Five years to the day after Naples raid, new actions loom over migrant workers

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ICE agents arrest suspects in a 2017 raid.                (Photo: DHS)

July 16, 2019 By David Silverberg

Today, July 16, marks the anniversary of one of the biggest law enforcement raids on migrant workers in Southwest Florida history.

It was on this date five years ago that Florida Division of Insurance Fraud investigators raided Incredible Fruit Dynamics in Naples and arrested 105 workers for fraudulent documentation, use of personal identification, identity theft and workers’ compensation fraud.

The anniversary comes as the threat of deportation raids continue to hang over Southwest Florida along with the rest of the country.

The 2014 raid demonstrated the role and extent of undocumented or fraudulently documented workers in the economy of Southwest Florida. It’s a role that continues today.

The company was owned by Alfie Oakes, owner of Oakes farms, Food & Thought organic farm market and Seed to Table.

At the time, authorities made clear that Oakes was not being charged; they were trying to find the source of the false documents. Oakes denied knowing anything about the undocumented workers in his employ. “We definitely knowingly never hired any illegals,” Oakes told The Naples Daily News. “The company hires only people that provide Social Security cards.” He and his brother Eric had purchased the company and kept the workers on, some of whom had been working there for over 10 years.

Though he checked Social Security cards, “If everything looks legit, we’re not allowed by law to challenge them,” he said, referring to discrimination laws. “It’s kind of a fine line when you’re hiring people.”

Southwest Florida has always been a center of cheap migrant labor, given its extensive agricultural sector. In 1960 the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow and CBS News exposed the harsh conditions under which migrant workers labored in the fields in Immokalee in its landmark documentary, “Harvest of Shame.”

This past weekend, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel made their presence known in Immokalee they succeeded in instilling fear—but from a law enforcement perspective, they also gave possible deportees time to flee. Unlike the 2014 raid, which was intended to actually catch wrongdoers, the point of this activity just seemed intended to terrorize.

Commentary: Terrorism vs. enforcement

In his campaign kickoff speech in Orlando on June 18, President Trump accused Democrats of being driven by “hatred, prejudice and rage” but that seems a perfect description of what is driving him and his approach to governing.

In the past, immigration enforcement was guided by an effort to effectively apprehend wrongdoers or suspects, while minimizing disruption but still sending a strong signal.

President Barack Obama’s administration was active in pursuing undocumented migrants who had committed crimes or had deportation orders against them. Between 2009 and 2011, federal authorities deported 385,000 people per year, according to Department of Homeland Security data. In 2012, that hit a high point of 409,000. However, the Obama effort was directed at migrants with criminal records who posed a danger to the community or those with court-ordered removal orders against them. They featured careful intelligence, stealth and discretion.

Despite broad allegations of migrant criminality by Trump, his enforcement efforts seem intended to just showboat, stoke fear and vent his bile against foreigners, particularly those from south of the US border.

This comes at the same time as the president’s latest eruptions on Twitter against Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-5-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-7-Mass.). No other word will serve to describe his insults— it’s racism, pure and simple. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. From the day Trump announced his candidacy his racism, xenophobia and cruelty have been on full display. The only difference now is that he has no restraints and no filters, there’s just pure hatred, prejudice and rage.

In Southwest Florida, the member of Congress whose district encompasses Immokalee is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.). When asked about the possibility of raids, arrests and deportations, all he would say was, “Until we have a real fix of a system that is totally broken and has gotten worse, these things are going to continue to happen,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s not an issue of what I support or not. ICE is going to follow the law and I expect them to follow the law and to do so in a way that’s honorable.”

Meanwhile, Diaz-Balart’s neighbor to the west, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has introduced legislation to cut legal immigration by half and make asylum-seeking more difficult both by shortening deadlines and restricting applications to ports of entry. Rooney’s legislation (House Resolution 481) doesn’t go as far as the administration, which is proposing a rule to prevent asylum applications at the border at all and only in the countries refugees are fleeing.

