Ron DeSantis wants to break the unions and make a temporary advantage permanent.
” . . . In Florida, all of the most important macro-issues of American politics are screaming out as we speak. The proud fascism that DeSantis embodies must be met with radicalism. Clinton-esque Democratic attempts to triangulate their way out of the problem are doomed to fail, and will only serve to drive home the untrue impression that Florida is a red state. You can’t equivocate with DeSantis. He puts Black people in jail at gunpoint for voting; he bans books and outlaws Black history teaching with a bluntness that would make George Orwell blush; he demonizes trans kids, perfectly happy to drive a few young people to suicide if it helps him solidify his own position. This guy is not some sophisticated mastermind — he’s an asshole. He is the embodiment of the worst 30% of Floridians, the ones who make the state a national punchline. And those who roll over for him, like the dozens of college presidents who publicly kowtow to his backwards “vision,” are cowards who will find themselves on the wrong side of history when the uncensored textbooks eventually get written.
That is one thing Florida proves: The absolute need for the Democrats to stop being weak and afraid of their own convictions. The second thing it proves is the absolute centrality of organized labor as a path out of the political quandary that afflicts America. Inequality has killed public faith in institutions, and modern media has entrenched national partisanship to a degree that some perceive as hopeless. Unions can roll back inequality. Unions can bring people of different political persuasions together in common cause in the workplace. Unions can show people an actual functioning democracy. Unions can lead regular people to political activism based on principles they learn by fighting for fair treatment for themselves. Unions can be strong enough to serve as a wall that stops the predations of opportunistic, hateful politicians like Ron DeSantis.
But all of that can only happen if many people are in unions. In Florida, as in the rest of the South, they’re mostly not. Unions need to spend much more money to organize new workers. Unions need to spend much more money organizing in the South. The Democratic Party needs to prioritize and enable this to a much larger degree — out of self-interest, if nothing else. Unions can change people, and they can change Florida, and they can change the country. But only if they rouse themselves out of their stupor and organize millions of people.
All of these things are connected. Working people and environmentalists together can unquestionably be a strong enough coalition to control the state of Florida, far stronger than the petty racists and boat-owning car dealers that make up the DeSantis base. Pulling this together requires a strong labor movement, and it requires the Democratic Party helping to build that movement. There is nothing impossible about any of this. The threat here is bigger than one teachers union, or one state. Ron DeSantis intends to make Florida a stepping stone that he will use to walk into the White House and prove that America is still a racist, oppressive nation at heart. Stop him before he gets there. As a native Floridian, I politely call on the Florida Democrats, unions, teachers, and people of all stripes who don’t prefer life in a dystopia: Get your shit together, before it’s too late. . . “
DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.
DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.
Republican politicians and right-wing activists are transforming one of the Sunshine State’s liberal arts schools into the “Hillsdale of the South,” a strategy that could be replicated across the country. As one New College alum tells Vanity Fair, “I weep for our nation if DeSantis wins a presidential bid.”
ILLUSTRATION BY KHOA TRAN. IMAGES FROM GETTY IMAGES.
It took New College president Patricia Okker three attempts to deliver her farewell remarks. She kept being interrupted during last week’s board meeting in Sarasota, Florida, including once by a member of the school’s board of trustees, making a motion to terminate her without cause. Okker had been addressing the dozens of students, faculty, and parents who’d come to defend her record—and the hundreds more outside who weren’t admitted—saying she was sorry to disappoint them, but she couldn’t represent the mandate New College was being given through this “hostile takeover.” And she refused to support the claims of right-wing critics that the school had been indoctrinating its students.
In the audience, supporters hugged one another and students left in tears. The trustees moved on, voting to replace Okker with interim president Richard Corcoran, Florida’s recently departed education commissioner who, in a 2021 speech at Michigan’s right-wing Hillsdale College, came close to calling for the collapse of the public school system through student attrition and said the political war “will be won in education.” The trustees replaced the board chair too, made plans to replace the general counsel, and instructed administrators to start preparing to dismantle the college’s diversity offices.
It was hard to imagine a starker change in leadership for New College, the small, nontraditional honors college of the Florida public university system, known for its lack of grades, individualized majors, and leftist student body, but which has also been eyed skeptically for years by Florida’s conservative-dominated legislature for its low enrollment and graduation rates. But that was exactly the transformation intended when Governor Ron DeSantis last month appointed six new trustees to the school’s 13-member board, in hopes they would remake New College into a right-leaning “classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south,” as his education commissioner Manny Diaz put it.
After the Republican-controlled Board of Governors appointed a seventh trustee, the new majority represented a team uniquely qualified to carry out DeSantis’s scorched-earth, right-wing education wars. There was Manhattan Institute fellow and anti-critical race theory hype man Christopher Rufo, who has most recently turned his efforts to laying “siege” to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; one of Hillsdale’s graduate school deans, Matthew Spalding, who also helped lead Donald Trump’s short-lived 1776 Commission; Charles Kesler of the right-wing Claremont Institute, which spent the Trump years retconning an intellectual platform for the MAGA movement; a senior editor at a religious right magazine; the Catholic author of a book accused of “fram[ing] LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness”; and a private Christian school cofounder with a penchant for Covid disinformation.
Following his appointment, Rufo immediately began speaking in martial terms: that conservatives were “recapturing higher education,” mounting a “landing team” to survey the school as well as a “hostage rescue operation” to “liberate” it from “cultural hostage takers.” Another new trustee, the private Christian academy cofounder Jason“Eddie” Speir, started a Substack to chronicle the transformation, sparking further panic in late January with a post proposing the board declare a financial emergency, firing the entire staff and rehiring only those professors aligned with the school’s new business model. (Speir also used his newsletter to propose banningUSA Today affiliates from covering campus events over a reader comment suggesting people throw dog poop on the new trustees; to request the entire board be given his essay, “‘Florida, Where Woke Goes to Die’ What Does It Mean?” as “supporting material”; and to ask if any readers had a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order he could borrow.)
Students, faculty, and alumni from New College and far beyond decried the takeover as an attack on academic freedom with national implications. Multiple scholarly organizations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Historical Association, denounced it as “an orchestrated attack on academic integrity.” The University of Florida graduate assistants’ union tweeted a message of “Solidarity with New College students, faculty, and staff as DeSantis appoints a card-carrying fascist to the presidency.” At a campus rally preceding last Tuesday’s meeting, former Democratic state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith warned, “New College is their first test, their first trial run.” Repeating a Twitter hashtag protesting students had used, Smith added, “your campus is next.”
As though to prove them right, on February 1, Florida Republican state representative Spencer Roach—who cosponsored a recent Florida law mandating ideological surveys of public university campuses to “stem the tide of Marxist indoctrination”—tweeted that Okker’s termination should be replicated “at every university of the state.” In a January essay published in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Rufo touted the opportunities for emulation as well, writing that “If we are successful” in carrying out the mission of “institutional recapture,” what happens at New College “can serve as a model for other states.”
One horrified alum, Cayenne Linke, who attended New College in the 1990s, compared the takeover to a violent assault. “I feel like I’m standing at the precipice of the Fourth Reich, and I’m mostly powerless to fight back,” Linke said. “I weep for our nation if DeSantis wins a presidential bid and inevitably installs Rufo as education secretary.”
But that sort of lament has largely left the new trustees unmoved. When a current LGBTQ+ student told reporters about her grief, Rufo quoted her comments on Twitter, adding a laughing-crying emoji.
