Florida Politics

Racial issues united Florida’s legislators but divided them, too

Florida apologizes to the Groveland Four

Florida legislators are advancing a bill that extends a formal apology and seeks a full pardon to the four men falsely accused of rape in 1949.
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Florida legislators are advancing a bill that extends a formal apology and seeks a full pardon to the four men falsely accused of rape in 1949.

It was an emotional peak in the long legislative session: Lawmakers — black, white, Hispanic — stood in somber solidarity in a Capitol rotunda to formally say the state of Florida was sorry for what it did seven decades ago to four black men who were victims in one of the most racist episodes in state history.

What few knew at that moment of unity on the morning of April 18 was that just 13 hours before, a state senator had cursed at a black female lawmaker using a sexist remark and a racial slur directed at other legislators.

As news of the confrontation spread hours after the state’s apology to the families of the Groveland Four, scandal engulfed the Capitol. Four days later, that senator — Miami Republican Frank Artiles — resigned.

The coincidental contrast between the long-awaited apology and Artiles’ offensive tirade at a private Tallahassee club marked a climax in a nine-week legislative session when race played a dominant role. Policy proposals and unrelated events intersected at the Capitol in ways that emphasized racial divides that still exist in 2017.

We can look at a number of issues that you can say, well, there’s certainly racial overtones — and there’s some things where we’re moving in the right direction and some things we’re moving in the wrong direction.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale

That undercurrent was also evident through another senator’s racially insensitive explanation for blocking a Florida Slavery Memorial. And more implicitly, it showed when the first black person elected state attorney in Florida refused to pursue the death penalty, which has a history of racial disparity here.

“We can look at a number of issues that you can say, well, there’s certainly racial overtones — and there’s some things where we’re moving in the right direction and some things we’re moving in the wrong direction,” said Fort Lauderdale Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston, the chairman of the 28-member Florida Legislative Black Caucus.

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Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale Steve Cannon AP

That’s not new, said Adora Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. She said lawmakers tend not to prioritize issues that directly and indirectly impact minorities and are important to civil rights groups.

Among them: Judicial bias in prison sentences based on race; the lack of restoration of civil rights for convicted felons; and disparities in public education and healthcare, where poor quality and lack of access tend to disproportionately affect minority communities.

“There’s never been a year that we had a session that we didn’t have a series of things that were insulting and unfortunate for those of us who are members of black and minority groups,” Nweze said.

Before session even began, accusations of racism were leveled against a controversial speaker whom House Republicans invited to testify as an expert at a committee hearing.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, discussed security concerns related to refugees. Democrats protested and noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, said Krikorian and his organization spout “anti-immigrant” ideas and have ties to white nationalist groups.

The dispute came to a head when Democrats abruptly walked out of the public hearing — an act of defiance almost unheard of in a Capitol where lawmakers favor treating each other with excessive politeness and deference in public.

“To be blunt, [he] is a racist, and the organization he’s representing is a hate group,” Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, said of Krikorian at the time.

RELATED: “Miami state senator curses at black lawmaker — and refers to fellow Republicans as ‘niggas’ 

While that incident was among the more divisive of the session, two of the most moving and meaningful actions the Legislature took this year involved race in a positive way, by acknowledging past wrongs.

Aside from calling for the exoneration and pardon of the Groveland Four — who were tortured, murdered or unjustly imprisoned after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman — lawmakers also formally apologized for the physical and sexual abuse of boys sent to the state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

The atrocities at that former North Florida reform school, although not driven by racial prejudice, took place in an environment of strict segregation. Victims of abuse decades ago — both black and white — testified this spring about the brutal beatings they would receive if they interacted in any way with a boy of another race.

“When we acknowledge historical wrongs and come together to correct them, it’s one of the bright spots of the Legislature,” Thurston said this week.

“It’s good when you see both sides of the aisle coming together to do what’s right,” he added. “Certainly, I would like to see more of that, and anyone who wants to see justice prevail would want to see more of that, but it’s certainly refreshing when it does happen.”

Nweze said it’s important for all Floridians to know the stories of the Groveland Four and Dozier School. But she cautioned that those were not the only victims of racism in Florida’s history.

“There’s so many cases similar to these that we don’t even hear about,” she said.

