Orlando, Law Enforcement, the KKK, and “Post-Racial America”
In their Broadway hit Book of Mormon, one of the jokes Trey Parker and Matt Stone run throughout the show centers around two geographic locations: Orlando, Florida, and the African country of Uganda. The heart of the gag centers on how the sheltered, young, white missionary has spent his life dreaming of being sent to the home of Epcot to spread Joseph Smith’s good word, but is instead sent to a foreign land surrounded by people who terrify him. It’s not an overly subtle running joke, but it’s amusingly done, and the near-all-white Book of Mormon audiences eat it up.
It was hard not to think of Parker and Stone’s gag this morning when I read over at TPM that two Fruitland Park, Florida police officers — one the department’s Deputy Chief — were dismissed for allegedly being members of the Ku Klux Klan. And you can take that obligatory “alleged” for whatever it’s worth: The revelation comes from an in-depth FBI investigation, and one of the two simply agreed to resign when confronted with the accusation.
Of course, being a member of the KKK is not in fact against the law. And membership to white supremacist organizations is not, curiously, officially grounds for dismissal from law enforcement organizations in the state of Florida. Nonetheless, the city is choosing to let the officers go since, as Chief Deputy State Attorney correctly notes, “if [there] was a black suspect and the officer was in the Klan, that’s something the defense could bring out.”
At first blush, this is a classic the-system-works, happy-ending story: Two police officers go rogue, are caught by their fellow law-enforcement kin, and immediately removed from office. When you broaden the context, however, the story — and what it says about our supposed “post-racial America” — becomes far more troubling.
For starters, there’s the matter that this isn’t the first time the KKK has been in the news in the area surrounding the police officer’s beat. Fruitland Park is not a hick, backwater town, but rather a middle-class suburb of Orlando. This past winter, the Klan was leaving flyers in predominantly black neighborhoods in Orlando’s Orange County. Though the flyers declared that area whites “[wouldn’t] stand for our area to be invaded,” local authorities decided they were non-threatening and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The black community was assured, however, that police throughout the county would investigate this new curiosity to make sure local minorities had nothing to fear. That some members of the police were involved with the Klan at the time the Klan was being investigated is troubling, to say the least. (It is not, however, unprecedented. A county sheriff, Willis McCall, initiated the Klan’s initial installation into Florida area in the late 1940s.)
And if seeing the concepts “Orlando suburb” and “racially charged” so closely in juxtaposition are tugging at something in your memory, you are not alone. Orlando’s many suburbs also include Sanford, Florida. Sanford, of course, is the home to the very police department that set cable-news-ratings wheels a’ soarin’ by releasing George Zimmerman without doing their due diligence, noting that Stand Your Ground relieved them of the responsibility of doing so.
Critics will point out, correctly, that all of these are data points are not necessarily related. And yet it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that together they tell a larger story.
For example, there’s the whole need for the FBI to be a whistle-blower at all. The two Fruitland Park officers dismissed this week were not fresh rookies that had yet to learn the ropes. Each was a longtime member of the force; one was its second-highest ranking officer. Now, is it possible that two officers can be both so wrapped up in a white supremacist lifestyle and so short-sighted that they would be stupid enough to join the KKK — and yet still somehow never do or say anything that might raise red flags in their own department? Maybe — but I have to say to my eye that’s a pretty damn weak maybe, and to be honest even as I consider the possibility I can hear Occam screaming at me to take his damn razor already.
Also, I’d be lying if I said the response from the State Attorney — “if [there is] a black suspect and the officer was in the Klan, that’s something the defense could bring out” — doesn’t make me cringe. How a jury would look at evidence provided by Klan member against a black defendant might indeed be worrisome for a multi-racial community, but not nearly as worrisome as the fact that a Klan member was compiling evidence on black defendants. Somehow the State Attorney’s office took the news that there were Klan police officers and managed to make their big public message one that slyly stated whoever the black guy in court might be, he is totally guilty and needs to be put behind bars.
For me, it’s hard not to see this as more grist for Ta-Nehisi’s mill.