By Christina Kittle
Jacksonville, FL – The United States has a notorious history with the national oppression of Black people. In the South, remnants of slave society exist as a constant reminder of this – Confederate street names, school names and monuments are physical reminders one encounters daily – but we see it also manifest in the social structure of the Black Belt South – the historically constituted nation of Black people in the United States.
The Black Belt South originally referred to the dark, rich soil geographically native to the region. The use of Black slave labor to cultivate this soil, however, changed the meaning of the term. Even after the abolition of slavery, the majority of Black families were left in the area with no land reform or resources to relocate. Since reparations were never distributed to former slaves or their descendants, many Black individuals and families were stuck in Deep South plantation culture, despite being ‘free.’ This poor start to ‘freedom,’ mixed with lingering racism harbored by the plantation owners who faced no retribution for their crimes against Black people, have impacted the Black Belt in the form of extreme social and economic repression.
The Black Belt has the highest concentration of African American and Caribbean American Black residents. It is also home to the lowest wages, lowest education rates and highest poverty rates in the country. These implications can be examined through the structure of Jacksonville, Florida – a city near the southern portion of the Black Belt.
Jacksonville, Florida is a hub for violence, and the numbers prove it. In the city’s 2017 homicide report, the number one cause of death was getting shot, while the second cause was getting shot by the police.
Jacksonville’s 2018 back-to-school season saw two mass shootings. Raines High School experienced a mass shooting during a football game against rival team Lee High School on August 24. Two days later at the Jacksonville Landing, a well-known landmark downtown, another mass shooting took place during a Madden NFL video game tournament.
Both incidents were carried out by young men, and both happened on the same weekend. Individually, however, they received very different coverage, coverage that mirrors how the U.S. media portrays whites positively and Blacks negatively. The coverage of each story reflects the racist national oppression of Blacks in Jacksonville and the Black Belt.
Consolidation, poverty, and the Black community
Raines High School sits north of Jacksonville’s 45th Street and Moncrief Road, also known as Jacksonville’s Northside. Historically, Blacks make up the majority of Jacksonville’s Northside – and this continues to be the case today. From the late 1800s to the early 1960s, before Urban Renewal plans hit neighborhoods in an attempt to ‘desegregate,’ the Northside experienced a Black renaissance. The area was formerly known as Sugar Hill.
Regarded as a ‘prestigious, upscale suburb,’ Sugar Hill included present-day Davis Street, Jefferson Street, Moncrief Road, and 8th Street. The neighborhood economically benefited by having a Black-owned hospital, George A. Brewster Hospital & School of Nurse Training, the Duval Medical Center, as well as a Black higher learning center prior to 1924 called the Cookman Institute. The Darnell Cookman School still stands on the intersection of present day Davis Street and 8th Street as a middle and high school.
Sugar Hill’s prosperity, however, came to an abrupt end with the addition of the Interstate-95 expressway in 1960. The expressway cut through the neighborhood and required the demolition of Black-owned homes and businesses in Sugar Hill during its construction.
For the Black-owned businesses not demolished by construction, the new interstate redirected traffic completely over and away from the neighborhood. Potential customers would no longer know these businesses even existed unless they took an exit. With the end of legal segregation and the passing of Civil Rights legislation, city politicians argued there was “no longer a need for a Black hospital.” In 1966, Brewster Hospital closed, which also landed a devastating economic blow to the area.
These actions arrived just three years before the city’s historic Consolidation Plan. The Consolidation Plan aimed to consolidate the outer suburbs of Jacksonville, which were predominantly white, under the same leadership as the urban core of Jacksonville, which was predominantly Black. This was a form of voter suppression. With consolidation efforts officially passing in 1968, Jacksonville’s Black leadership began to dissipate as white votes poured in from the surrounding areas suddenly recognized as Duval County. Jacksonville is the largest city in the United States by land area because of this consolidation.
These economic and political attacks have created many problems for Black people in Jacksonville, ranging from material difficulties to mental health issues. The conditions on the Northside remain desperate in the wake of natural disasters, like Hurricane Irma in 2017, which flooded out the Ken Knight Drive area ; the area received no aid from the city to rebuild. All of these forms of oppression forced upon the Black community often leads to individuals suffering from complex trauma. Complex trauma is a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated negative experiences from which the individual has little or no chance of escape.