The invocation of Hillsdale College, a 1,500-student private Christian school in rural Michigan, might seem a surprising model for overhauling a public Florida institution, but it shouldn’t. The college, sometimes called “the citadel of conservatism,” has long had an outsized political influence in movement conservatism. Right-wing politicians and advocates vie for slots in its speaking program, the speeches of which are then distributed to a claimed audience of 6 million through a monthly Hillsdale publication. Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist who soughtto overturn the 2020 election, and who is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,facilitated the launch of Hillsdale’s Capitol Hill campus in Washington. This magazine called Hillsdale a “feeder school” for the Trump administration.
Hillsdale has also spent the last 12 years proselytizing its Western civilization-focused model of “classical education” through a nationwide charter school-planting network, a bundle of freely-licensed right-wing K–12 curricula (including its ahistorical post-Trump “1776 Curriculum”), and its extensive connections with conservative state leaders. It’s largely thanks to Hillsdale that the idea of “classical education”—despite its varied forms and perspectives—has become right-wing shorthand for anti-“woke” American exceptionalism and an antidote to critical race theory. Last year, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee announced plans to open 50 Hillsdale charters across the state; the year before, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, who is also the former president of the Claremont Institute, claimed that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem offered to build him an entire campus. (Noem’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
But in Florida, Hillsdale’s footprint is uniquely large. The state boasts the highest number of Hillsdale-affiliated K–12 publicly-funded charter schools, several launched or directed by spouses of prominent state Republicans, including Corcoran and Republican congressman Byron Donalds. Hillsdale was instrumental in helping DeSantis overhaul the state’s K–12 civics standards along more “patriotic” lines. Last year the state hired a Hillsdale duo—one staffer, one undergraduate—to assess whether math textbooks Florida teachers submitted for approval contained prohibited concepts like critical race theory. And a number of prominent Florida officials, including Corcoran and DeSantis himself, have addressed gatherings hosted by the college, where Arnn praised both men as among the most important people in America today.
Rufo has addressed Hillsdale audiences too: once in early 2021, where he laid out what quickly became Republican talking points about critical race theory, and again last spring, in a speech entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” which he recently described as his “theory of action.” In the latter address, delivered while Rufo was teaching a journalism course for the college, he called on state legislators to use their budgetary power to reshape public institutions, including higher education.
“We have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom—a total fraud, that’s just a false statement, fundamentally false—and that you can’t touch it or else you’re impinging on the rights of the gender studies department to follow their dreams,” he said. Instead, conservatives must have the guts to say, “‘What the public giveth, the public can taketh away.’ And so we get in there, we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”
In terms of the former, he elaborated, states should defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and find creative ways to undermine university departments perceived as too liberal, like changing state teacher accreditation laws as a means of rendering teachers colleges irrelevant. Both suggestions have become common conservative talking points over the last year. As The Chronicle of Higher Educationreported this week, South Carolina legislators have requested information from its state’s 33 public colleges and universities regarding training around race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, following similar moves in Florida and Oklahoma.
In terms of what the right does like, Rufo advised state legislators to fund the creation of new, independently-governed “conservative centers” within flagship public universities to attract conservative professors, create new academic tracks, and serve as a “separate patronage system” for the right.
“Some people don’t like thinking about it that way,” Rufo said. “But guess what? The public universities, the DEI departments, the public school bureaucracies are, at the end of the day, patronage systems for left-wing activists. And as long as there’s going to be a patronage system, wouldn’t it be good to have some people who are representing the public within them?”
In many ways, that’s an old idea. Big-money donors on the right like the Olin and Koch foundations have been establishing “beachhead” academic centers in universities across the country since the 1970s, as a means of shoring up academic arguments for right-wing policies, creating a pipeline of conservative talent, and endowing professorships for right-wing scholars—some of whom, more moderate academics suggest, are unemployable on their own merits. (Of possible note here: Corcoran’s appointment to New College follows his failed bid to become Florida State University’s president in 2021, when he was passed over, apparently, in part for lack of qualifications.)
But these days, the model has been adapted, so that funds for such programs and institutes are increasingly coming from state legislatures directly, as numerous red states have passed bills establishing new “classical” and “civics” institutes with barely-disguised agendas. In Arizona, the legislature effectively replaced private donations from the Koch foundations with taxpayer funds in order to create a new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, to address a claimed lack of ideological diversity. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has sought to establish a free-market think tank at University of Texas Austin, partly as a response to critical race theory. In Tennessee, Governor Lee paired his proposal to create dozens of Hillsdale charters with a call to build a $6 million, Hillsdale-inspired civics institute at University of Tennessee Knoxville to combat “anti-American thought.”
Florida already has several, including a politics institute at Florida State; the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University; and the University of Florida’s freshly-approved Hamilton Center for Classical and Civics Education, dedicated to “the ideas, traditions, and texts that form the foundations of western and American civilization,” and tasked with helping create anti-communist content for Florida’s new K–12 civics curricula.
Last spring, this track record prompted another Florida school, St. Augustine’s private Flagler College, to worry that it was being, well, groomed to become “the Hillsdale of the South.” The legislature was considering a multimillion dollar grant for the school to establish its own “Institute for Classical Education”—money that was certainly needed and might also be used to shore up existing programs, but which faculty feared would come with intolerable strings. Professors there brought a resolution to the faculty council, declaring that, if the funding came through, faculty would retain control over how it was used for hiring and curriculum creation. In Flagler’s case, the administration readily agreed.
But that sort of assurance—long considered a bedrock of academic freedom—is not a privilege shared at Florida’s public universities. And at New College, DeSantis’s new trustees made no effort to hide the fact that ideological transformation would bring rich financial rewards.
Several hours before last week’s New College board meeting, DeSantis affirmed as much, in a press conference announcing a suite of plans to reform higher education, including defunding all diversity programs at public universities and requiring them to instead teach a core curriculum focused on Western civilization, further eroding the protections of faculty tenure, bolstering University of Florida’s conservative institutes with even more funding and autonomy from university administrators, and transferring hiring authority from faculty committees to college presidents and the trustees who appoint them. In the same speech, DeSantis pledged an initial $15 million dollars to New College for immediate faculty recruitment and student scholarships, and an additional $10 million annually—money he suggested would not just attract the right sort of professors and students, but also new private donors.
“I can tell you this: you have people who are interested in donating money now, they want to endow professorships and all this stuff,” DeSantis said. “So it just shows you, if the mission is sound, people really respond to it.”
To New College’s distressed community, and academics more broadly, it suggested that the strategy for transforming the school was, effectively, cash. “A strategy that has worked, that it seems DeSantis may employ at New College, is to take a lot of money from very conservative outside donors, and flood the school with money for things that it’s hard to turn down,” like scholarships or restoring crumbling infrastructure, said Lauren O’Neill-Butler, a writer and New College alum who now teaches at New York’s Hunter College. “It often starts with a new center ‘to fund more classical education.’”
Indeed, last summer, after the Florida legislature approved the creation of University of Florida’s Hamilton Center, it received an additional, unsolicited $3 million donation from a previously unknown nonprofit, the Council on Public University Reform, which had no website or listed phone number and whose only contact was the director of a conservative Catholic legal institute currently pursuing a master’s degree at Hillsdale.
At Flagler College, civil rights history professor Michael Butler, who led the group of faculty skeptical about the implications of their own proposed classical institute last year, said that in recent days, every colleague he’s seen has stopped to share their fear and outrage over what’s happening at New College. For now, in the grim environment of Florida higher education, being a private school seems like an “oasis of intellectual freedom.” But it would be naive, he continued, to think that either private schools, or the rest of the country, will remain “immune from the ideological hysteria” consuming their state.