Even as lawmakers unified around acknowledging those past horrors, recognizing another historical event — Florida’s use of slavery — didn’t get the same prioritized attention in both chambers of the Legislature, although it had broad support among lawmakers of both parties.

The House in late April unanimously endorsed a proposal for a Florida Slavery Memorial, but a conservative Senate committee chairman had earlier blocked a public hearing on it, preventing it from being considered in that chamber.

Maybe [racism] is subtly written into our lives. I’m sure we all have prejudices, and maybe that’s a part of who we are that needs transformation.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala

In explaining his “discomfort about memorializing slavery” on the day of the House vote, Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley made remarks published by the Herald/Times that incensed the black caucus and other lawmakers. Baxley didn’t want to “celebrate defeat” — or rather, adversity — he said, likening a slavery memorial to ones that might recognize child or sexual abuse.

“His statements have no place in today’s society as it relates to race relations,” Rep. Kionne McGhee, the black Miami Democrat who sponsored the House proposal, said at the time.

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Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

Later that day, Baxley was caught off guard that his remarks provoked such offense. When told of McGhee’s description of his words being “borderline racism,” Baxley — the descendent of a Confederate soldier and advocate of preserving relics of Confederate history — was candid and self-reflecting.

“Things get construed that way a lot, and I don’t know — maybe [racism] is subtly written into our lives,” he had said. “I’m sure we all have prejudices, and maybe that’s a part of who we are that needs transformation.”

“I don’t claim to be the perfect person, and we’re products of what we’ve experienced. But at the same time, I certainly love everybody and I don’t mean to insult or hurt them in any way,” he added.

RELATED: “Slavery memorial won’t happen this year. But there’s peace”

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center — which spoke out during the controversies over Artiles’ remarks and Krikorian’s appearance before a House committee — said this week the legislative session “served as an unfortunate reminder that we are not living in a post-racial Florida.”

Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles formally apologized on the Florida Senate floor on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, for insulting and using racial slurs against two black lawmakers two days prior.

“From intentionally hateful remarks to tone-deaf racist comments, our legislators proved this year that racism, discrimination and disrespect are still alive and well in Florida,” McCoy said.

While less obviously about race, the decision by State Attorney Aramis Ayala not to seek the death penalty was seen by some black lawmakers as an important step toward correcting years of racial disparities in Florida’s criminal justice system.

Consider: Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Florida has never executed a white person for killing a black person, and black inmates are currently overrepresented on Death Row compared with the statewide population.

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Aramis Ayala, the state attorney in Orange and-Osceola counties Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel via AP

“By standing against the death penalty, State Attorney Ayala is standing with communities of color,” state Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, said in March.

Among Ayala’s staunchest defenders — amid calls for her suspension and as Gov. Rick Scott reassigned cases away from her office — were members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. Ayala, they noted, broke a historic glass ceiling by becoming the first black person elected state attorney in Florida history.

Thurston at the time suggested that Scott and others criticizing Ayala were targeting her, while simultaneously there was “conspicuous inaction” from them about questionable decisions by state attorneys who are not black.

One example, Thurston said: “Scott’s office stood silent” about Miami-Dade prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who is white, and a report her office issued in March declaring that no crime was committed when prison guards killed a black inmate by locking him in a scalding hot shower for two hours. (Darren Rainey’s skin was peeling off his body when guards finally removed him from the shower.)

But lawmakers in the chorus of opposition to Ayala’s decision say race wasn’t a factor.

“I disagree that this has anything to do with race,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who represents part of Ayala’s district and pushed for her suspension from office.

He noted, as an example, that the victims in the most high-profile case in which Ayala declined to seek the death penalty — that of accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd — are also black.

“My race, my culture is a mixture of white, black and Taino Indian, so I understand where you’re going with a lot of folks saying that she’s being targeted because she’s black,” Cortes said. “No, she’s being targeted because she has said she will not handle cases moving forward. In my opinion, that’s a neglect of duty.”

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in a statement Thursday the governor’s decision to reassign 23 first-degree murder cases away from Ayala, including that of Loyd, was “solely on the basis of concern for the families of the victims of these brutal crimes.”

“He believes they deserve a state attorney who will aggressively prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.

In general, Thurston said it’s important for lawmakers to remember the difficult racial history that shaped the state Florida has become.

“As we address these issues [like the Groveland Four], you have to note the problems that continue to persist,” he said. “The only way to get past it is to address it.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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