With the continuous news coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is easy to overlook how the law has treated Albert M. Florence.
One day in 2005, his wife was pulled over for speeding on a New Jersey highway. Unfortunately for Florence, he was sitting in the passenger seat. The state trooper ran a background check on Florence and discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest because he hadn’t paid a fine. Never mind that Florence always carried a document with him that indicated he had paid the fine. The trooper busted him anyway.
Now, anybody who has failed to pay a fine represents a clear and present danger to law and order, right? Of course, you say. That’s why Florence spent eight days in jail. And that’s why he was strip searched. Twice.
In early April, the same Supreme Court that handed an election to George Bush and declared corporations are people announced that strip-searching Albert M. Florence was fine and dandy. In fact, it is now fine and dandy to strip-search anybody arrested, no matter how puny the offense. An arrestee could, after all, be carrying a knife, a gun, God knows what. Or not. The court ruled that the authorities need absolutely no reason to inflict the humiliation of a strip search. People arrested for the littlest wrongs could be the most dangerous, Justice Kennedy intoned. Think of Timothy McVeigh, arrested for a broken tail light. Or the 9/11 bomber busted for speeding a few days before the attacks.
Okay. That’s two.
Nevertheless, this decision should give you the creeps. But no one should be creeped out more than African-American men who are incarcerated at a rate far higher than that of whites. Guilty ones. Innocent ones. The whole bunch.
Albert W. Florence is a case in point. He was carrying that document showing that he had paid his fine because he believes that black men get pulled over more often than whites. And Florence was in a fancy car. Black people are apparently suspicious if they drive nice cars, like the BMW Florence’s wife was driving. Is the automatic assumption that an African-American can afford a BMW only if he pays for it in drug cash? Albert Florence, it just so happens, was a financial manager at a car dealership.
Some critics believe this new strip-search policy in our democratic beacon of light violates international human rights principles, like Article V of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
But ultimately, we’re not just talking about jails.
We’re talking about that big, fuzzy cloud called suspicion.
Just about any black man who steps on an elevator occupied by whites can tell you about suspicion. Probably any black kid who walks through a department store can tell you about it.
And if he were still around to talk about it, Trayvon Martin could tell you about suspicion, too.
Mary Jo Melone, former columnist with the St. Petersburg Times, is a writer in Tampa.
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