Recent revelations about the contents of an email sent by an Assistant State Attorney to members of at least two Polk County law enforcement agencies have sparked outrage and fear within the Polk County African-American community. The email contained a suggestion that LEOs use K-9 units against peaceful civil rights workers at a rally. For anyone who has even the most cursory understanding of the history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950′s and 1960′s it is easy to understand why these emails elicit such a visceral response from people of color.
Only a week earlier it was revealed that Grady Judd, the Sheriff of Polk County, had been using undercover deputies to infiltrate and spy on civil rights groups meeting in a predominantly African-American church. According to internal documents, the undercover deputies did not simply attend and observe. The undercover operatives attempted to co-opt the meeting by spinning tall tales of their own abuse at the hands of law enforcement.
That an undercover agent would feign distress in order to gain the sympathetic attention of folks who have experienced actual abuse only exacerbated the feelings of violation felt by churchgoers. The willingness of law enforcement operatives to prey upon the Good Samaritan sensibilities of a poor and largely disenfranchised minority has served only to validate the anxiety of African-Americans.
How these facts came to light has inflamed the feelings of fear and betrayal.
When Clayton Cowart, pastor of the Church of God the Bible Way and head of the Poor and Minority Justice Association (PMJA) attempted to gain access to public records within the custody of the Sheriff of Polk County, his access was denied. In response to a remarkably simple public records request – any emails mentioning “Clayton Cowart” created or received by the agency over a three-year period – he was told it would cost more than $16,000 to get the records.
In a letter signed by the Sheriff’s lawyer, Cowart was told that the Sheriff’s email client was incapable of doing keyword searches. As a result, scores of thousands of emails would have to be printed as hard-copy and manually reviewed to identify responsive records.
Those claims are so ludicrous they bring to my mind one word: “whopper.”
When I made the identical public records request I received the documents within days and at no cost. Blackie “no” – Whitie “yes.” It may take a moment for your eyes to adjust, but if you’ll take a step back you’ll begin to see the racial mosaic more clearly.
Add to the equation the nature of some of the records that were withheld (revelations about the COINTELPRO style shenanigans of Sheriff’s deputies) and it’s understandable why so many African-American folks feel like this is more than happenstance.
Taken in combination, it’s not hard to see why so many folks in the Polk County African-American community are afraid. They believe those tasked with enforcing the law (the Polk County Sheriff, Winter Haven Police Department and the State Attorney) are in cahoots to harass, intimidate and cover-up.
It would be difficult to exaggerate how profoundly offensive the “K-9” email was to African-Americans. It conjures images of Bull Conner, Central High School and the Edmond Pettus Bridge. More importantly, it confirms what many African-Americans believe: the establishment will do almost anything to keep a brother down.