Diaz-Balart is right: The immigration system is broken and needs fixing. But anti-immigration hardliners have consistently sunk past efforts at bipartisan solutions and this president and his administration haven’t put forward any sane solutions other than a brick-and-mortar wall and the president’s “hatred, prejudice and rage” as expressed in cruelty and callousness toward refugees and asylum-seekers.

Democratic members of Congress and immigration advocacy groups are suing to prevent the administration’s proposed new rule and are demonstrating against the administration’s anti-immigrant actions.

This is the battle will be decided in the 2020 election.

As a side note, it’s worth following up on the Alfie Oakes story. On Aug. 13, 2018 the Naples Daily News reported that Oakes Farms Food & Distribution Services had been awarded a $46.8 million contract by the US Defense Logistics Agency to supply food to the military.

Six days later, Oakes posted a screed on Facebook against “the Democratic party recently morphing into all out socialism” and complaining that “current events are censored from the MSM [mainstream media] to support their one world order narrative.”

“The puppeteers that orchestrate the MSM, most of our universities, the [Democratic National Committee] along with the Obama administration have been pushing for a one world order that would ultimately destroy the opportunity for the individual,” he wrote. “We must with all our might reject socialism and adhere to the genius of the christian [sic] principles that our founding father so masterfully created (through the hand of GOD in my opinion) so that we may continue to be the beacon of the world for individual prosperity and freedom.”

It will be interesting to see if there are any raids this time at Oakes Farms.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

 

Gerrymandering comes home to Southwest Florida

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The Republigator, a Florida salute to Elkanah Tisdale and his original Gerrymander, showing the attempted devouring of Democratic congressional districts.   (Illustration by the author © 2019.)

July 1, 2019 by David Silverberg

Back in 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a contorted legislative map that favored his Democratic-Republican party, artist Elkanah Tisdale drew a cartoonish map that showed the new districts creating a lizard-like shape.

Unveiled at a dinner party, one guest compared it to a salamander. No, said another guest, “a Gerry-mander.” Published in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812, the cartoon gave rise to the term “gerrymander,” which today survives to describe politically-motivated boundary drawing designed to produce a desired electoral result.

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The original cartoon giving rise to the term “Gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering has been practiced in America since before creation of the country—colonial political boundaries were similarly inspired. It will clearly be with us for a lot longer because on June 27 the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the practice by ruling 5 to 4 in the case of Rucho vs. Common Cause, that the federal courts do not have a role in preventing extreme partisan gerrymandering.

For Democrats and everyone who fears that Republican-dominated legislatures will impose their will into perpetuity, it was a deep blow.

“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases [North Carolina and Maryland] deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the minority in an impassioned dissent. “In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.”

Ironically, Kagan cited Florida as a state whose courts intervened in an extreme gerrymander and ordered it changed. The Florida Constitution has a provision called the Fair Districts Amendment stating that no districting plan “shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party.”

In 2012 the state’s districting map was challenged because Republican legislature had packed African-American voters into a 5th Congressional District that looked like a Burmese python slithering up the peninsula’s spine. It took six years of litigation to change that district’s boundaries but the Florida Supreme Court finally forced adoption of a new map.

Despite Florida’s constitutional commitment to fair districts, the state is nonetheless politically gerrymandered and nothing proves it like Southwest Florida’s two congressional districts encompassing most of Lee and Collier counties.

Southwest Florida: The 19th Congressional District

Florida_US_Congressional_District_19_(since_2013)

The 19th Congressional District runs along the Gulf coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Goodland is its southernmost community. It includes Pine Island and Sanibel.

Ordinarily, including coastal and island communities would make sense; after all, it’s where much of the population lives. But what’s peculiar is the 19th’s eastern boundary: In Lee County it includes a sliver of Lehigh Acres then follows Rt. 75 southward for a while before suddenly cutting inland and making Livingston Rd. in Collier County its boundary.

