August 15, 2012
SEVERAL DOZEN students and young people from across Florida descended on Polk County at the end of July to begin a campaign against one of the worst manifestations of the criminal justice system and its targeting of young people of color.
The activists were members of an organization called Dream Defenders, which formed out of the protests surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin earlier this year. The group gained prominence after organizing a three-day march across the state to Sanford, where Trayvon was killed--to engage in civil disobedience with the demand that George Zimmerman be prosecuted for killing Martin.
The group has since developed into a statewide force to protest the criminal injustice system--a mission that led it to Polk County, in the center of the state, south of Orlando and east Tampa, and home to notorious right-wing darling Sheriff Grady Judd.
In particular, the Dream Defenders have zeroed in on the county jail and juvenile detention system, partnering with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which is targeting the sheriff and the jail for protest because of their treatment of juveniles.
Over the weekend of July 28-29, the Dream Defenders defied police intimidation to hold workshops on what has come to be called the "school-to-prison pipeline," hearing testimony from previously incarcerated young people and the parents of children currently locked away in jail.
Parents told of their children being housed in the same buildings as adult inmates, exposing their loved ones to what an ongoing SPLC lawsuit calls "dangerously violent conditions." Lawyers from the SPLC explained the details of their challenge against the Polk County Jail, which accuses officials of providing deficient educational and rehabilitative services, not monitoring and protecting young inmates and allowing guards to "routinely threaten, intimidate and punish children by spraying them with harsh chemicals for even minor infractions."
The final day of the weekend culminated in an action in front of the jail and the juvenile detention center, with the congregation of a local church attending along with members of the Dream Defenders.
With cameras rolling, members of the group, wearing caps and gowns to represent high school and college graduates, were lined up in front of the jail, had their caps knocked off and were put into prison jumpsuits and handcuffed--a symbol of Sheriff Judd's aggressive behavior toward the community's young people. It was a good beginning to what promises to be an ongoing campaign against local representatives of what was commonly referred to during the weekend as "the new Jim Crow."
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IN MANY ways, Sheriff Judd is inseparable from the fortunes of the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center.
It was Judd who pushed for the county to take control of the center from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, after the Florida legislature made it legal to do so in 2011 (without a single dissenting vote in the state senate from either side of the aisle). The new law re-wrote the protective standards for jail conditions to be less stringent, prompting NAACP President Ben Jealous to predict that the change would "cripple the development of young people in Florida for generations."
Under Judd's tenure, Polk County has shot up to the highest youth incarceration rate of any county in the state--and it's still rising, while overall incarceration rates for youth are falling in Florida. According to a study by the SPLC, Polk County's youth detention rate rose by 10 percent from 2008 to 2011, while the rest of the state's fell by 28 percent.
When you break down the numbers by race, the figures are even more staggering. African American youth are three times more likely to be arrested at school than white students. With African Americans comprising only 14 percent of the county population, 35 percent of juvenile detention center "referrals" are Black.
Judd is probably one of the most politically connected and powerful lawmen in the country. With family relations sprinkled around Florida's political corridors of power and a business elite that reads like a who's who of old-school plantation aristocrats and right wing political operatives, Judd has near political immunity, allowing him to act like a small-town Florida hybrid of Bull Connor and Joe Arpaio.
The Tea Party Tribune squealed with delight earlier this year when Judd defended deputies of his who killed a suspect in a gunfight--by shooting him 68 times. The Tribune declared, "Looks like Florida has a sheriff like Arizona has"--a reference to Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio.
Asked by reporters why his men had shot a suspect nearly 70 times, Judd responded: "Because that's all the ammunition we had." His office sells posters of Judd--dressed as a character from the Western movie Tombstone, posing with a revolver and surrounded by shotgun-brandishing deputies--emblazoned with the title "Sheriff Grady Judd: If You're Gonna' Break the Law, Stay Outta Polk County."
On one side of his family, Judd is related to Ben Hill Griffin, an old-time citrus and cattle baron and one of the largest landowners in the state. On the other side, he's a relation to Katherine Harris, the infamous Republican secretary of state who helped George W. Bush steal the 2000 presidential election. Judd is also extremely close to J.D. Alexander, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state senate. Alexander is infamous for his ongoing war against public-sector unions and higher education--and for developing hundreds of acres of his own land at state expense through various highway construction and railroad deals.
But beyond his blood relations, Judd's penchant for imprisoning young people of color and enforcing his own style of justice has earned him admirers near and far. He was recently elected vice president of the Florida Sheriff's Association and has been a guest on Fox News and other national media outlets, posing as the guardian of law and order for the "real America, for normal America."
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IF THE Dream Defenders move forward with their campaign in Polk County, much of it will center around dealing with Sheriff Judd. Unsurprisingly, his reputation is less than sterling in local communities of color, since he embodies a system that devalues the lives of their families and children.
Indeed, after an intentionally provocative and illegal search and arrest of a young Black man outside a restaurant where members of the Dream Defenders were having dinner, the group held a spirited and defiant nighttime march through the neighborhood, adapting the old civil rights song to the situation--"Ain't Gonna Let Grady Judd Turn Me Around"--to the supportive cheers of members of the community.
If the Dream Defenders can use civil disobedience and mass protest to cast a spotlight on Judd--and potentially put his job on the chopping block, as has happened to Arpaio--the group can press for reforms inside the juvenile detention center and on the outside as well.
But going up against an entrenched and well-connected power structure in a backwater county of rural Florida, one thing is certain: It won't be easy.