“It’s easy to ridicule Florida, or cite ‘Florida Man.’ But the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow,” Butler said, referencing a maxim from filmmaker Billy Corben. “If you put these culture wars into context, there’s always a bigger issue at play. This time, it’s 2024, and Florida is being used as a laboratory for policies and practices concerning higher education that will be unveiled at the national level.”
Indeed, over the weekend, an essay published on Revolver—a site launched by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, who was fired by the White House in 2018 for appearing on a panel alongside the founder of the white nationalist website VDare— compared the takeover of New College to Napoleon’s swift defeat of the Austrian army in 1805, writing that DeSantis and Rufo were “putting on a masterclass” of the principle that “speed, surprise, and decisiveness matter far more than mere strength” in any battle.
“DeSantis’s conquest is clearly a test run, with lower stakes, executed against a small and obscure school with little institutional power to resist,” it read, with the author urging Republicans around the country to seize the momentum. “Every state in America is holding a legislative session this spring. Now presents a golden opportunity to grab as much territory on education as possible, while Florida leads the way … concerned citizens nationwide must quickly learn how to adapt the New College plan to other publicly-controlled universities across the country.” (The article did not include a byline, but was presumably written by Beattie.)
Education might traditionally be a winning Democratic issue, the author continued, “yet there is a very real sense that they are caught off-guard and being overtaken by the sheer speed of events,” as well as the confounding array of attacks on public education happening at once. The New College overthrow, after all, has happened simultaneously with the Florida Department of Education banning a new Advanced Placement high school African American studies course, with the seeming result that the College Board, which oversees AP curricula, immediately caved, stripping the course of content related to contemporary issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence, as well as numerous Black authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks. (This week, a letter from Florida’s Department of Education made clear that DeSantis’ administration had been in frequent contact with the College Board as it was creating the course last year, as the DOE requested that subjects like intersectionality and systemic marginalization be removed.)
“Universal vouchers, weakening tenure, core curricula, CRT bans, and more,” declared the Revolver piece, “it’s all hitting, all at once.” On Twitter, Rufo thanked Beattie for understanding the strategy at work, writing, “This is the best analysis of the New College takeover, by far.”
SCHOOL DESEGREGATION AND THE PIPELINE OF PRIVILEGE
The struggle to end racial segregation in America’s public schools has been long and arduous. It was ostensibly won in the 1954 Brown v. Tulsa Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. But racist resistance has been intense. Years later, extensive school segregation remains for Black children. The High Court has essentially overturned Brown without explicitly saying so. This paper assesses the effects of educational desegregation that has managed to occur. Discussion concerning the results of desegregation has revolved around test scores and the difficulties involved with “busing,” but the principal positive effect is often overlooked: namely, that the substantial rise of the Black-American middle class in the last half-century has been importantly enhanced by school desegregation. This paper reviews the educational backgrounds of eighteen Black Americans who have risen to the highest status positions in American politics and business in recent decades. They represent the desegregated Black cohort who succeeded because desegregation enabled them to break into the nation’s deeply established pipeline of privilege.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RACIAL DESEGREGATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS
White supremacists over the past six decades have managed to roll back the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown ruling outlawing racially segregated schools. Black American children in the nation’s public schools are today virtually as segregated as they were prior to Brown.1
In 1955, the High Court undercut its historic desegregation ruling with a vague “all deliberate speed” order. The White South, quite deliberate but rarely speedy, viewed this order as a sign of weakness. This second decision had the unfortunate, if unintended, consequence of heightening opposition to the original decision. Resistance groups called White Citizens’ Councils—basically middle-class Ku Klux Klans—sprang up throughout the South.
Consequently, scant progress was made for a decade. In response to this delay, three strong Federal Court rulings emerged. In 1968, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia struck down a so-called “freedom of choice” attempt to avoid desegregation. In 1971, the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision established that desegregation required affirmative action—including the “busing” of students throughout Charlotte’s metropolitan area. In 1973, Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado applied the Swann ruling to a non-Southern city for the first time.
In reaction to this progress, strong resistance to school integration developed—led by President Richard Nixon, who sternly opposed the “busing” needed to achieve it. This opposition gathered strength as it seized on the claim of massive “White flight” from cities to avoid desegregation. Bolstered by the publicized assertions of sociologist James Coleman, conservative judges began to use it as an excuse to roll back desegregation orders (Orfield and Eaton, 1996).
The “White flight” argument ignored two key points. First, the Coleman analysis was seriously flawed. While White families did move to the suburbs and private schools more during the first year of integration, it was basically a “hastening up” effect. That is, large urban districts that started school desegregation did not lose significantly more White students over the critical 1967–1976 period than did districts that remained racially segregated. Phrased differently, desegregating districts were already losing White families before the process and after a few years would have lost just as many White families without any desegregation whatsoever (Farley et al., 1980).
Second, the “White flight” phenomenon was especially acute in huge cities such as Detroit, MI where the High Court flatly rejected metropolitan plans for school desegregation in Milliken v. Bradley (1974; Pettigrew 2004). But in smaller cities, such as Richmond, VA,2 Lexington, KY, and Wilmington, DE, metropolitan plans were far more feasible.
The eighteen cases reviewed in this paper were obviously not picked at random. They represent the very top echelon of Black participation in government and business: all three Black Americans at the presidential and vice-presidential level; all three Black members of the U.S. Senate; all eleven Black CEOs of major companies; and a foremost television newscaster. Arguably, these are eighteen of the most influential and powerful Black leaders in America today. Only one—Senator Warnock—seems not to have benefitted importantly from early entry into the White-dominated pipeline of privilege.
Too much focus has been given to the micro-effects of school desegregation (e.g., changes in test scores and racial attitudes), while ignoring the later-life constructive meso- and macro-societal effects of the process. The extensive 2011 NBER study previously described found that desegregated schools led not only to improved test scores but also to higher annual earnings and better health as adults (Johnson 2011). And Johnson’s (2012) follow-up research found these positive outcomes of desegregated schools even extended to the next generation of Black pupils. This present paper extends these positive outcomes of desegregated education still further to include the possibility of talented Black Americans cracking into the nation’s pipeline of privilege.
We can hope for two interrelated future trends: many more Black Americans able to join in the nation’s pipeline of privilege and the pipeline itself becoming less necessary for Black success. As the Black American middle-class expands, we will witness more examples like Senator Warnock rising to prominence without having benefitted from the largely-White structures of access to privilege.
Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.
Judge Donna Scott Davenport oversees a juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, with a staggering history of jailing children. She said kids must face consequences, which rarely seem to apply to her or the other adults in charge.
by Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica
Friday, April 15, 2016: Hobgood Elementary School, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Three police officers were crowded into the assistant principal’s office at Hobgood Elementary School, and Tammy Garrett, the school’s principal, had no idea what to do. One officer, wearing a tactical vest, was telling her: Go get the kids. A second officer was telling her: Don’t go get the kids. The third officer wasn’t saying anything.
A few weeks before, a video had appeared on YouTube. It showed two small boys, 5 and 6 years old, throwing feeble punches at a larger boy as he walked away, while other kids tagged along, some yelling. The scuffle took place off school grounds, after a game of pickup basketball. One kid insulted another kid’s mother, is what started it all.
The police were at Hobgood because of that video. But they hadn’t come for the boys who threw punches. They were here for the children who looked on. The police in Murfreesboro, a fast-growing city about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, had secured juvenile petitions for 10 children in all who were accused of failing to stop the fight. Officers were now rounding up kids, even though the department couldn’t identify a single one in the video, which was posted with a filter that made faces fuzzy. What was clear were the voices, including that of one girl trying to break up the fight, saying: “Stop, Tay-Tay. Stop, Tay-Tay. Stop, Tay-Tay.” She was a fourth grader at Hobgood. Her initials were E.J.
