Talking About Racism – Part 4: Anne Gerwig, Mayor of the Village of Wellington

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Anne Gerwig, Mayor of the Village of Wellington

By Krista Martinelli

 

Mayor Anne Gerwig of Wellington has listened to a number of questions from the Black Lives Matter protesters, who showed up in dozens at the June 9th, 2020 Village Council Meeting.  As far as the peaceful protests that have been ongoing in Wellington, she says, “I think they’re fine.  I feel like if people need to have their voice heard and that’s their method, I support that.”

After the long Village Council meeting on June 9th (over 4 hours), Gerwig comments, “It just feels like people are wanting to express themselves.  The concerns are that we stay safe while we do that.  We do have a pandemic and safety concerns at that intersection at 441 and Forest Hill Boulevard in Wellington.  That’s the largest intersection in Palm Beach County. I think that’s why they’ve chosen that spot to protest at, which is fine.  It’s just that it can be a dangerous intersection.  Some of the concerns are that people will get distracted driving and make bad driving decisions.”

Gerwig in a Lilly Pulitzer dress from Tyler Brooke in the Wellington Mall.

Gerwig shopped at Tyler Brooke in the Mall at Wellington Green the day after the discussion with the Black Lives Matter protesters, showing her support for black business owner Henry Mosley.  I asked why it’s important to shop black-owned businesses. “I actually just really like that store, it’s a really fun store.  They have great products, and I just encourage people to shop at all of our businesses. Henry has been a really good community partner.” She laughs about how Henry Mosley sold her husband Alan a Robert Graham shirt, which seemed kind of flashy at first.  “I don’t know if I can pull this off,” said Alan.  But Mosley was so encouraging. “We credit Henry Mosley for a lot of improvements at the Gerwig household. Every time Alan wears a Robert Graham shirt, someone comments positively,” says Gerwig.

Gerwig grew up going to North Shore High School in Palm Beach County. “And my class was 60% black.  I lived in a completely white neighborhood. Back then we thought we had made some progress, but sometimes when these national events happen, it feels like we have not made any progress. We have a very diverse community today here in Wellington.  I’ve enjoyed that and thought it was a sign of good health. But yes, I think there are things we can do to improve things.”

Recently Gerwig commented that if Palm Beach Schools Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy doesn’t feel safe or comfortable in Wellington, “We have a problem.”  Fennoy mentioned in a Palm Beach Post article that he “kind of sticks out in his Wellington neighborhood.” He says that sometimes he feels like people question why he’s going to the mailbox.  “And that should never happen,” says Gerwig.

When we say, “Great Hometown,” explains Gerwig, “we kind of pride ourselves on getting to know our neighbors. And I feel like if any community can solve this problem, we can.” She says that we, as a community in Wellington, can work on relationships and change the current environment. “We’re all willing, we’re all interested and we want to have those relationships.”

“My son’s best friend considers himself black – he’s Dominican. He’s been like my ‘extra kid’ since the boys were five years old. And I know that some people feel that we have a problem in Wellington, and I just don’t realize it.  But really, we should not ignore it, but we should be getting out and knowing our neighbors – it’s a really big part of our community.”

The last thing we need, she explains referring back to the police officer murder of Corey Jones in Palm Beach Gardens and a community unity event that Wellington held after the incident, is “more contention between our community police and our community.” Gerwig adds, “I want to work on that relationship.  I don’t want it to be us versus them. I feel like we’re all on the side of justice.  We all want justice.”  She says that the murder of George Floyd was horrific, “I couldn’t even watch it. It was awful.”  She adds, “Honestly, we know what happened because there is video. When you’re in police custody, you’re in their care. They’re supposed to be making sure that you’re safe.” She calls that the absolute act of horror, instead of justice.

“I want to make one thing clear. No one should feel unsafe in Wellington.  That’s highly disturbing that people feel unsafe here. They should not only feel safe, but they should feel valued,” says Gerwig.

“One of the reasons people move to Wellington is because it’s so safe. So getting back to Dr. Fennoy, he actually might feel safe here, but he also feels scrutinized differently. And that’s not right either.  We can do better.”

