After a racist mass shooter murdered three Black people in Jacksonville last month, the city’s African-American sheriff, T.K. Waters, was heartened by a personal phone call from President Joe Biden, who pledged his full support and even buttered Waters up.
“How are you guys doing? I saw your press conference and you’re doing a good job,” Biden told Waters, according to the sheriff, who recounted the conversation to The Messager. He bashfully admitted he was flattered when the president added, “You’re a pro.”
Then the president pivoted to a top concern.
“White supremacy is our biggest terrorist threat,” Biden said, a warning the president has repeatedly issued.
Waters kept quiet. He said he just couldn’t agree with the president.
“There’s more problems in inner city, urban America than the threat of white supremacy,” Waters told The Messenger.
“A genocide in our communities is taking place, and no one wants to talk about it,” he said. “When you have thousands of young Black men killing each other in our inner cities every year – and a bunch in Jacksonville and all over the place – that’s an issue inside the community that needs to be taken care of.”
That’s a rare public sentiment from a Black leader in Jacksonville – especially coming from a Black sheriff whose department less than two weeks ago was processing a crime scene of three dead African-Americans and the white supremacist murderer who left behind a racist manifesto after shooting himself on Aug. 27.
But unlike most Black political leaders in the city, state or nation, Waters is a pro-gun Republican. His response to the nationally watched shooting made him such a rising political figure that he got a call from the White House. And his uncommon combination of demographic and political identities – a conservative Black sheriff in a Deep South metropolis who talks about intra-racial Black crime – places him at the intersection of uncomfortable conversations about race and guns, making the 53-year-old political newcomer as celebrated in Republican circles as a pariah in Democratic politics since his election last year.
The national media is gone from Jacksonville, distracted by the churn of the news cycle and, initially, the approach and Florida landfall of Hurricane Idalia days after the shooting. But nerves are still raw and anger so palpable in the city that a Black man Thursday confronted Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, at a press conference and accused him of complicity in the murders.
“You have allowed people to hunt people like me in broad daylight, that is true,” the man, who did not give his name said.
“That is nonsense!” DeSantis said as the man was ushered out.
Waters agrees with DeSantis. But the words spoken by that anonymous citizen is widespread among Black leaders in Jacksonville, where 31% of the population is Black, compared to 17% for Florida and 13% for the nation.
After the killing, DeSantis attended a vigil for the three victims and was booed by Black people in the crowd, many upset with a host of policies that included eliminating a congressional district for an African-American Democrat, blocking an advanced high school African-American studies class and banning Critical Race Theory from being taught in class.
Angie Nixon, a Democratic state House member who represents the district where the mass shooting happened, said DeSantis “has blood on his hands” for his race-related and pro-gun policies, and she also criticized Waters for the way he speaks about race.
“His role is to carry the water for the Republican Party to be, unfortunately, that Black figurehead for them. He is going to be someone that they allow to speak about how bad the black community is,” she said. “I’m very appalled that he’s saying that there’s all these issues within the inner city, but he does not talk about the direct correlation to systemic racism as to why maybe folks in the inner city are under-resourced. There’s crime within the inner city, right? Well, it’s because our schools have been underfunded. We don’t have adequate access to food and to quality medical providers.”
Nixon said she and others were pleased with Waters when he held his first press conference, shocking many when he excerpted from the shooter’s manifesto without censoring himself.
“He wanted to kill n—-rs,” Waters said.
Brad Coker, a nationally known pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research who lives just outside of Jacksonville, said the surprisingly raw language could only be said by a Black Republican sheriff.
“I don’t know anyone else who could use the n-word at a press conference and not get any grief,” he said. “But Waters is very popular. Last year in the political races in the county, Republicans had a difficult time in the general election and the only card they could play was the Waters card because of his brand.”
But Rep. Nixon said Waters angered Black leaders in Jacksonville because “he kind of toned things down and pulled back from saying that the shooter was a racist. Many leaders in the black community, many black pastors, have had conversations with me and they wondered if DeSantis called him and told him ‘hey, tone that rhetoric down.’”
Waters scoffed at the accusation, denying he changed his rhetoric and said he never downplayed that the killer was a racist. He said he was not pressured by DeSantis to say anything.
“From the minute of the shooting, Angie Nixon was politicizing this,” Waters said.
Waters pointed to his 32 years in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office – 10 of them working homicides – as proof that “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve stood over the dead bodies for years. I come to this from a place of experience, it comes from caring about what I see and being honest with what I see.”
Gun control advocates also dispute the notion that they haven’t discussed the issue of gun violence on Black Americans, an issue that the group Everytown has studied.
Waters does acknowledge he used his press conference, however, to pushback on the notion of gun control.
“The story’s always about guns. It’s the people that [are] bad,” Waters said the day after the shooting at a press conference. “This guy’s a bad guy. If I could take my gun off right now and lay it on this counter, nothing will happen. It’ll sit there. But as soon as a wicked person grabs ahold of that handgun and starts shooting people with it, there’s the problem. The problem is the individual.”
Though he didn’t specifically mention “racist” or “white supremacist” in that quote, Waters said he called out the shooter as a hateful bigot in numerous one-on-one interviews.
But he said he can’t help but wonder why so many murders happen in the city with so little attention
“We had a triple homicide in 2018. Did you hear about that?” he said. “We have more than 100 murders every year. About 60-80 percent are Black and they were killed by Black people. I didn’t get a call from the White House until now.”