The confusion at Hobgood — one officer saying this, another saying that — could be traced in part to absence. A police officer regularly assigned to Hobgood, who knew the students and staff, had bailed that morning after learning about the planned arrests. The thought of arresting these children caused him such stress that he feared he might cry in front of them. Or have a heart attack. He wanted nothing to do with it, so he complained of chest pains and went home, with no warning to his fill-in about what was in store.
Also absent was the police officer who had investigated the video and instigated these arrests, Chrystal Templeton. She had assured the principal she would be there. She had also told Garrett there would be no handcuffs, that police would be discreet. But Templeton was a no-show. Garrett even texted her — “How’s timing?” — but got no answer.
Instead of going to Hobgood, Templeton had spent the afternoon gathering the petitions, then heading to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, a two-tiered jail for children with dozens of surveillance cameras, 48 cells and 64 beds. There, she waited for the kids to be brought to her.
In Rutherford County, a juvenile court judge had been directing police on what she called “our process” for arresting children, and she appointed the jailer, who employed a “filter system” to determine which children to hold.
The judge was proud of what she had helped build, despite some alarming numbers buried in state reports.
Among cases referred to juvenile court, the statewide average for how often children were locked up was 5%.
In Rutherford County, it was 48%.
In the assistant principal’s office at Hobgood, the officer telling Garrett not to get the kids was Chris Williams. Williams, who is Black, had been a Murfreesboro cop for five years. “What in the world?” he thought, when he learned what these arrests were about. At Hobgood, two-thirds of the students were Black or Latino. Williams wondered if such arrests would be made at a school that was mostly white. He had a daughter who was 9. He pictured her being arrested. This is going to blow up, he thought; I’m going to end up in federal court over this. He considered quitting, but instead tried to get someone to intervene. Tucked in an office corner, he called a sergeant, a lieutenant and a major, but couldn’t find anyone to call it off.
The officer not saying anything was Albert Miles III. Growing up, Miles, who is Black, had friends who hated the police. But Miles’ dad was a cop. Miles wanted to prove that police could be trusted. That afternoon, Miles had been pulled out of roll call along with another officer; a sergeant told the two to go arrest some kids at Hobgood. The sergeant didn’t say why, but at Hobgood, Miles started picking up details. Miles, too, wondered if these arrests would happen at a school full of white students.
The third officer at Hobgood was Jeff Carroll. He’d been pulled out of roll call with Miles. Carroll, who is white, was a patrol officer and SWAT team member. In evaluations, supervisors praised him as a leader, “cool under pressure.” Carroll also had no idea what these arrests were about. But his sergeant had ordered them, and he followed orders. Carroll was the officer telling the principal: Go get the kids.
Garrett asked if she could call their parents first. Carroll told her no. Garrett told the police that one girl had diabetes and got treatment when she arrived home after school. Please, the principal said. Let me call her parent. On this, the police ultimately compromised, saying the girl could get a shot in the nurse’s office before being taken to the jail.
Of the two officers telling Garrett what to do — get the kids, don’t get the kids — Carroll seemed the more aggressive, the principal would say later. She agreed to get the kids.
Having these arrests take place at Hobgood was not something school officials wanted. They wanted kids to feel safe at school. Garrett grew up poor. Nine-tenths of her students were poor. Years before, Hobgood had struggled academically. Now it was a celebrated success. Garrett and her staff had worked to build trust with parents, with students. “I don’t give up on kids,” Garrett says. But she knew that trust is fragile, and trauma endures.
As Garrett gathered the girls from their classrooms, she believed the police would at least avoid a spectacle. School let out at 2:30. That was minutes away. Garrett’s understanding was that the police would keep the girls in the office until school was dismissed and everyone else was gone.
Garrett rounded up the sixth grader, a tall girl with braids who had visions of becoming a police officer; one of the fourth graders, the girl with diabetes; and the 8-year-old third grader. In the hallway, the principal tried to prepare them, saying the police were there regarding a video of a fight. Hearing this, the sixth grader told Garrett that the two other girls hadn’t even been there.
After returning to the office with the three girls, Garrett relayed to police what the sixth grader had told her.
Her words were barely out when Carroll made it clear he’d had enough, Garrett said later when interviewed as part of an internal police investigation.
Carroll pulled out handcuffs and put them “right in my face,” Garrett recalled.
“And he said, ‘We’re going now, we’re going now, there’s no more talk, and we’re going now.’
“And I said, ‘But, but, but.’”
Carroll yelled at her, Garrett said. She felt intimidated. Bullied. She worried that if she said any more, she might be arrested herself. “And so I backed off.”
By now the girls were crying and screaming and reaching for the principal, who was also crying, as was the assistant principal. “And it was, it was, it was awful,” Garrett later said.
Carroll handcuffed the sixth grader. Later, asked why, he said because policy allowed him to. After being handcuffed, the sixth grader fell to her knees.
Miles handcuffed the 8-year-old with pigtails. “Just acting out of habit,” he said later. Walking to a patrol car, Miles stopped and thought, “Wait a minute,” and removed the cuffs. “I guess my brain finally caught up with what was going on.”
While Carroll drove those two girls to the jail, the fourth grader with diabetes stayed behind to see the nurse. She was sisters with the sixth grader; her initials were C.C.
In all this back and forth, Principal Garrett realized something. The other fourth grader. She had forgotten about her. And now, school was out. The girl had boarded her bus, and was waiting to go home.
The other fourth grader was E.J. Although she’d said “stop,” she was on the police’s list to be picked up for encouraging the fight.
Go get her, the police told Garrett.
Garrett was still crying. She didn’t want to go out to the line of buses and let all those kids see her like that. But she went, feeling she had little choice.
A teacher beckoned E.J. off the bus. Then Garrett escorted her inside, to the awaiting police. E.J., scared and confused, begged for her mother — and threw up on the floor.
The two fourth graders still at Hobgood, E.J. and C.C., were best friends. Williams and Miles walked the girls outside, not handcuffing either. With some parents joining in, the officers formed a prayer circle around the two girls. Miles prayed out loud for the kids to be protected and for God to bring peace and understanding. Then he buckled the fourth graders into a patrol car and drove off. On the way to jail the girls cried, “snot and all,” E.J. would say later. Garrett, meanwhile, pulled out her personal cellphone and began calling parents, no longer willing to do as the police commanded.
For the officers, the confusion didn’t end at the school. It continued once the children began arriving at the jail.
When Carroll walked in with the first two girls, Templeton, the investigating officer, pointed to the 8-year-old and asked what she was doing there. The police had no petition for her, Templeton said. The 8-year-old’s mother soon arrived and took her child home.
Miles brought in the last two girls, the two fourth graders. Then, walking out to his patrol car, he ran into an angry parent, Miles would recall later. It was a father demanding answers. Miles dropped his head, shaking it. The father asked why this was happening. I don’t know, Miles answered. We are good people, the father said. I can only imagine what you’re feeling, Miles answered. He explained, briefly, the juvenile court process. This is wrong, the father told Miles, over and over. After the third time, Miles, fighting back tears, said he understood, as a parent himself, the father’s anger and pain.
Fuck you, the father said.
I understand, Miles answered.
Only later, when he returned to the police station, did Miles allow himself to cry.
When the parent asked why this was happening, Miles had been unable to say. But the answer traces to individual missteps and institutional breakdowns — all on a grand scale.