Present-day crime and city spending
Most violent crimes in Jacksonville are shootings. In a very failed effort to combat this, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office attempts to out-police violent gun crime. Since there is no way to actually ‘out-police’ crime – what the city sees instead is that police shootings rank as the number-two cause of homicide in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams asks for more funding around the same time of year (back-to-school season/election and budget season) based on the idea that more cops will help “crack down on crime.” However there have been no conclusive studies to prove this claim. The recent spike in violent crime in Jacksonville, despite city council leaders voting to increase the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) budget by $4.4 million and add 80 new officers in 2017, further illustrates that there is no correlation between more cops and less crime.
Crime results from the failures of the current system, which can only be swept away with a radical restructuring of society that places poor and working people in charge. The rich and powerful create the material conditions that lead to crime by depriving people of access to basic human needs. We can fight for increased spending on after-school programs, greater investments in public health and infrastructure, better job opportunities, public transportation and accessible mental health treatment as important ways to reduce crime as we fight for a better world.
The 2018-2019 Jacksonville city budget, which passed despite several organized community speakouts against it, adds $30 million in additional funding to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Many people, particularly the Black community, expressed through several ways that $30 million could be better spent on programs and infrastructure that actually reduce crime rates.
Activists with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC), some of whom are members of Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), led community members and other activist organizations in demanding city leaders redirect funds to social programs such as after school and other youth programs, rehabilitation centers and accessible mental health. However, the city, once again, voted to allocate funds towards disproportionately over-policing the Jacksonville area. They ignored the growing tide of activists fighting for community control of the police and an elected civilian police accountability council that could hold the police accountable for their crimes.
Racist reporting and lack of urgency
Early in 2018 Jacksonville made national news for the JSO inaccurately reporting five attacks on Black transgender and queer people, which included four fatalities. JSO’s investigation did not comply with the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, which is a federal law mandating that police recognize the perceived identity of a victim, regardless of their legal name and gender marker. JSO failed to comply with this in their reporting, despite community activists and advocates informing them of the discrepancy.
This was incredibly disrespectful towards Black transgender people. It also allowed important evidence to disappear during the most critical hours of the investigation. For the first investigation, the police asked witnesses if they knew “DeVonne Walker,” while everyone knew her as Celine Walker. The Black transgender community, though small, suffered incredible trauma from both her death and the lack of urgency for justice and respect shown by JSO. This was repeated again and again after the four attacks on the same community that followed. Not only did the police fail to bring justice, but they insulted the victims again and again.
“The Black LGBT community is scared right now,” said the director of Coalition for Consent, a local gender liberation group led by Black and oppressed nationality activists. “It’s traumatic to see so many attacks back to back, but considering that there was no warning from officials or police about the targeting of Black transgender people really adds a disturbing aspect. It shows how much Black lives matter to them. If it were any other group of people, there would be warnings issued to help protect that community.”
A terrible aspect to these cases – one often seen in police reports about murdered Black people – is the suggestive language used by the police. It is not uncommon for reports to suggest that victims ‘deserved’ their fate in some way when it is a Black death in question.
For the Black transgender attacks in Jacksonville, it is important to note that an extension of the 2009 Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr. Act also claims that victims have a right to an investigation even if they were engaged in illicit acts such as sex work or drug dealing.
Despite these federal protections, reports from the JSO heavily suggested that Celine Walker was engaged in sex work because she was found in a hotel room. By adding this to the public reports, it muted the urgency in finding her killer. It suggested to the public that somehow, she deserved her fate because of her perceived lifestyle choices.
This is the same type of reporting we saw in 2016 when 22-year-old Vernell Bing was shot by Officer Tyler Laundreville on 9th and Liberty Street – an area formerly part of Sugar Hill. Initial police reports mentioned drugs and firearms were involved. Though later reports admitted that neither were actually present at the scene of Bing’s murder, the initial statements stuck in the media. This allowed JSO to paint Bing as a ‘thug’ and allowed Laundreville to keep his position on the force. This was one of the first local cases that started the fight for community control of the police in Jacksonville and demonstrated the need for a police accountability council.
