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Jacksonville high school, police, fair management target Black youth with racist dress code

By Dave Schneider

Jacksonville, FL – Students at a local Jacksonville high school are calling foul on a racist dress code policy implemented by administration last week.

On November 14, administrators at Robert E. Lee High School issued a new interpretation of the dress code that prohibits students from wearing memorial clothing on campus or at school-sponsored events. Citing prohibitions of “gang-related paraphernalia,” the school administrators banned any clothing with the acronym “RIP,” or “Rest in Peace,” even if the person commemorated has no proven gang affiliations.

The move comes on the heels of a major local controversy a week before involving several African American students from Lee High School at the Jacksonville Fair. Two Black teenagers were harassed and ejected by Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) after purchasing tickets and entering the fairgrounds. Video footage taken by the teens shows JSO officers yelling at the students to “pull up their pants,” to which the students complied. The officers then instructed one of the students remove or conceal a memorial necklace bearing the image of his deceased mother, ejecting the two soon after.

JSO claimed they were enforcing the Jacksonville Fair’s dress code prohibiting “memorial clothing and jewelry.” Fair management doubled down on this fake policy by posting a sign the day after ejecting the students. An investigation by News4Jax found that no such policy existed prior to the incident.

These policies against “memorial clothing” are thinly veiled racist rules targeting African Americans. Black communities across the U.S., including in Jacksonville, have a history of wearing airbrushed t-shirts, photo-print jewelry and other clothing items as memorials to deceased friends and family, particularly those killed by police.

The incident sparked community outrage, and many took action to challenge it by flooding the fair with memorial attire ranging from deceased celebrities to pets. One women, a white teacher who knew the students personally, exposed the racist nature of this policy by wearing a t-shirt in remembrance of ‘fallen veterans’ a few days later. She took photos with JSO officers and fairgrounds staff, who complemented and praised her shirt. These same officers later expelled more Black teenagers from the fairgrounds right in front of her.

To date, the Jacksonville Fair management has refused to issue a refund to the expelled students. They issued an insincere apology that recognized “hurt feelings” while reiterating their racist, arbitrary policy.

After several news reports exposed the JSO’s blatant racial profiling and the coverup, fair management went into overdrive attacking the Lee High School students from their social media account. JSO reportedly spoke to Lee High School administrators, prompting this new, racist interpretation of the dress code.

Hypocrisy and hope at Lee High School

Many students and community members have pointed out the double standard of a school named after a slave-owning Confederate general – Robert E. Lee – banning ‘memorial clothing.’ Jacksonville, like many cities across the U.S. South, had a string of schools, public parks and monuments named after racist Confederate Civil War figures in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Pushed by white supremacist groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, these ‘memorials’ were created in response to desegregation and the successes of the Black freedom movement.

Students at Lee High School have a recent history of activism and organizing in the community. The EVAC Movement consists of 15 African American students who meet regularly to learn about the law, social change, and activism with their mentor and teacher, Amy Donofrio. These students, rejecting the label ‘at-risk’ in favor of a more proactive ‘at-hope’ approach, have earned national recognition for their activism, even visiting the White House and meeting President Barack Obama several years ago.

“I’ve met several of these students from Lee High School’s EVAC program,” said Michael Sampson, a lead organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee. “These young people have a real spark for making positive change in their classrooms and communities. The way the school, the police, and the fairgrounds management have targeted them is flat-out disgusting. We’re demanding nothing less than accountability across the board.”

Racism and national oppression in Jacksonville

Jacksonville is home to nearly 270,000 African Americans, making it one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the United States. But while African Americans make up 30.3% of the city’s population, they comprise 47.9% of those living in poverty.

The Black community in Jacksonville, heavily concentrated on the city’s Northside, has suffered from over-policing and economic strangulation by the city’s ruling class of Dixie capitalists. From 2009 to 2016, Black males made up 76% of those shot and 68% of those killed by JSO officers, according to research by News4Jax’s investigative team. The same investigation found that from the earliest available data in 1996 to present day, not a single shooting by a JSO officer has ever been ruled ‘unjustified’ or resulted in indictments.

The JSO’s long history of racial profiling goes beyond police shootings. In 2017, a study by Ben Conarck of the Florida Times Union and Topher Sanders of ProPublica found that JSO deliberately targets Black communities for “jay-walking.” Black people received 55% of all jay-walking tickets issued by the JSO, making them “nearly three times as likely as whites to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation.” According to the study, “Residents of the city’s three poorest zip codes were about six times as likely to receive a pedestrian citation as those living in the city’s other, more affluent 34 zip codes.”

Jacksonville sits at the outskirts of the Black Belt, a region that stretches across the U.S. South originally named for its rich soil. Home to the transatlantic slave trade, this region was ground-zero for chattel slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. From the 1700s to present day, the Black Belt has the highest concentration of Black people in the U.S., making it a historic home of both national oppression and Black resistance.

Fighting for police accountability

In the last decade, Jacksonville has seen a rising Black freedom movement pushing back against racist police crimes and other discriminatory policies. Activists forced the Duval County School Board to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in 2013, which had been named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2016, the Black community and its allies removed State Attorney Angela Corey from office. Corey had worked closely with the JSO to incarcerate a record number of Black youth.

Since that time, Black-led groups like the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC) have launched a campaign for community control of the police. Organizers want the creation of an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), which would have the power to hire and fire officers, rewrite conduct policies, subpoena evidence, and investigate police crimes. If created, the CPAC could investigate police misconduct, like the incident at the Jacksonville Fair, and hold the officers involved accountable.

National oppression of the Black community in Florida runs deep, making the fight for police accountability in Jacksonville difficult. Florida statute 112.532 establishes a “Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights,” known as LEOBOR, which grants extra protections to police and prevents the community from holding them accountable. The JCAC, along with other community organizations, have called on lawmakers in the Florida state legislature to repeal LEOBOR and create a Civilian Police Accountability Council.

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