What happened on that Friday and in the days after, when police rounded up even more kids, would expose an ugly and unsettling culture in Rutherford County, one spanning decades. In the wake of these mass arrests, lawyers would see inside a secretive legal system that’s supposed to protect kids, but in this county did the opposite. Officials flouted the law by wrongfully arresting and jailing children. One of their worst practices was stopped following the events at Hobgood, but the conditions that allowed the lawlessness remain. The adults in charge failed. Yet they’re still in charge. Tennessee’s systems for protecting children failed. Yet they haven’t been fixed.
Chapter 2: “The Mother of the County”
Eleven children in all were arrested over the video, including the 8-year-old taken in by mistake. Media picked up the story. Parents and community leaders condemned the actions of police. “Unimaginable, unfathomable,” a Nashville pastor said. “Unconscionable,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” three state legislators said. But Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge focused instead on the state of youth, telling a local TV station: “We are in a crisis with our children in Rutherford County. … I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Rutherford County established the position of elected juvenile court judge in 2000, and ever since, Donna Scott Davenport has been the job’s only holder. She sometimes calls herself the “mother of the county.”
Davenport runs the juvenile justice system, appointing magistrates, setting rules and presiding over cases that include everything from children accused of breaking the law to parents accused of neglecting their children. While the county’s mayor, sheriff and commissioners have turned over, she has stayed on, becoming a looming figure for thousands of families. “She’s been the judge ever since I was a kid,” said one mother whose own kids have cycled through Davenport’s courtroom. One man, now in his late 20s, said that when he was a kid in trouble, he would pray for a magistrate instead of Davenport: “If she’s having a bad day, most definitely, you’re going to have a bad day.”
While juvenile court is mostly private, Davenport keeps a highly public profile. For the past 10 years she’s had a monthly radio segment on WGNS, a local station where she talks about her work.
She sees a breakdown in morals. Children lack respect: “It’s worse now than I’ve ever seen it,” she said in 2012. Parents don’t parent: “It’s just the worst I’ve ever seen,” she said in 2017. On WGNS, Davenport reminisces with the show’s host about a time when families ate dinner together and parents always knew where their children were and what friends they were with because kids called home from a landline, not some could-be-anywhere cellphone. Video games, the internet, social media — it’s all poison for children, the judge says.
Davenport describes her work as a calling. “I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,” she told a local newspaper. The children in her courtroom aren’t hers, but she calls them hers. “I’m seeing a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds,” she says in one radio segment.
She encourages parents troubled by their children’s behavior to use over-the-counter kits to test them for drugs. “Don’t buy them at the Dollar Tree,” she says on the radio. “The best ones are your reputable drugstores.”
Scrutinizing the inner workings of Tennessee’s juvenile courts can be difficult. Court files are mostly off-limits; proceedings can be closed at a judge’s discretion. But on the radio, Davenport provides listeners a glimpse of the court’s work. “I’ve locked up one 7-year-old in 13 years, and that was a heartbreak,” she said in 2012. “But 8- and 9-year-olds, and older, are very common now.”
Davenport has lots of favorite sayings. “God don’t make no junk,” she says to kids, to instill self-worth. To instill fear, she will say, “I’m going to let you be young and dumb — one time.” There’s no jury in juvenile court, so Davenport decides the facts as well as the law. “And that is why I should get 12 times the pay,” she likes to joke.
Davenport enforces a strict dress code in her courtroom, requiring people to “show deference.” There will be no untucked shirts. No sundresses, spaghetti straps or spandex. No body piercings, no uncovered tattoos. Pants shall be pulled up, and if a child shows up without a belt, the judge keeps a bag of them, and if she runs out, “you’ll just have to make do with a piece of rope,” one newspaper profile said.
Davenport says children need consequences. “Being detained in our facility is not a picnic at all,” she says on the radio. “It’s not supposed to be. It’s a consequence for an action.”
Davenport’s tough talk — and the county’s high detention rate — go against a reform movement that started about the same time she went on the bench. Beginning in the late 1990s, the number of kids in lockup began to decline, both nationally and in Tennessee.
Davenport, now 69, grew up in Mt. Juliet, a Nashville suburb. She attended Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, majoring in criminal justice.
On the radio, Davenport says she has been “blessed” with an extensive history in law enforcement: “I was trained well in 17 years by different law enforcement agencies.” As a juvenile court judge, she says, she can spot “subtle signs” of gang activity, “wearing something to the right or to the left, or a color here or a color there.”
Her description of her job history doesn’t always match employment records.
Davenport, in a sworn deposition, said her law enforcement career began in 1977 at MTSU, where, as a student, she worked full time as a university police officer for two to three years. But her MTSU personnel file shows her being a part-time dispatcher, then a full-time clerk-typist, then a full-time secretary.
In 1980, Davenport started as a dispatcher for the Murfreesboro Police Department. Then she took another job — not in law enforcement, but in the law department for Nashville, investigating financial claims that might include anything from car accidents to slip-and-falls.
At night, Davenport went to law school. She graduated in 1986. That same year, she told lawyers in a deposition, “I started with the feds.” She told radio listeners that for eight years she was “with the U.S. Justice Department, where I analyzed and tracked and helped identify serial killers.” But this job wasn’t with the Justice Department. Her employer, Regional Information Sharing Systems, received federal funding but isn’t a federal agency.
She then became a private investigator, handling “mostly divorces,” she told lawyers.
In a deposition, Davenport said she first took the bar exam about a year after finishing law school. She failed, then kept trying.
“How — how many times have you taken the bar?” an attorney asked her.
“I passed on the fifth time,” she said.
She was admitted to practice law in 1995, nine years after getting her law degree.
In 1998, she became a juvenile court referee, akin to a judge. One of the county’s judges appointed her. (Asked why, he recently said, “I really can’t go back and tell you.”)
The following year, Rutherford County violated federal law 191 times by keeping kids locked up too long, according to a story later published by The Tennessean. By law, children held for such minor acts as truancy were to appear before a judge within 24 hours and be released no more than a day after that. The newspaper interviewed Davenport, who estimated half those violations occurred because a kid had cursed her or someone else. For cursing, she said, she typically sentenced kids to two to 10 days in jail. “Was I in violation?” she said. “Heck, yes. But am I going to allow a child to cuss anyone out? Heck, no.”
In August 2000 — less than three months after the story was published — Rutherford County elected Davenport to the newly created job of juvenile court judge. Her opponent, a major in the sheriff’s department, was later charged with sex crimes against minors and, in a plea deal, got probation. Davenport has not had another opponent since.
With juveniles, police in Tennessee typically avoid cuffs and custody, particularly in less serious cases. They instead serve summonses instructing kids and their parents to show up in court.
But that wasn’t the routine in Rutherford County. When the Murfreesboro officers arrested the kids at Hobgood, they were following Davenport’s “process”: arrest, transport to the detention center for screening, then file charging papers. “IT IS SO ORDERED,” Davenport wrote in a 2003 memo about her instructions. Four years later she declared that even kids accused of minor violations like truancy must be taken into custody and transported to jail.
Davenport once told Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal: “I know I’m harsh, I’m very harsh. I like to think I’m fair, but I’m tough.”
In 2016, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Davenport. In a family law matter, a father’s lawyers had asked to move his case to another county. By law, they were allowed to. But Davenport called “the father and/or his attorneys” a “sneaky snake,” the reprimand said. What’s more, she ordered that a transcript of her words be forwarded, possibly tipping the next judge to her animosity. The reprimand found that Davenport’s “intemperate conduct” threatened the right to a fair hearing.
In some other cases, appeals courts have taken Davenport to task through unusually blunt language.
In one, Davenport was overturned twice. Davenport, finding that a mother had neglected her daughter, granted custody to another couple. Two higher courts disagreed and ordered Davenport to reunify the mother and child. Instead, Davenport terminated the mother’s parental rights. The other couple then adopted the girl, after being “exhorted” by Davenport to move quickly, according to a state Court of Appeals opinion.
