USA: Florida’s new governor makes welcome moves – by Mohamed Hamaludin

– by Mohamed Hamaludin

They came to be known as the Groveland Four – African American youths living in Lake County in 1949 whom a 17-year-old white girl falsely accused of rape. One of them, Ernest Thomas, fled and a 1,000-strong posse hunted him down and shot him 400 times after finding him sleeping under a tree, the Associated Press recently recounted. Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were sentenced to death and Charles Greenlee to life in prison but future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall won them a new trial.

Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot Irvin and Shepherd, claiming they tried to escape, while being handcuffed. Shepherd died but Irvin survived, although, the AP pointed out, an ambulance refused to take him to a hospital because he was black. He was again convicted, was paroled in 1968 and was found dead in his car as he drove back to Lake County for a funeral in 1969. Greenlee was paroled in 1960 and died in 2012.    

It took 68 years for an apology to be issued to the men’s relatives by the Legislature which asked then Gov. Rick Scott to pardon them but he did not.  Newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican like Scott, and his Cabinet, at their first meeting on Friday, posthumously pardoned the Groveland Four.

Also on Friday, the new governor appointed Gregory Tony the first African American sheriff of Broward County after suspending Scott Israel over his handling of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass killings.

And, despite grumbling by some Republicans, DeSantis did not block implementation of Amendment 4, clearing the way for the restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote, for 1.2 million ex-felons, among them 400,000 African Americans. Now only three states still have laws that permanently bar former felons from having their rights restored: Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia.

If DeSantis wanted to atone for the racist overtones of his campaign, his early steps are not bad for a candidate who cautioned his supporters not to “monkey up” things as he faced African American Andrew Gillum. It is a pity that his tenure is starting with no African American Supreme Court justice; none was submitted by the Judicial Nominating Commission – which is something he should look into.

DeSantis is no progressive and he is certain to adopt conservative policies, some probably extremist, but he has also taken commendable steps to address Florida’s environmental problems, something Scott vehemently opposed. And if he is so inclined, there is a wish list to draw from, such as opposing a bill from State Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, to ban the removal of any monument — including Confederate symbols — from public places. Hill, an Air Force veteran, is the first African American elected to the Legislature since Reconstruction, Miami New Times noted.

He can also oppose another bill from Mike Hill — who seems to be claiming the mantle of Allen West, another African American rightwinger — to rescind the modest gun control law which the Legislature passed after the Douglas High massacre raising the age for buying a rifle to 21, mandating a three-day waiting period to buy a rifle and making it easier for police to seize guns from people deemed dangerous.

Criminal justice reform should also be high on his agenda. A good point of reference is Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s pardon of 3,500 non-violent drug offenders. But Florida needs a wider approach. The state has the second highest rate of incarceration, after Texas, according to the Florida Policy Institute. Including “one of the largest populations of mentally ill and drug-addicted individuals in its prisons.”

The Affordable Care Act, a winning issue for Democrats in the mid-term elections, especially its coverage for pre-existing conditions, deserves a second look. Scott rejected $1.9 billion in federal funding to expand the state’s Medicaid program and dragged Florida into a legal challenge to the law popularly known as Obamacare.

DeSantis campaigned on a promise that “no person should be denied access to medical care based on the existence of a pre-existing condition,” the Tampa Bay Times reported, but, while he was in Congress, he voted to repeal the law and replace it. A growing number of elected officials nationally are planning to expand coverage to the uninsured, including Washington state’s Inslee, California’s new governor Gavin Newsome and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. So too are leaders in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Those are all Democrats but, as Republicans are finding out, health insurance knows no partisanship.

The governor should also look at electoral gerrymandering and how elections are conducted. This would be a really bold move because it could put the Republicans’ stranglehold on state government in jeopardy. But, as DeSantis’ 0.41 percent win showed, manipulation of the system does not necessarily guarantee victory. If he is aiming for the 33 percent of Floridians who are independent voters, this is an area to consider.

Who knows? Perhaps Florida may one day repeat what Harris County, Texas, did after the Nov. 6 election: simultaneously swearing into office 17 black women as judges. Yep, 17 – and in Texas.

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Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who  worked for several years at The Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating to the United States in 1984 where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a commentary every week or two for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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