Lake Wales, FL – A guest speaker at Lake Wales High School on Thursday told students that white police officers continue to kill young black men for no reason, and are not being held accountable.
Richard Burr, a 1967 alumnus of the high school and one of the foremost death penalty defense attorneys in the United States, also lectured to the packed gymnasium on “white privilege.”
Predictably, many parents – some of who work in law enforcement or have relatives who do – were furious when their children came home and shared details of Burr’s speech in celebration of Black History Month.
“We all know, of course, that police officers continue to kill African American folk without consequences,” Burr told the student body of Lake Wales High School.
“And I shudder for all of you who have to walk out of school today if you encounter a police officer. I hope that hasn’t happened in Lake Wales, I hope it never will,” he continued. “But it happens far too often in far too many places and rarely is a white officer held accountable for those murders. They are murders. They’re not killing these young kids because there’s any reason they can. They’re not threatened. They’re killing them because they are scared because they are scared of because who they think black kids are.”
“That is racism and that’s a stereotype that comes out of slavery and it’s still deeply embedded in many white people,” Burr said.
He also said that the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement were being eroded now.
Burr, who represented Timothy McVeigh during the death penalty phase of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, then preached on “unconscious racial bias” before giving students an extensive lecture on the existence, and definition, of “white privilege.”
“White people are also in this process becoming aware of what’s called ‘white privilege,’” he began. “You know, white folks were born into hospitals that were the best, received pediatric care that was the best. Were born into families that loved them, cared about them, and could take care of them because they made enough money to do it and because they were not under threat from outside forces.”
“The sky was the limit for a white kid… they were groomed to succeed,” Burr continued. “They were given the chance to start over if they failed, they were given second, third, fourth, fifth chances because they were believed in. That’s what ‘white privilege’ is.”
“‘White privilege’ is having gifts in your life that have nothing to do with anything except your skin color or your class. That’s what white privilege is. And as we begin to understand that, we begin – in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color – to reject white privilege,” he advised the room of teenagers.
Then there was a break in between Burr’s speech to the student body and a panel discussion with International Baccalaureate students,
The principal told Blue Lives Matter that she talked with the speaker then and told him that some of the students were upset by his remarks about police killing with impunity, and suggested he clarify what he meant.
So Burr began his second segment at the school with a back-handed apology that suggested some law enforcement officers couldn’t help shooting black men.
“I talked about police officers killing young black folks, and that happens, we know it. We’ve seen it,” he said. “But I did not mean in any respect to cast aspersions on police officers. I think being a police officer is an extraordinary thing to be… But I have great respect for police officers and I meant no disrespect.”
“If it came out that way, I’m really sorry. I think being a police officer calls on inner resources that I don’t think I have – resources that call for you to deal with fear. Instead of getting into it, turning fear into equanimity,” Burr continued.
He told the assembled students that a lot of police officers can’t have peace in their hearts.
“I didn’t mean to paint with too broad a brush when I said that,” Burr explained. “The sad fact is that mostly men of color, mostly African American men, are the victims of unnecessary police shootings. That’s a fact we cannot escape. It’s a fact that makes every parent worried when his or her child goes out the door. And it’s not something that’s the fault of the police officers. It’s what we ask them to do and the frailty that some of them have.”
Blue Lives Matter asked Burr to expound on what he meant by the “frailty” of some police officers.
“We ask them to get in the middle of dangerous situations and be calm and rational and even-handed. We do this, in part, because we as citizens are not good at being calm, rational, and evenhanded when confronted by extreme danger,” he explained. “In this respect, we ask that police officers be better than the rest of us in such situations. Most of the time, officers meet our expectations of them, and for that I am profoundly grateful. Sometimes they don’t, and they act impulsively out of fear or other emotion.”
“The frailty I mentioned is a human frailty, not a frailty that is unique to individual officers. We all have frailties,” Burr said.
When it was pointed out to the guest speaker that, statistically, most African American men are shot by police officers while committing a crime, he wondered “whether unconscious bias plays a role even in shootings that otherwise may appear justified.”
“The line between a justified and unjustified shootings is often not crystal clear and a matter about which reasonable examiners can disagree,” Bur said. “In these circumstances, unconscious racial bias/stereotypes can play a role.”
The backlash in the community was immediate, and sources told Blue Lives Matter that officials from the Lake Wales Police Department presented themselves to Lake Wales High School Principal Donna Dunson on Friday morning to find out exactly what had been said the day before, and why.
One parent with a daughter at Lake Wales High School said that she was afraid to tell her parents what Burr had said during the special “Speaker Series” event for fear they would pull her out of the school.
“Political views and opinions have no place in school,” the angry father told Blue Lives Matter. “And I would pull my child out if it wasn't such a good school.”
“I would think they would have done a better job vetting a speaker,” he said.
Amidst the wake of calls from angry parents, the school was also inundated with requests for the video of Burr’s speech.
One parent told Blue Lives Matter that what Burr had reportedly said “was so bizarre that I had to hear it for myself before I figured out how to handle it.”
The school edited a video together and the principal appeared at the start of it offering a haphazard apology for Burr’s remarks that included a request to be granted “grace” for what happened.
“I’m sorry that in his broader talk, some things were lost. Because in fact he was calling for a better understanding of each other, but it sort of got lost,” Dunson said in the video. “And so what I’m asking is for a little bit of grace from what we’re trying to do at Lake Wales High School and a little bit of a grace from a Lake Wales boy who grew up and went off and became one of the foremost death penalty lawyers in the country.”
She went on to excuse Burr’s remarks by comparing them to an earlier speaker, a former gang member whose motivational speech to the students prompted angry calls from parents.
“Yes, it was a little controversial but [Joseph Jennings] was speaking from his heart. And so was Richard Burr,” Dunson excused both men.
Blue Lives Matter asked the principal to expound on that statement.
“My point was both men were speaking from their experiences – their heat. Richard Burr clearly misspoke and used inappropriate language in his talk,” Dunson said.
However, Burr did not say he misspoke when he made his apology. He just said that he regretted the way his remarks were taken by his audience.
The principal said “it may have been what he didn’t say” that upset students and local law enforcement.
“This is not a bad man,” she said in the video by way of explanation. “He has different views than many of us.”
Dunson said she wasn’t concerned that students were negatively impacted by Burr’s presentation, which she’d billed to them as being on a college curriculum level during her introduction.
“I think they’re smart enough to discern and hear other people’s talks, ideas, and hold fast to what they believe. I believe they’re that strong,” the principal insisted.
“I regret that it ended up hurting the Lake Wales Police Department, it was not the intention at all. We fully support them and embrace what they do to keep that school safe,” Dunson added.
She told Blue Lives Matter that she did not endorse Burr’s remarks and that she would not have asked him to be a speaker if she had known what he was planning to say.
Blue Lives Matter reached out to the Lake Wales Police Department but had not yet received comments at publication time.