The adoption went through while a challenge to Davenport’s parental termination ruling was still pending. In the second go-round, a state appeals court judge made clear his displeasure, saying, during oral argument, “Our little system works pretty simply”: If a higher court tells a lower court to do something, the lower court does it. “That didn’t happen in this case,” he said. Two months later, the appeals court overruled Davenport for a second time. Saying it was “troubled by the proceedings to this point,” the court ordered Davenport to reunite the mother and child — “expeditiously.”
Davenport, through a spokesperson, declined our interview request, to which we attached 13 pages of questions. Previously, when asked about the county’s arrest practices, Davenport told lawyers that she “can’t tell law enforcement what to do.” She told a local newspaper that her court produces “a lot of success stories.” She told radio listeners, “I want the children that come in front of me to leave better than they came in.”
Chapter 3: “Yeah, That’s the Charge”
Friday, April 15, 2016: Judicial Commissioners’ office, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
On the same Friday afternoon as three police officers jammed into the assistant principal’s office at Hobgood Elementary School, three other people huddled in another office a few miles away, to discuss what charge these kids could face.
Chrystal Templeton, the police officer investigating the video, wanted to arrest every kid who watched the fight and “get them all in front” of Davenport, she would say later during an internal police investigation. Charging them was helping them, Templeton believed, because “juvenile court is about rehabilitation.”
Templeton thought an appropriate charge might be conspiracy to commit assault. But then she met with Amy Anderson and Sherry Hamlett, two judicial commissioners authorized by Rutherford County to issue arrest warrants. Anderson told Templeton that she thought the only child who could be charged with conspiring was the kid who recorded video of the fight on a cellphone.
So they went in search of another charge, with Hamlett checking the state’s criminal code on a computer.
Templeton had joined the Murfreesboro Police Department in 1998, when she was 21. By the time of the arrests at Hobgood, she had been disciplined at least 37 times, including nine suspensions. She once left a loaded pistol on the seat of a patrol car, according to her personnel file. During a pursuit, she failed to turn on her dash cam. Another time she lost control of her patrol car and hit a Ford Explorer, which, in turn, hit a Nissan Pathfinder while Templeton’s patrol unit, spinning, smacked a Toyota Sequoia. In all, four cars were damaged and seven people injured, including Templeton.
In the lead-up to the Hobgood arrests, Garrett, the school’s principal, had heard grumbling about Templeton. Templeton was a school resource officer — not at Hobgood, but at two other schools in Murfreesboro. Both schools’ principals complained that Templeton was often absent. Meanwhile, one of Hobgood’s resource officers warned Garrett that Templeton’s handling of the case was going to cause a “shitstorm.” But that officer didn’t share her concerns with police higher-ups. She believed Templeton’s sergeant always made excuses for her, so what was the point?
Templeton had begun investigating on Wednesday, two days earlier. To try and identify all the kids, she asked around at schools and in the neighborhood where the fight took place. One parent she approached for help was E.J.’s mom. Templeton assured her no one was in trouble, that she just wanted to give the kids a talking-to, E.J.’s mom would say later. E.J., who was with her mom during this meeting, said she had been there. It was her on the video saying, “Stop, Tay-Tay.” On a piece of paper, on the hood of Templeton’s patrol car, E.J. and another girl who was with them listed the onlookers. And that was Templeton’s investigation. “My case is the video and the list,” she would say later, even though she couldn’t match any bystander to any image in the video.
The victim, the boy being punched, told Templeton the kids were all friends now. Templeton told him she understood. She then asked the child, “Do you think that there needs to be some consequences for what happened?” she would later recall. “And he said yes.”
Templeton wanted guidance. She believed the boys throwing punches were too young to be charged with a crime. An assistant district attorney agreed. The assistant DA also told Templeton she didn’t believe there was any single charge appropriate for all the kids gathered around. But Templeton still wanted to charge them all.
Inside the judicial commissioners’ office, Hamlett discovered an alternative to conspiracy to commit assault.
Her search turned up a Tennessee statute defining “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.” It says, in part: A person is “criminally responsible” for an offense committed by another if “the person causes or aids an innocent or irresponsible person to engage in” the offense, or directs another to commit the offense, or “fails to make a reasonable effort to prevent commission of the offense.”
Hamlett shared her find with Templeton. They went through the statute line by line, with Anderson joining in.
“I looked at the charge to the best of my ability, from my experience was like, ‘Yeah, that’s, that’s the charge,’” Templeton would later say. (When she subsequently apprised a higher-up in the police department, the higher-up wasn’t so sure. But he didn’t warn her off. “No one ever said no,” Templeton said later, adding, “If somebody told me, ‘No, stop,’ I would have stopped.”)
In the United States, it is typically the prosecutor’s job to review a police investigation and decide what charges, if any, to file. But Tennessee allows counties to hire judicial commissioners to fill this role. From issuing warrants to setting bail to conducting probable cause hearings, Rutherford County’s judicial commissioners can take on tasks that traditionally fall to judges or prosecutors — without needing the legal training of either.
County judges recommend people for the job. County commissioners appoint them.
Rutherford County opens the job to anyone with a Tennessee driver’s license and a high school diploma, supplemented by some college-level course work or vocational training and some office work.
Anderson, a county employee since 1998, was disciplined shortly before this case. According to investigative records, she had passed a note to a sheriff’s clerk. The clerk tore it up, then left with Anderson. Someone fished the note’s scraps from the trash and taped them together. The note read: “Could I get a few? If not, that’s fine. It’s my hip.”
In an internal sheriff’s investigation, the clerk admitted giving Anderson two prescription painkillers. That was illegal, a lieutenant wrote. He informed a county judge, who said they “would handle the situation administratively.” Anderson received a letter of warning, according to her personnel file.
Hamlett started as a judicial commissioner in 2008, making $8.50 an hour. Her application listed a high school diploma, and no college. Her previous job was in a small-town post office where her responsibilities included “computer work and general office duties.”
When Hamlett came up with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” as a possible charge, there was a problem. It’s not an actual charge. There is no such crime. It is rather a basis upon which someone can be accused of a crime. For example, a person who caused someone else to commit robbery would be charged with robbery, not “criminal responsibility.”
But in the judicial commissioners’ office that Friday afternoon, 10 petitions were issued, each charging a child with “criminal responsibility.” The petitions didn’t distinguish the kids’ actions; the documents were cookie-cutter, saying each child “encouraged and caused” two other juveniles to commit an assault.
Templeton signed each petition. Anderson also signed at least some of them. Templeton then left the judicial commissioners’ office, the 10 petitions in hand.
After the four arrests at Hobgood, other children named in the petitions were brought in by their parents or rounded up by police.
(Templeton, through her lawyer, declined to comment. Anderson and Hamlett did not respond to interview requests. A supervisor in the judicial commissioners’ office told us the two had no comment, and neither did he.)
On Saturday, the day after the scene at Hobgood, police went to the home of a sister and brother who were 12-year-old twins. In court records they would be identified as J.B.#1 and J.B.#2. Officers arrested and handcuffed both children, even as the girl cried and begged to stay with her mother, and the mother pleaded with police not to use handcuffs. The mother recently said, “It hurt me to my heart … for them to take my kids.” Two of her other children watched the arrests, as did three of her nieces. Afterward, her other children had nightmares of being arrested, she said.
The officers put the twins in a patrol car and took them to the juvenile detention center to be processed.
Chapter 4: “We Will Hold the Juvenile”
When police took the 12-year-old twins to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center on Saturday, April 16, 2016, the odds that either would be jailed were long, at least under Tennessee law.