Keegan Roberts, a Black working-class father, was murdered in his own front yard by a racist vigilante neighbor. Police reports said he had marijuana on him at the time of his death. This was an unnecessary addition since he was not being targeted by the police at all for anything illegal. Keegan was killed by his white neighbor over a small piece of litter. Keegan’s neighbor walked over to Keegan’s side of the street and murdered him while hurling racial slurs at Keegan and Keegan’s pregnant wife because he believed Keegan was responsible for a small piece of trash that had blown onto his lawn. The attempt to suggest that victim had drugs on him is a common tactic to deny the killer’s accountability. It also reinforces the notion that Keegan somehow deserved to be killed on his own property over a piece of trash. Neither the cops, the state attorney, or other city leaders have to do anything because Keegan ‘deserved it.’
Jacksonville also made national news in 2017 from an award-winning article by the Florida Times Union and Pro Publica titled “Walking While Black” which exposed illegal stop and frisk procedures and racial profiling of Jacksonville’s Black community. When asked by the JCAC if this was common practice by the JSO against Black civilians, Undersheriff Pat Ivey did not even seem to realize that stop-and-frisks were illegal. He admitted that they were a common method used by JSO to stop people and search them.
Overpoliced, facing discrimination and impoverished, the Black community in Jacksonville battles these conditions and all the problems they bring. Suffering from police crimes and a general lack of urgency when justice is needed, the community must also fight to hold the police accountable to the community.
Violent crimes: The double standard
According to Child Poverty as a Potential Developmental Trauma: Shame, Self-Esteem, and Redignification of Childhood, children living in extreme poverty suffer from trauma. Extreme poverty, with unaffordable childcare options, little to no after school youth programs, and parents working 50 hour work weeks, negatively impact children. Extreme poverty also leads to whole communities suffering from high crime rates as people struggle to survive. When crime is on the rise like it is in Jacksonville, the material conditions that cause crime must be addressed. In Jacksonville these conditions continue to be ignored, and more violent outbursts are seen, often targeting young people.
Black ‘gang’ violence was immediately associated with the shooting at Raines High School on the Northside by the police and media. This paints a negative picture of everyone involved, including the victims. The shooter at The Landing, a young white male gamer, was immediately deemed mentally ill. This dampens the call for accountability around the white shooter. These are dangerous reports in a city with a strong history of racism and demonstrate a double standard.
Tweets from the white shooter at The Landing revealed a hatred of women, hatred of humanity in general, and reverence for other mass killers like the Columbine, Colorado shooters. Media reports paint a picture of a lonely young man let down by society. As outlined above, Black youth are let down by society more often than not, but most mass shooters are white males. The fact is that mental illness does not correlate to violent crime.
Both shooters are murderers and must still be held accountable for their actions. Prevention should be taken more seriously, and care must be taken when reporting tragedies like these to avoid racist stereotypes and stereotypes against those who suffer from mental illness. It is wrong to associate violent crime with mental illness while ignoring the real material reasons behind everything. The rich and powerful are to blame for creating the conditions which produce crime. Only when the working class is in power can these conditions be swept away.
National oppression and the struggle for liberation
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humans first have physiological needs that must be met, i.e.: food, water and shelter, and then the next set of needs that must be met are safety and belonging. People need these requirements to be met, but when we do a breakdown of the Black community in Jacksonville, homelessness and unemployment rates suggest that many people go without basic needs. According to the 2012 Homeless Coalition Report, the homeless population is 55% Black while only accounting for 24% of the total population in Duval, Nassau and Clay counties.
While food, water and shelter are inaccessible to many Black people, particularly those in Jacksonville’s urban core, everyone suffers. For children living in poverty, some reports say they are three times as likely as an adult combat war veteran to suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Florida Times Union, 23% of Duval County is under the age of 18. A quarter of those under the age of 18 live below the poverty line. Of those living below the poverty line, 58% are Black and 32% are white. Poverty, homelessness, limited job opportunities, high unemployment rates and racism leave the Black community much less prosperous than it was back in the days of Sugar Hill. These factors especially affect the youth struggling to survive in these conditions.
Cities like Jacksonville need to make sure that the basic needs of the community are met from the physiological (food, water, shelter) to psychological (safety and belonging). It is clearly not in the interest of the rich and powerful who rule society to ensure that basic human needs are met. It is up to the working class and oppressed nations, like the Black Belt nation, to fight to change society from the ground up and win political power away from the 1%.
In the Black Belt South, the struggle for self-determination faces political, economic, historical and mental oppression. It is only through militant, dedicated organizing efforts that the people’s movements are growing and cities like Jacksonville are organizing and fighting back.
source: Trauma and the Black community