A representative from the office of Florida State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit Angela Corey spoke to a group of African-American clergy from around the country this week, attempting to explain how that office works.
The ministers were gathered for a meeting of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC), as part of People for the American Way’s division of African American Religious Affairs. Rev. Leslie Malachi is the national director of the group, which boasts a membership of more than 2,200 ministers of all denominations.
Corey was the prosecutor who tried George Zimmerman, who was ultimately acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. She was also the prosecutor who tried Michael Dunn, accused of shooting and killing Jordan Davis for playing his music too loud; she failed to get a conviction in the first trial but in a retrial, Dunn was convicted and is now serving time in prison.
Prosecutor Mark Caliel was there in the place of “Ms. Corey,” as he continually referred to her. He was flanked by the superintendent of Duval County public schools, and by Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams. The sheriff talked about how he understands the importance of law enforcement being a part of the communities that it serves; he requires his officers as well as himself, to “knock on the doors” of people in the community, to get to know them, their issues and problems, and thus be less inclined to make snap judgments which might result in tragedy.
Nikolai Vitti, the school superintendent, talked about his committed to working with the children in Duval County. If a child is accused of battery there, he or she will be arrested and will begin a relationship with “the system” that usually yields nothing but more trials and recidivism. There are some offenses that kids commit, however, that will result in their receiving a “civil citation.” Receiving a civil citation gives the child an opportunity to be helped; he or she is not arrested, but is put into a program that helps them deal with anger management and conflict resolution, among other things.
Vitti said there Corey’s office tends to give kids who live in more affluent neighborhoods more “second chances” than others. Those kids, said Vitti, receive civil citations for doing the same things as kids in urban areas, only the kids in urban areas end up getting arrested, accused of battery.
“My primary concern regarding Angela Corey’s approach has to do with battery,” said Vitti. “If a child is accused of battery, he (she) is not eligible to receive a civil citation. In Duval County public schools, there were 58 students who, for the same offenses in other Florida cities, would have received a civil citation. Most of them were African-American. If students engaged in similar offenses in other cities can receive civil citations, why can’t they receive them in Jacksonville?”
What was painfully clear from Caliel’s statements is that Corey and her staff do not buy into the notion that there is disparity in the way kids in Jacksonville Public Schools and kids in other, more affluent areas, are treated.
Prosecutor Mark Caliel said his job to investigate each case but to also consider the plight of the victims. But there are no “victims” to consider when White kids do the same things that Black kids do that experience a different outcome.
Caliel also talked about the need for parents to be involved, something that frequently does not happen, not because parents do not care, but many times because they cannot take the time off work. There was the ever-present, underlying issue of blaming the kids who end up in “the system” for being there. There was no accountability or acknowledgement that White kids often do the same offenses, or worse, than those the African-American kids are accused of, but they get a slap on the wrist, if that, and are allowed to continue their lives.
After the session, I asked Caliel if he understood why the tension in the group rose as he talked about the process the State Attorney’s office uses in dealing with Black kids, and he nodded, but still maintained there is no racial problem. He contended that racism does not play into the decisions of who gets arrested and who gets a civic citation.
And I could tell by the look on his face and in his eyes, that he thoroughly believed what he was saying. The history of racism and racial discrimination is over, he said.
That mindset remains alive and well in this country, and unless and until it changes, we will continue to see the type of injustice that has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement to explode all over this country.
Rev. Susan K Smith is an ordained minister and is the founder of Crazy Faith Ministries. She is the author of several books, including the award-winning Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives and The Book of Jeremiah. She is available for workshops, preaching and presentations on the intersectionality of race, politics and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com