Why these jigs and jags? Because whoever drew this line did it to limit the inclusion of potentially Democratic and Hispanic communities like Lehigh Acres, Golden Gate Estates and Immokalee.

The result is a District that is 83.5 percent white and older (27.7 percent over 65), according to Democratic Party statistics—and reliably and overwhelmingly Republican.

Southwest and South Florida: The 25th District

Florida 25 CD 6-30-19The 25th Congressional District is an enormous, ungainly area that stretches from the western Miami suburbs, chiefly Hialeah, and encompasses large swaths of the Everglades and sparsely populated wilderness until it reaches Collier and Lee counties—where it absorbs Golden Gate and Immokalee. (Lehigh Acres is mainly in the 17th Congressional District, another Republican district.)

The population of the 25th is 44 percent Cuban-American, the most of any congressional district in the United States and the district lines are drawn to absorb any non-Cuban Hispanic voters into the Republican Party. Clearly, the Republican hope is that all Hispanic voters will reflexively vote for a Hispanic name. Accordingly, the District’s representative is Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who has been in Congress since 2003, outliving three redistrictings.

The Collier and Lee portions of the 25th are merely the tail on the 25th’s dog but they do ensure that potential Democrats there don’t vote in District 19 elections.

Surgical gerrymandering and the future

The district lines of the 19th and 25th and, to the north 17th, have been surgically gerrymandered to divide or dilute the votes of any potential Democratic communities (chiefly Lehigh Acres in Lee County and Golden Gate in Collier County). In the 19th District there is even a point at Potomac Place where the district line is so exact that it slices through a cul-de-sac in what appears to be an effort to avoid or include individual homes.

The 19th District’s lines in particular appear drawn to deliberately create a racially, ethnically and politically homogeneous white Republican district.

In fact, the 19th District may be in violation of both Supreme Court rulings against racially-based districting and Florida’s constitutional prohibitions against extreme partisan gerrymandering. A lawsuit brought against the lines of this district would have an excellent chance of succeeding— although at this late date, on the eve of a new census and new maps, such a lawsuit is unlikely.

Are there alternatives? Of course there are! It was the advent of computing that allowed gerrymanderers to precisely draw their lines based on racial and partisan data. But computing also provides potential computer-drawn maps that are neutral and equitable. Sadly, no legislature drawing the lines wants to give up its power to choose its voters, so these computer-generated maps remain conceptions only.

Florida is certainly no different from anywhere else and may be worse in some respects. But the only way to change the maps after the next census (which will presumably occur as scheduled despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to delay it) is to win the legislature and ensure that the maps are fair and equitable. If they’re not, they need to be challenged both in state court on the basis of the Fair Districts Amendment and in federal court on the basis of racial bias.

“As voters, we’re told that our elections are safe from meddling and that we have free and fair elections, yet today, the Supreme Court turned its back on good government with its non-decision on gerrymandering,” said Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party following the Supreme Court’s decision. “Now it’s up to us, the voters, to fix this problem. It starts with working hard to elect responsible, fair-minded legislators willing to put the public good over partisan politics.”

She continued: “This is another reason why the 2020 election is so important–we will not only be electing a president, but a state Legislature that will control how Florida votes for the decade to come.”

In her Supreme Court dissent, Justice Kagan asked: Can voters break out of the partisan boxes that gerrymandering creates?

“Sure,” she answered. “But everything possible has been done to make that hard. To create a world in which power does not flow from the people because they do not choose their governors. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

 


For further reading:

There’s a lot of material out there regarding gerrymandering.

The single greatest resource on the current state of gerrymandering is FiveThirtyEight.com’s Gerrymandering Project and its Atlas of Redistricting. An interactive map that provides an array of alternatives to current lines, the reader can redistrict according to a variety of criteria. You can go straight to Florida’s map and check out the state’s possible districts. Imagine a 19th Congressional District that includes Key West—or Clewiston! It’s in there.