Gerwig showed up for the Black Lives Matter peaceful protest in Wellington on Saturday, June 13th. She helped with setting up a shade structure for an information booth.  She wanted to show her support for the peaceful protest at the corner of Forest Hill Boulevard and 441.  While she was there, she asked Shane Meyers, the original protester who started out alone at this corner, to flip over his sign.  His sign, now nationally famous because of a viral Tik Tok video, says “Black Lives Fucking Matter.”  Gerwig explains, “I find the F-word really offensive. Plus Channel 5, for example, can’t show it on the news. So I asked him to flip it over.” The other side of the sign said, “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Meyers replied to her that it was his 1st Amendment right to express himself on his sign, so no – he wasn’t flipping the sign over. Gerwig then said, “I agree with that.” Meyers held his ground and said, “I am respectfully declining.”

“I know why he’s using that word. He wants to get the attention that it draws,” says Gerwig. “But not every reaction is a good reaction.  I want to have a conversation, not that.”

I spoke briefly with 23-year-old activist Shane Meyers about why he began his lone protest at the Wellington corner in the first place. “I was actually moved by a post on social media from a close friend. It was a call to action, asking us to do more. It really struck a chord with me.” He says he immediately purchased poster board and markers and decided to set up his one-man protest that very same day. “I have trouble understanding how such a simple message ‘black lives matter’ can be perceived as threatening,” he adds, referring to some of the backlash he’s received from drivers passing by.

Gerwig recently apologized for her social media post regarding a protest that had been planned at the Mall at Wellington Green. The statement that was considered insensitive was, “Gathering during a pandemic which could endanger everyone to protest something that happened very far from here is not helpful at this time.”

“That came out as insensitive,” she says. “Now there’s a big difference between being insensitive and being racist.”  She cites the previous looting damage to a T-Mobile store and another store the previous night in Royal Palm Beach, which added up to about $50,000 of inventory stolen. PBSO had knowledge of a threat to the Mall, according to Gerwig. “And my concern was for safety.”

“You can’t do a protest on private property. And really it’s not the peaceful protests that are the problem.  It’s the people who take advantage of that, realizing that there’s a distraction,” adds Gerwig.

Gerwig says she’s “not apologizing for trying to keep my community safe. I could have said it better. I was concerned about what would happen if people acted on a social media post, ended up at the Mall that night and got hurt. I want us to be a safe community.” She points to many times Wellington has been ranked highly for safety, including making the top 100 list for the best places to live by Money Magazine.  “I want everyone to express themselves, but do it safely.” She commented to WPTV News, “Everyone in this Village has a voice, and I want to hear it.”

Gerwig recently had a chat in person with community activists Kyla Edme and Genee Tinsley. Edme and Tinsley both voiced concerns, especially for their sons, as black men seem to be more often pulled over by PBSO than others “for no reason.” Both Edme and Tinsley “weren’t aware of the many cultural events that have happened in Wellington at the Amphitheater,” says Gerwig.  The activists pointed out that there needs to be more attention paid to diversity and culture, not just Saturday night bands.  Gerwig agreed that it’s something that should be worked on together.

I asked Gerwig about the backlash against the protesters in Wellington. “The peaceful protesters have been faced with racial slurs, sprayed with pest control chemicals, threatened physically, threatened with ‘unleashing dogs,’ cursed at and other signs of animosity,” I explained. “I think PBSO has tried,” Gerwig responded.

The peaceful protesters did file a report with PBSO about the pesticide being sprayed at them (by a truck that said First Pest Control on it). “One thing I want the protesters to know is that we’re hearing them. We’re listening, but when you’re pushing, people are going to push back.  And I’m not suggesting it’s appropriate. The response as a community that we should have is ‘I know you’re worried.  I’m worried with you.’” She mentions that toward the beginning of the protests, some of the protesters jutted their signs out into the road, which is a safety issue.

“When you’re yelling and I’m yelling, can we hear each other? I think it’s hard. I think it’s a hard way to find allies,” says Gerwig.

I asked, “Why do you think PBSO came out with tanks and helicopters and over 60 police cars to the protesters in Wellington on Saturday, June 13th?  Do you think that was overkill?” Gerwig says it may have been overkill.  “That’s an operation of the Sheriff’s office.  I can’t answer for that.  They would have to give you that information.” (Note: we did reach out to PBSO and received no response). Gerwig says she knows that the protesters from both groups, Okeeheelee Park and Forest Hill Boulevard, met with PBSO that same morning to go over the rules. They had agreed to stay on the sidewalks.  They had agreed not to block traffic. They wanted to keep access to the Wellington Regional Medical Center open. “I don’t know what PBSO’s concerns were, but it seemed as though the protesters weren’t abiding by the agreement.”

“Again I want people to know that they don’t have to scream at each other. We’re listening,” says Gerwig.

