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As dust settles in Perry, little is changed

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


People on the west coast of Florida know Perry chiefly as a name on U.S. 19 mile marker signs.

You looked at the sign and when it said you were 200 miles from Perry, you were supposed to know where you were.

That assumed you knew where Perry was. It is about an hour southeast of Tallahassee. Just over 7,300 people live in Perry. Timber is big business there.

But Perry's status as polestar has been displaced by the story of David Holton and his bar. Now Perry is known as the place where black people are not welcome, not even for a beer.

Last week, the state pulled the liquor license of Holton's bar, because one of his waitresses told a black stranger last February he should go to a back room, where black people were served.

Unfortunately for Holton, the stranger was a Maryland state legislator, Talmadge Branch, who went straight to the police. Reporters followed. Then the politicians moved in.

Last week, when Holton's liquor license was yanked, Gov. Bush harrumphed: "Today's settlement makes it clear that racial discrimination by Florida's businesses will be punished swiftly and severely."

Sound the trumpets! Justice has been done.

Make that supposedly done.

David Holton had a problem other than Talmadge Branch. Holton was the little guy. He wasn't a supermarket chain like Publix.

No governor weighed in when the chain, with its main office in Lakeland, was sued by black workers for discrimination in Tampa federal court.

Nor did the governor whoop it up when Publix -- long hailed as one of the best companies in Florida to work for -- agreed at the end of last year to pay a $10-million settlement to blacks it had failed to promote.

Publix was too big, too powerful for the state to take on. The workers had to go to court on their own.

David Holton, though, was easy pickings.

Nothing changes now in Perry except for Holton. Nothing changes in scores of little Florida towns like Perry, or in the cities where most of us live.

Why is it that in virtually every Tampa Bay restaurant I go to -- except for the fast-food places -- the kitchen help is black and the waiters are white?

Why did St. Petersburg's promises of new businesses and new jobs south of Central Avenue after a police officer shot TyRon Lewis in 1996 go unfulfilled?

Four state agencies went after Holton -- the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, the Attorney General's Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Commission on Human Relations. They might as well have dispatched the Marines.

Why don't they dispatch the equivalent of the Marines to those restaurants I mention, and to St. Petersburg's City Hall?

This isn't to let David Holton off the hook. But the state went after him in a way that was out of proportion.

It would have been more useful to let Holton keep his bar open, and then have the state ride him until he changed his practices. All of Perry could have watched and learned.

But there's no crash and burn of conflict and quick solution in that.

Change would come slowly, tediously, subtly. Observing it would have taken too much time for the reporters inclined usually to just get their story and go. And how then could an opportunistic politician be able to use Perry, and the reporters, to get his name known, his points scored?

Instead, one bar owner's head is, metaphorically, on a plate that's been served up for the world to see.

I find no abiding lesson there, except in public relations. PR is like smoke. Once it blows through town, it's gone.

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