Former President Barack Obama recorded a short video about redistricting that’s posted on YouTube.com. It’s refreshing to hear a president speak in complete sentences again.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is attempting to prepare for the 2021 redistricting process and is encouraging activism and participation.

Bushmanders and Bullwinkles: How Politicians Manipulate Electronic Maps and Census Data to Win Elections, is a book published in 2001 that exposed racial and partisan gerrymandering and some of the absurd results. It’s a bit dated now but still informative. There have been many other books on the process since then.  For example, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy tells the story of the Republican post-2008 effort to use gerrymandering to ensure Republican rule.

For some detailed history of gerrymandering, an excellent article is the Smithsonian’s Where Did the Term “Gerrymander” Come From?

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

It happened here: The 1924 Fort Myers lynching, 95 years later

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The African-American neighborhood of Fort Myers in an undated photo.

May 22, 2019 by David Silverberg

Saturday, May 25th, will mark 95 years since two African-American teenagers were seized by a white mob and lynched in Fort Myers, Fla.

The anniversary comes amidst a rise in hatred and racism in the United States and serves as a stark reminder of where bigotry ultimately leads. It’s also a demonstration of what happens when the rule of law breaks down.

It can happen here—and it has.

It’s also worth remembering; history does not have to repeat.

What happened

This account draws from two sources: One is an article in The Fort Myers News-Press on the event’s 90th anniversary. That article, “Lynching history spurs call for closure, 90 years later” by reporter Janine Zeitlin, was published on May 21, 2014. The account drew on people’s recollections and the work of Nina Denson-Rogers, historian of the Lee County Black History Society, who pieced together fragmentary information on the incident.

The other is the original, unbylined article that appeared in the Fort Myers Press on May 26, 1924, headlined, “Negroes pay penalty for horrible crime committed yesterday.”  (Referred in this article as the “1924 account.” The article is posted in full below.)

According to Zeitlin, on Sunday, May 25, 1924 two black teenagers, R.J. Johnson, 14, and Milton Wilson, 15, (given as “Bubbers” Wilson and Milton Williams in the 1924 account) were spotted by a passerby swimming with two white girls on the outskirts of Fort Myers, then a segregated city of about 3,600 people. Lee County was home to about 15,000 people.

“The lynchings happened after R.J. and Milton went swimming at a pond with two white girls on the outskirts of town,” according to the Zeitlin article. “They were said to friends with the girls, maybe more. Perhaps they were skinny-dipping. There were rumors of rape, though one girl and her brother denied it.”

The two boys and girls lived near each other, were long familiar and played with each other as children, states Zeitlin. The swimming was reported by someone as a rape. The 1924 account simply states that the boys “attacked two young Fort Myers school girls.”

The black community first learned that something was amiss when evening church services were canceled. Just before sunset the rape report resulted in white residents on foot, horseback and in cars gathering at a white girl’s residence. From there they began invading black homes and yards in a search for the two boys.

During the evening, chaos spread through the city as the search continued. At one point a gas truck was driven into the black community with the intention of burning it down if the boys weren’t found.

05-20-19 Sheriff Ed Albritton Lee County lynching
Lee County Sheriff J. “Ed” Albritton in an undated photo.    (LCSO)

At some point R.J. Johnson was found. According to the 1924 account, he was arrested by Sheriff J.E. Albritton and put in the county jail.

“Hearing of this the armed citizens went to the jail and demanded the prisoner. The request being lawfully refused by the sheriff, he was overpowered, the jail unlocked and the negro led out,” states the 1924 article.

According to that article, once seized, Johnson was “taken before one of the girls” where he was identified and confessed. According to Zeitlin, however, one of the girls and her brother denied that there had been any rape.

In the Zeitlin account, Johnson was taken to a tree along Edison Avenue, hanged and shot. According to the 1924 account “his body was riddled with bullets and dragged through the streets to the Safety Hill section.”