Unlike Delray Beach or Boynton Beach, the Village of Wellington contracts with PBSO, but does not have their own police force.  “As for PBSO, we don’t direct them. Our contract allows us to ask for certain services, like community policing,” explains Gerwig. “We have some great local police here. We’ve had really good relationships developed with our community and our local deputies. Some of them are a little gruff when they pull you over,” she adds.

“What did you think about what happened to Breonna Nelson Hicks in the Grande Isles in Wellington?” I asked Mayor Gerwig.  (See the viral video, both the original video and the interview with grandfather Tony Nelson).

Wellington Video Makes National News (and Not in a Good Way)

“It was surprising that someone would say any of those things.  I was shocked, I was hurt for her.  My first response was to ask Tony Nelson, how is your granddaughter?” He responded that, “She’s strong.  She’s got a strong family. We’re going to be OK.”

“And the Love & Appreciation parade that Aimee Weisberger Stern organized for Breonna was a really good idea. I know what happened (to Breonna) is not acceptable.  It’s not something that should ever happen in this Village.”

One of the cars in the Love and Appreciation Parade for Breonna Nelson Hicks that was held on June 22nd in the Grande Isles in Wellington to show the 15-year-old some support.

I talked to grandfather Tony Nelson on the phone about what happened.  I was surprised to hear that Lee Jeffers, the neighbor who yelled at the 15-year-old girls, actually lives four doors down from the Nelsons.  Jeffers made national news and is on administrative leave from his job at Homeland Security. I asked Tony Nelson how his granddaughter is doing. “I have to say, unfortunately, she hasn’t recovered. My wife Evelyn and I are recovering better than the kids.  As time has passed, Mr. Jeffers has apologized to us privately. The kids are really struggling with the sincerity of the apology letter.  They believe that his wife was very sincere, but they don’t think he was sincere.”

HOLD THE PHONE!

While I was talking with Tony Nelson, he was driving through Clewiston in his new black 2020 Ford Expedition.  Nelson, who is the COO of Premier Family Health in Wellington, was surprised to be pulled over by a police officer for no apparent reason.  Since he happened to be on the phone with me, I recorded the incident for him.  He asked the police officer what he did wrong.  She told him, “You were going 40 mph in a 35 mph zone.”  He asked her why she let two other cars going faster than he was go by and why she singled him out.  And, he told her, “I’m on the phone with a reporter right now.”  She went away briefly, came back and then said she was going to “let him go.”  She wasn’t going to give him a ticket this time. (Just my two cents as the writer here and as a white person, I have never been pulled over for going 5 miles faster than the speed limit and I don’t know anyone else who has).

Diversity on the Council

“A Diversity Task Force is an interesting idea,” says Gerwig.  “We all have agreed that we don’t want a committee, where things just go and die. Instead we are working toward some round table discussions with the community. We need to root out where the disparity is.”  For now, she explains, they can do Zoom meetings. “Now we’re looking at surging of the numbers with 4 to 5 new Corona cases a day in Wellington.”

Gerwig says, “I have encouraged people of color to run for Village Council.  And not because of their color, but because they would be good on council.” She mentions that there were no contested elections in Wellington last time. “No one ran against the three of us.”

I asked Gerwig how she felt about the above banner, which was carried into the Village Council meeting, displaying “Lives Taken by PBC Cops.” She responded, “Each one of those cases needs to be investigated.  We need to make sure there is justice for everyone of those cases.  I can’t promise you that life will be fair.  But I do think that the scrutiny is better now.” She refers to the availability of video recording.  “As a community, we want to stand together and grieve when things go wrong.  And that’s the worst wrong.”

Anne Gerwig has lived in Wellington for 30 years (as of August). She and Alan Gerwig have been married for 30 years. They built their house in 2002 together. Their daughter Jessica is married to Jordan, and they have a one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter with another grandchild on the way. Their son Dane is out in California in West Hollywood with a “fantastic dog.”  And their son Luke is 22, graduating in December from Palm Beach Atlantic, with a degree in Finance.

Her husband Alan is a structural engineer.  “I’m super proud of him in lots of ways. He’s very humanitarian.”  Alan Gerwig went to Haiti and designed a surgical center years ago. When the earthquake hit in Port-au-Prince, the surgical center happened to be far away enough from the epicenter that it was able to save many lives.  He did another mission to Guatemala, where he worked on an orphanage for girls taken off the streets for prostitution.  Alan designed the dorm rooms.  “It’s a way for first world engineering to be provided to emerging nations,” says Gerwig.

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