Recognizing the harm that can come from incarcerating kids, Tennessee lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when a child accused of being delinquent can be held in a secure lockdown prior to receiving a court hearing. The child must fit one of six categories, precisely defined. They include being a jail escapee; being wanted elsewhere for a felony offense; or being accused, on substantial evidence, of a crime resulting in serious injury or death.
These two 12-year-olds were charged on negligible evidence with a crime that’s not an actual crime for something in which no one was seriously hurt.
Rutherford County, however, had its own system for deciding whether to keep a child under lock and key. Its written procedure, imprecise and broad, boiled down to whether a child was considered by jailers to be a “TRUE threat.” Jailers allowed the 12-year-old girl to go home. But they locked up her twin brother. Of the 10 children charged in this case, all Black, four were girls and six were boys. Every girl was released. Of the boys, four were jailed, according to court records.
Those four boys became a small part of a big group. In the fiscal year that encompassed April 2016, Rutherford County jailed 986 children for a total of 7,932 days.
J.B.#2, the 12-year-old boy, spent two nights in the detention center, court records show. While there, he was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for standing at his cell’s window, a lawsuit would later allege. We recently interviewed J.B.#2, whose name is Jacorious Brinkley. (He’s 18 now and is OK with us using his name.) A guard, Jacorious said, kept walking past his cell, “saying, like, ‘You can’t, you can’t be by the door. You got to sit down.’”
The person who runs the detention center is Lynn Duke. Davenport initially picked someone else, but her first appointee was arrested on a drug charge only hours after receiving the congratulations of county commissioners. Davenport quickly named Duke as replacement. Duke, a former youth services officer, became director on Jan. 1, 2001, and has remained in that role ever since.
Duke reports to Davenport, but does not consult her daily. In 2005, Duke emailed the judge to say she was feeling guilty for not checking in more. “If you need me to do anything … PLEASE TELL ME!” Duke wrote, to which Davenport replied: “GIRL, if I had any concerns or problems you would hear from me. YOU DO A GREAT JOB!!!!!”
When Duke first became director, the county detained kids in a deteriorated 19th-century jail separate from the court building. A local newspaper editorial bemoaned the sight this produced in the public square: kids, shackled together, in orange jumpsuits, “shuffling along the sidewalk and into the Judicial Building.” “Not that we’re afraid to see juveniles cuffed and heading toward justice, but it is a disturbing thing that could be avoided if juvenile court could be held at the detention center,” the editorial said.
In 2003, Rutherford County hired a consulting firm to help design a new detention center. The next year the firm produced a lengthy report, alerting Rutherford County that it was locking up kids at an exceptionally high rate. Jailing children should be “the last of a number of options,” the firm wrote. Less restrictive alternatives not only save money, they’re “more effective in reducing recidivism,” making them better for children and the community.
Scale down, the report recommended. Build a 35-bed juvenile detention center, with room to add on later. Also, build shelter care: 10 beds, in a residential setting, for runaways or other kids who pose no real threat to public safety.
In 2005, Rutherford County dropped the consulting firm and rejected its advice. The county opted for a 64-bed detention center, with no shelter care.
The center, attached to new courtrooms for Davenport and her magistrate, opened in 2008. The complex’s cost, coupled with that of a nearby correctional work center for adults, was $23.3 million.
Duke and Davenport have gushed about their new workplace. A “dream come true,” Davenport called it. They offer public tours. “You’ll see booking … bring your family … [have] a little piece of cake,” Davenport told radio listeners in a 2015 segment. They also lauded the jail staff. “We are a well-oiled machine, so there is not much to report,” Duke told county commissioners.
On occasion, news reports have revealed embarrassing staff breakdowns. Duke fired one officer who pepper-sprayed a kid in his cell, after which the kid chased the officer down and beat him up. (The officer, in a statement, said he was confident he followed procedure.)
In another case Duke promoted a corporal to sergeant despite a troubling disciplinary record; Duke then fired the sergeant after she entered a cell, removed her belt and struck a child with it, according to an internal investigation’s findings. The sergeant denied hitting the child, saying she had just removed her belt and made a popping sound with it. (When we pulled this officer’s personnel file, we discovered she had originally been recommended for hire by Davenport, who wrote a letter lauding her “professional demeanor” and “enthusiasm for the world of juvenile law.”)
When the new center opened in 2008, Duke incorporated a “filter system” into the jail’s written manual. When police arrest a child, they bring the child to jail. There, under the system, staff decide whether to hold the child before a detention hearing, which could take place days later. Say a child is hauled in for something minor, like skipping school. Under the filter system, the child would be locked up if deemed “unruly.” But the filter system defines “unruly” simply as “a TRUE threat,” while “TRUE threat” is not defined at all.
So any child, no matter the charge, who is considered a “TRUE threat,” however that’s interpreted, can end up being locked up.
Plus, the police can weigh in. In a 2013 email, Duke encouraged sheriff’s officers to let her staff know if they wanted a child detained. “If they say I really want this kid held, 9 times out of 10 we can make it happen,” she wrote. She went further in a memo to school resource officers, writing, “Even if we would normally release a juvenile … any time a local law enforcement officer requests a juvenile be detained and agrees to come to court to testify we will hold the juvenile.”
Detention center staff could be quizzed on the filter system when up for promotion, or disciplined for not applying it as written, according to personnel records. The staff member who made her way up to sergeant before being fired said in a deposition, “We were told when in doubt, hold them ’cause it’s better to hold a kid … that should have been released than release a child that should have been held.”
In 2016, Jacorious Brinkley joined in a lawsuit asking for the filter system to be stopped. When Duke was deposed in 2017, she called the system a guideline. Asked when it applied and what it dictated, Duke repeatedly said, “Depends on the situation.”
“Is it your policy or not?” a lawyer asked Duke.
“No. Yes. It — it’s a policy to use it when necessary,” Duke said.
Duke declined our request for an interview, writing in an email, “I appreciate your interest in Rutherford County and its youth, but decline to participate at this time.” Elsewhere she has consistently expressed pride in her operation, saying Rutherford County has the “best juvenile detention center in the state of Tennessee.”
Rutherford County doesn’t just jail its own kids. It also contracts with other counties to detain their children, charging $175 a day. “If we have empty beds, we will fill them with a paying customer,” Duke said at one public meeting.
Duke reports monthly to the county commission’s Public Safety Committee. At these meetings — we watched more than 100, going back 12 years — commissioners have asked regularly about the number of beds filled. “Just like a hotel,” one commissioner said of the jail. “With breakfast provided, and it’s not a continental,” added a second. At another meeting a commissioner said it would be “cool” if, instead of being a cost center, the jail could be a “profit center.”
When, at one meeting, Duke said “we get a lot of business” from a particular county, a commissioner chuckled at Duke’s word choice. “Business,” he said. This brought awkward laughter from other commissioners, leading the committee chair to say: “Hey, it’s a business. Generating revenue.”
Chapter 5: “They’re Not Coming Out Better Than They Went In”
Friday, April 15, 2016: Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center
She had tried to stop the scuffle. The evidence was right there, in the video. Stop, Tay-Tay. Stop, Tay-Tay. Then, asked by police for help, she had helped. The police had responded by arresting her, as she vomited and cried, saying that she had “encouraged and caused” the fight.
When E.J. was taken to the detention center, she was processed along with C.C., her best friend. Jail staff recorded E.J.’s name and birthdate (she was 10 years old), conducted a 16-point search and confiscated her jewelry, all her small rings. Then they placed the two fourth graders in a holding area.
The air, the bench, everything was cold, E.J. remembers. She heard buzzing, and doors opening and shutting.
