I’m sometimes asked if Florida is in the South. Well, it’s a big state, I’ll usually say, and regional boundaries are never well defined. This summer, though, the headlines suggested some new reasons to answer the question in the affirmative. “With Voting Rights Act Gutted, Florida Set to Resume Voter Purge.” “Jury Acquits Zimmerman of All Charges.”
I grew up in Brevard County, adjacent to the county where George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. Brevard is most famous for vacation beaches and the space program, but its courthouse is named after Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore, NAACP leaders murdered there in 1951 by Klansmen who were never brought to trial. In 2012 six white supremacists currently or formerly residing in Brevard were arrested on charges that included manufacturing ricin in preparation for an “inevitable race war.”
So Martin’s death was a reminder of just how southern Central Florida is. Zimmerman’s acquittal affected me more than I had expected. Not only could I imagine with disquieting precision the casual racism and gated-community worldview that left Martin dead, but also the uncomfortable feeling that my own attitudes would always be the partial products of the damaged region I come from.
Of course, the color line is a national problem, not a southern one. Unlike Florida Governor Rick Scott, my current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, would never wear cowboy boots emblazoned with Confederate flags. But this is small comfort to the victims of the racist stop-and-frisk policies that have ballooned under his administration. Barack Obama, despite his eloquent comment on the Martin case, has advocated appointing New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly, architect of stop-and-frisk and the aggressive surveillance of Muslim Americans, as director of Homeland Security.
These pathologies demand radical movements, not just soul searching or a national “conversation.” A small encouragement after the Martin killing was the creation of a new organization called the Dream Defenders. The group emerged from a protest against the failure to arrest Zimmerman, and after the verdict, they gained increased recognition for their weeks-long occupation of the Florida Capitol building. Their immediate target is Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which underwrote Zimmerman’s dubious claim to self-defense. But they draw connections to other issues facing young Americans of color—police harassment, draconian school discipline, and the swelling prison system into which too many paths seem to lead.
Florida Democratic legislators have called for hearings on “stand your ground” in the fall, and this August (in a ruling that referred several times to Trayvon Martin) a New York judge found Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk unconstitutional. These small victories are cause for celebration, if not yet for optimism. The fact that the Dream Defenders take their name from a sixty-two-year-old poem...
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