A Black woman was swimming. The police were called. She was kicked out.
In an all too familiar scenario nowadays that is what happened to G Wright Muir, a local Black and LGBT activist on July 19.
“It was surreal to see three police officers walk onto the pool deck,” Wright Muir told SFGN. “I noticed one rest his hand on his gun, and I announced that we were unarmed. I felt vulnerable. I was concerned for our safety. I was frustrated by the unwillingness of the police to be fair to me and my son.”
Ironically the incident happened at a park named in honor of a Black man.
Once known as Sunland Park, it's now named for longtime City of Fort Lauderdale Parks & Recreation Director Joseph C. Carter. For more than 40 years, Carter worked tirelessly to make parks and programs accessible to black families.
Wright Muir’s name may look familiar — SFGN featured her in last year’s OUT50, an annual list spotlighting local members of the LGBT community. She’s an attorney, a law professor, a writer, and an LGBT advocate. She is also the founder of Thou Art Woman, a creative community for LBT women in the arts.
But that day at the pool what seemed to matter most is that Wright Muir is black.
She and her son planned to swim laps together at the pool. Once in the water, they had a conversation about how long they wanted to swim. A lane separated the two. A white woman was swimming in the lane between them. She told Wright Muir and her son to “stop talking over her lane.”
According to a spokesperson with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department the white woman was concerned about COVID-19.
Wright Muir said she offered to switch lanes so that she could be next to her son. But the woman refused. She then escalated the issue by complaining to the lifeguard. Wright Muir asked the lifeguard if talking was prohibited and was told no.
According to Wright Muir the other swimmer pressed on. She said the white woman threatened to call the lifeguard’s boss if he didn't call the police.
According to bodycam footage SFGN obtained from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, it showed a staffer telling the officers he shut down the pool to "defuse the situation." Bodycam footage shows the officer telling everyone at the pool they had to leave including Wright Muir and her son. Many of the individuals did not immediately obey the officer's orders and had to be told repeatedly to leave.
"Ma'am, will you please get out of the pool," the officer told the white woman as he walked up to Wright Muir. Wright Muir then told the officer "she has harassed us the entire morning. Now we all have to get out of the pool. She is still in the pool."
The officer then recommended another pool Wright Muir could use that was open.
"We need her to leave her as well," Wright Muir told the officer in which he replied, "yeah she's leaving, I already told her."
The white woman then attempted to delay leaving by arguing with the officer about her being video recorded.
“Being rendered powerless in front of my son was dehumanizing, and I felt great anguish that my son was also rendered powerless in front of me. I was proud to hear my son boldly persuading the police to treat us the same as they were treating the white woman,” Wright Muir said. “But I was saddened that we both had to witness how her privilege allows her to disobey the police without consequence while we had to obey because for us it can be a matter of life or death.”
Exactly one week after the event, the non-profit Diversity in Aquatics held a swim-in at Carter Park pool to bring attention to the incident and start the restorative justice process. According to its website, the mission of Diversity in Aquatics is to educate, promote, and support swimming and healthy aquatics activities for vulnerable populations.
People came out to support that mission and Wright Muir.
“We all needed it,” said Thaddeus Gamory, of Diversity in Aquatics. “We needed to do something that did not just put the white woman in her place and angrily tell the police agency and the pool staff about themselves. But in the process, we had to self-empower and self-care because we couldn't be done with marching and not necessarily healed ourselves.”
That support, coupled with the element of healing, was meaningful to Wright Muir.
“I was anxious about going back to that pool just a week after the incident,” she explained. “A part of me honestly didn’t want to ever go back there. But the swim-in created a safe, supportive space for us to return embraced by an entire community. It was such a beautiful feeling to see so many people come out to show their love, concern, and solidarity. The swim-in allowed us to reclaim the water and that space.”
The pool was reclaimed from systemic racism and white privilege, according to Gamory.
“Implicit bias operates that a black family in a historically black pool in a black neighborhood were told to get out of the pool,” he said. “The police were called in deference to an abusive white woman. The white male staff member quit on the spot after the police showed up. Why did he call the police when you know that that is a traumatic experience for black people, especially a young black man? This is not a police issue.”
Moving forward, Gamory would like to use the restorative justice model to bring all parties to the table, including the offender, who he says is a professor at a local college.
“She has an opportunity here,” he explained. “To make amends to the people she offended and what the impact was. She has an opportunity to restore because she's jacked up right now.”
SFGN left messages for the woman but did not hear back.
The other part of the restorative justice model involves talking to the police, for the role it played in this instance.
“The police feel they didn’t do anything wrong. But they didn’t have enough community consciousness, cultural consciousness, cultural competence to diffuse the situation so that you unnecessarily created something far worse,” Gamory said. “You could have stood for justice and racial equity at this moment instead of being a tool of racism and racial inequity and white privilege. But you didn't. You just operated as normal. Black people are not given the same equal treatment. We have unfair treatment, unequal treatment, and inequitable treatment when it comes to law enforcement and criminal justice.”
Wright Muir agrees.
“I would like to see the failures addressed and everyone held accountable,” she said. “I’d also like to see organizations like Diversity in Aquatics get more support so that they can have a broader reach and get more Black people and other people of color in the water and ensure we can all swim and access safe places to swim.”
To see the photos of the Swim-In for Restorative Justice, visit our Facebook page.