Beneath the hot summer sun, dozens of activists from across South Florida gathered on the lawn in front of Hollywood City Hall yesterday. Some wore floral shirts, others held loudspeakers, and others had violet hair. They were all drawn together by one goal: to call for renaming Forrest Street, a public road commemorating the life of the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
After a daylong protest, the process to have commissioners vote on a renaming was officially been put into motion — but not before five activists were arrested and one resident paid $6,000 to start the process.
It all began with the activists, sweat on their foreheads, chanting in unison that Lee, Hood, and Forrest Streets had to change. Their names all memorialize well-known racists. Of the three roads, the most controversial is the last.
Founding members of the Ku Klux Klan asserted that Forrest, a Confederate general, was their first leader, AKA grand wizard — a title historians believe stems from Forrest's nickname "Wizard of the Saddle." He was infamous for his lightning raids on Union soldiers during the Civil War. The street named in his honor cuts right through the heart of Liberia, Hollywood's historic black neighborhood. Many locals, especially black residents with homes on that street, have argued for years that it is psychologically "abusive" living on a street named after the "Devil," another nickname for Forrest, one given to him by Ulysses S. Grant because of his murderous impulses, particularly toward minorities.
"Take them down," Carlos Valnera, who stood at the center of dozens of activists, yelled about the streets honoring the Confederate generals. "Take them down once and for all!"
At the demonstration, the activists were met with opponents. People affiliated with Save Southern Heritage Florida argued across the police-filled yard that keeping Forrest Street's name intact was about preserving their Southern heritage. But activists supporting changing the streets' names point out there are no streets in Hollywood named in honor of the Southern slaves who were sold and died at the hands of racists such as Forrest. Because of that omission, it seems some lives matter more than others.
As things grew heated on the lawn, within the commission chambers five young people chanted in unison for a renaming. Police ousted them from the room and then arrested them. Afterward, some pro-change activists said they felt so intimidated by the white nationalists and other Forrest Street supporters that they gave false addresses so they couldn't be found after the commission meeting.
Because of the intense atmosphere, and police who seemed chummy with the white supremacists, some activists in support of changing Forrest Street's name felt increasingly unsafe. The air became so heavy with threats and slurs that some activists left in fear for their safety and that of their children.
Some white supremacists did the Hitler salute during the demonstration, but nobody was physically harmed. That said, many activists persisted vocally, via songs and loudspeakers, about having city leaders address the issue, which commissioners have been silent about — to many locals' dismay — for several months.
Inside city hall, toward the end of the commission meeting, numerous locals spoke about the event during the public comment segment. Opponents of changing the streets' names made several questionable arguments: that the nation's history of slavery doesn't affect black people today; that spending money to change the street signs inconveniences white residents; that changing the names would cause America to forget and repeat its history. One person argued that Lee Street should stay because her dog's name is Lee.
After proponents of keeping the names intact chimed in, many pro-renaming activists spoke. Though the activists were impassioned, the commission seemed open to consider the renaming of Forrest Street only if the process was formally begun with an application, including paying about $2,000 for each street. Many in the room didn't expect what happened next: A woman named Laurie Schecter stepped forward and stated she had, earlier that day, formally filed an application to change the names of all three streets in question, and paid the city $6,000.
The commissioners all seemed to side with the pro-renaming crowd. Commissioner Traci Callari alluded she leaned toward changing the streets' names, saying that change, at the end, is "gorgeous." Commissioner Richard Blattner said outright he was in favor of a renaming. When it was Commissioner Kevin Biederman's chance to speak, he asked fellow city leaders to immediately vote on the issue (Biederman is likewise in favor of a renaming). However, Commissioner Linda Sherwood, who also alluded she was onboard with changing the streets' names, said she thought it was appropriate to give people with homes on those streets notice before a commission vote was formally made.
Mayor Josh Levy, who's reportedly in favor of a renaming, echoed Sherwood's stance and asked city leaders to defer an official vote to a currently unknown date. Nevertheless, city leaders' actions yesterday, especially Biederman's immediate call to action on the matter, encouraged many activists.
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"I really appreciate Commissioner Biederman for sharing in our outrage over the consistent delays to take any action on the streets," Wendy King, an organizer of the protest, tells New Times. "He seems to be the only one on the commission with common sense who actually wants to get things done."
It seems many of the commissioners are aware that Forrest, Lee, and Hood Streets have strong discriminatory, racist ideals behind them. That said, in order for the streets' names to be changed, five of the seven city leaders must agree. Yesterday five of the seven seemed onboard. With Schecter's application and payment, it appears at least Forrest Street's name will finally be changed.
You can watch video of the Hollywood Regular City Commission Meeting at the City of Hollywood website.