The search then continued for Wilson, who was found at 4:46 am the next morning by a railroad foreman, hiding in a railroad box car on a northbound train. He was taken from the box car, hanged, castrated and shot multiple times. His body was then dragged down Cranford Avenue by a Model T.

“It was like a parade, some evil parade in Hell,” according to Mary Ware, a resident who was quoted in a 1976 article in the News-Press. The crowd broke up when the sheriff and a judge appeared.

05-18-19 lynchingclipOn Monday the afternoon edition of the Fort Myers News-Press was headlined “Negroes Pay Penalty for Horrible Crime Committed Yesterday.”

On the same day a jury convened and absolved the sheriff, attributing the lynchings to “parties unknown.”

“That the rape had taken place, the black community definitely felt never occurred, that it was prefabricated by this white man who came across them swimming,” said resident Jacob Johnson in a late 1990s interview with the Lee County Black History Society, quoted by Zeitlin. “Everyone felt … these boys had just been killed for no reason, other than they were there with these white girls.”

Commentary: Learning from history

As stated at the outset, this is where racism and bigotry lead.

But it’s also a lesson in the need for the rule of law. The two accused teenagers were never able to assert or prove their innocence, were presumed guilty from the outset, were never granted a public trial and were punished according to the whims of the mob, all violations of basic personal, legal and constitutional protections.

As the rule of law is eroded in this country, flouted from the president on down, every American loses the protections that law provides. The result can be something like the 1924 Fort Myers lynchings—and can lead to the deaths of innocents.

And as for false accusations and mistaken impressions leading to dangerous consequences, those are with us too.

The Sunday before last, on May 12, at the Off-the-Hook comedy club in Naples, Fla., when comedian Ahmed Ahmed made a joke about organizing a terrorist group with the Middle Easterners in the audience, a patron called 9-1-1 to report a possible terrorist incident.

Because of a joke. By a comedian. In a comedy club.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

 

26 May 1924, Page 1 - News-Press at Newspapers.com saved 5-18-19 cropped

Below is the full text, with original capitalization and usage, of the article on the Fort Myers lynching as published on the front page of The Fort Myers Press, on May 26, 1924:

NEGROES PAY PENALTY FOR HORRIBLE CRIME COMMITTED YESTERDAY

Two negro youths, “Bubbers” Wilson and Milton Williams, met death at the hands of “unknown persons” early this morning following their positive identification as the two negroes who yesterday afternoon had attacked two young Fort Myers school girls.

Within a few hours after word of the happening had reached town a systematic search was started independent of the efforts of Sheriff J.E. Albritton who with his force was on the job immediately upon hearing of the crime.

A general round up of suspicious characters by the sheriff’s office netted Wilson, who was lodged in the county jail.

Hearing of this the armed citizens went to the jail and demanded the prisoner. The request being lawfully refused by the sheriff, he was overpowered, the jail unlocked and the negro led out.

Taken before one of the girls he was identified by her and then taken away where he confessed to his captors, following which his body was riddled with bullets and dragged through the streets to the Safety Hill section.

The search for his accomplice was then carried out with increased vigor, all outlets from the city being carefully guarded. The hunted man was located about 4:46 a.m., on a north-bound train pulling out of the railroad yards. Following his positive identification, he met the same fate as the first negro.

The following jurors were sworn in by County Judge N.G. Stout, coroner ex-officio, this morning: C. J. Stubbs, C.C. Pursley, Vernon Wilderquist, Alvin Gorton, W.W. White and Thomas J. Evans.

Charged with ascertaining by what means the two negroes met their deaths, the jurors reported as follows: “the said “Bubbers” Wilson and Wilton Williams came to their death in the following manner, to-wit:

By the hands of parties unknown, and we herewith wish to commend the Sheriff and his entire force for the earnest efforts made by them, in their attempt to carry out the duties of their office.”

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