such a prestigious national organization chose us for its annual gathering spot. It makes sense, too. All our racial strife aside, diversity isn't just a politically correct buzzword here; it's a hot, sweaty, funky lifestyle. Hell, we're so diverse the head of our local NAACP chapter is a white guy!
The NAACP's visit was also symbolic, a declared truce after the black boycott of Miami, which was the result of county leaders snubbing Nelson Mandela during a 1990 visit because the South African Nobel laureate once thanked Fidel Castro for his support.
It makes sense, then, that civic leaders at all levels wanted to put our best image forward in order to show how enlightened we are -- a community of progress, openness, tolerance.
Meet Rev. Willie Sims, the county's point man for that effort. Sims, special projects director for the county's Community Relations Board (CRB), heads a team of volunteer "goodwill ambassadors" who hit the streets during big events, protests, volatile trial verdicts, or full-blown riots to ease tensions. In this case, they were out to make sure the NAACP delegates felt welcome. But Sims is a strange choice for that job. He has repeatedly shown that his toilet tongue causes more turmoil than calm.
As I write this, the convention is just getting under way, and I'm hoping Sims doesn't do something stupid. Especially since his epithet-laced speech and lewd comments to women so outraged goodwill ambassadors two months ago during the Memorial Day weekend on South Beach that he was yanked from the program, ordered into counseling, and accused of scaring away volunteers.
Sims is a fiery Baptist preacher whose sermons routinely appear to contradict the work he does as a community peacemaker for the CRB. Some might even say he makes for an unlikely preacher, a former gang member with a four-decade-old conviction for attempted rape. But his supporters say his strength is that he can speak the language of the streets -- though perhaps a little too fluently.
In 1991 Sims implored his congregants to boycott businesses in Miami because of the Mandela snub, adding angrily that he felt like a foreigner in his own town because of all the Spanish spoken here. County Manager Joaquin Aviño suspended Sims for three days, contending that he'd inflamed racial and ethnic tensions while employed to ease those very tensions. Sims sued, charging that his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated. But a federal appeals court tore into the reverend, stating in its decision: "The First Amendment does not require that Sims be allowed to continue his weekday employment drenching the fires of racial animosity for the department, while he fans those flames during his weekend sermons."
In 2000 Sims yelled at a CRB board member during a meeting: "Kiss my ass!" He was yanked from his job but reinstated after supporters in the black clergy protested.
This year Sims outdid himself.
On May 27, Deborah Reed, a volunteer with the goodwill ambassadors program, announced she was quitting because of Sims. In an e-mail sent to Larry Capp, executive director of the CRB, Reed asserted that Sims had been exceptionally harsh during an organizational meeting for the Memorial Day weekend. "I have tolerated the language that Mr. Sims uses for the last time," she wrote. "He looked at the back of the room and made some awful remarks!!! The one that really disgusted and angered me was the statement: Get the F--K out of here!!!!!! I am not going to tolerate this type of language anymore. As far as I am concerned, I no longer consider myself a goodwill ambassador. I'm sorry but I cannot adhere to conduct of this nature."
An alarmed Capp e-mailed Gene Hitchens, community relations assistant, the same day. "Gene, were you present during this incident? Please call me regarding this episode when you get this message."
Hitchens responded: "Sims used so much foul language during this event that she needs to be more specific as to the time of day. Be prepared for other reports complaining about the way ambassadors felt they were talked to in the gathering area."
Capp asked Sims to respond. The clergyman apologized to both Capp and Reed, saying he wasn't directing his comments at her directly, he just got carried away. On May 29 Capp followed up with a harsh reprimand, blaming Sims for a drop in volunteer participation. "I attribute this in large measure to your unacceptable behavior," Capp wrote. "This refers to your use of profanity as well as inappropriate remarks of a sexual nature that you have directed to our female volunteers." Capp removed Sims as the supervisor of the ambassador program, prevented him from work-related out-of-town travel for two months, and ordered him to undergo counseling.
On June 2, Sims huffily tried to defend himself in an e-mail titled "Rebuttal to Accusations." In sum, he claimed he was just trying to keep it real, dawg. "As the director I was aware of the type of crowd that my volunteers would be confronted with. The 'Hip-Hop Generation' uses a lot of profane language. I brought this to the attention of all the Goodwill Ambassadors. I did not want them to get intimidated when they heard this language....