E.J. and C.C. sat and cried — E.J., who had tried to stop the fight, and C.C., who, as her sister had told Principal Garrett, was not even there. She had been at a pizza party, celebrating her basketball team’s championship.
E.J. remembers C.C. saying something to her sister, in a nearby holding cell, and she remembers the jail staff’s reaction. The grownups in charge told the children: Be quiet. “It was like a demanding,” E.J. recalls.
E.J. was released the day of her arrest. Come Monday, she was afraid to go back to school, worried the police might pick her up again.
After the outcry over these arrests, the charge against E.J. was dismissed, as were the charges against all the other kids. But E.J.’s mom could see signs of lasting trauma. E.J. had bad dreams about the arrest. She didn’t trust the police. For two or three months, E.J. received counseling.
In July 2016, 10-year-old E.J., through her mother, sued Officer Templeton in federal court. Her lawsuit was later expanded into a class action against Rutherford County.
Her lawyers wanted to know: How many kids were there who, like E.J., had been improperly arrested? How many kids had, like Jacorious Brinkley, been improperly jailed? The lawyers gathered large samples of arrest and detention records from an 11-year period, ending in December 2017. Then they extrapolated.
They would eventually estimate that kids had been wrongly arrested 500 times. And that was just for kids arrested by the sheriff’s office. This estimate didn’t account for other law enforcement agencies in the county that followed Davenport’s “process.” As for how many times the juvenile detention center had improperly locked up kids through its “filter system,” the lawyers estimated that number at 1,500.
Based on their access to the usually confidential records, the lawyers created a spreadsheet showing that more than 50 kids, identified by their initials, had been jailed for offenses that wouldn’t be crimes if they were adults. While most were 14 or older, exceptions abounded. C.V., D.L. and J.S., all age 13, were locked up for being “unruly”; J.B., age 12, for “truancy”; and A.W., age 11, for “runaway.”
The lawyers obtained the jail’s intake procedures, detailing how kids are required to shower while watched by a staff member of the same sex. “Constant visual shall be maintained,” the procedures say. All braids shall be removed, and every scar, mark and tattoo, unless “located in a private area,” photographed.
The lawyers cited research on how arresting and detaining kids hurts not only the children, but society. Kids who have been arrested and jailed are more likely to commit crimes in the future. They’re more likely to struggle in school, and to struggle with drugs and alcohol. “Detention makes mentally ill youth worse,” the lawyers wrote. Detention makes kids more likely to hurt themselves.
In the class-action lawsuit, one of the lead plaintiffs is Dylan Geerts. While E.J. alleged wrongful arrest, Dylan alleged he was illegally jailed.
When Dylan was 14, his uncle killed himself. The two had been close. Afterward, Dylan started talking of taking his own life. His dad took him to a hospital, where Dylan stayed for a week. Doctors diagnosed him as being bipolar and prescribed lithium.
Two months after Dylan turned 15, he spent a weekend night with a friend. “Me and him were like fuel to each other’s fire,” Dylan says. They went looking for unlocked cars, for things to steal. About 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, a police officer spotted them. They ran, but he caught them. They had lifted a radio, a hat, a phone case and cologne. Dylan was charged with six crimes. The crimes weren’t violent. There were no weapons involved. Dylan had never been arrested before. But when police took him to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, the staff, using the filter system, locked him up.
At the detention center, he says, he didn’t get his lithium: “Not a dose.” He spent almost all his time alone in his cell. Going off medication affected “my moods, my suicidal thoughts and my manic depressive disorders,” he says. “Twenty or 21 hours a day are a lot of time to think and let your mind go wild, especially when you’re bipolar.” He felt jittery. “It’s like your stomach has dropped and your chest is real tight and you’re real nervous … it’s like having stage fright … all day, every day.” Classwork was superficial. He was in high school, but they had him doing simple multiplication: “11 times 11, 5 times 7 … I got an entire worksheet of that.”
Once, he used the intercom inside his cell to ask for toilet paper. “I was told I would be put on lockdown if I used the intercom system a second time.” Another time, outside his cell, he was told by a guard that he had a phone call from his father. “I stood up and then another guard jumped up and said, ‘You don’t stand unless you’re allowed permission to stand,’ and threatened to pepper-spray me.”
Three days after his arrest, he appeared before Judge Davenport. She seemed hostile, he says, the hearing perfunctory. Davenport released him, but placed him on house arrest. So for more than two months he was either at home or at school. “Or you’re following your dad like you’re on a leash.” He couldn’t see friends. He wasn’t even allowed to text them.
Dylan’s dad would say that to his mind, house arrest was “the worst thing you could ever do to a child, because he’s looking out a window.” Community service would have been better, something “to preoccupy his time, not un-occupy his time.”
After Dylan was released from detention, he found his lithium no longer worked. He started on a string of other medications. He fell behind in school. In the 16 months after, he tried three times to kill himself. To his dad, the change in Dylan was dramatic. Before detention, “He came to me and said, ‘I was having trouble with thoughts in my head.’ After detention it was acting on thoughts in his head.”
Dylan doesn’t like having his name attached to the class-action lawsuit. But “someone has to be representative,” he says. “If there’s no actual story to it, then no one cares.” We interviewed Dylan this year, in his new home outside Rutherford County. He said if he could, he’d tell Davenport, “They’re not coming out better than they went in.”
The lawyers representing E.J. and Dylan discovered that for children swept up in Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system, the harm could go beyond being arrested or jailed. Many children, once jailed, were placed in solitary confinement.
In April 2016, mere days after the Hobgood arrests, Duke’s staff received Davenport’s approval to isolate, indefinitely, a teen with developmental disabilities. Jailers confined Quinterrius Frazier, 15 years old, to his cell for 23 hours a day while denying him music, magazines or books, except for a Bible.
By that time, President Barack Obama had banned solitary confinement for kids in federal prison, citing the “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” But Rutherford County allowed isolation in eight ascending levels, calling it “crucial” that kids “understand there are consequences for all behaviors.” Level 1 was for 12 hours. Level 8 was indefinite.
The lawyers for E.J. also represented Quinterrius, in what became a second class action. That federal lawsuit ended with Rutherford County being permanently banned from punishing kids with solitary. A federal judge called the practice inhumane. The county, in settling, did not admit any wrongdoing.
Quinterrius recounted his time in solitary in a court document. He wrote that with nothing to do and no bedsheets until nighttime, “I just do push up endtile I can’t anymore than sleep with my arm’s in my sleeves untile I can’t sleep anymore.” Although it was forbidden, he sometimes talked through vents or cracks to whoever was jailed above or beside him. The hardest part, he wrote, was when jailers would cover his cell’s window with a board. Then he couldn’t even see another kid’s face.
We interviewed Quinterrius this summer, with his mother. He’s 20 now, and is fine with us using his name. He told us that in solitary, he felt like an animal: “They open the flap, feed me and close it.” In his cell, he began talking to himself. And now, five years later, “I still talk to myself a little bit just because that’s what I did for so long.” When we talked with him, he tapped on his phone and pulled on his hair. His mother, Sharieka Frazier, said since his time in solitary, her son seems to need constant stimulation, from music, his phone, the television. “He’s probably struggling now,” she told us during the interview.
“Are you struggling?” she asked her son. “Are you OK?”
“OK, I’m just, I’m OK, mama,” he told her, dropping his head into his palm.
Chapter 6: “There Were No Concerns”
In the immediate aftermath of the arrests at Hobgood Elementary, the Murfreesboro police chief promised an internal investigation. By year’s end, the department had finished its report.
The officer who bailed before the arrests got a one-day suspension. So did the sergeant in charge of school resource officers. Three other supervisors also were disciplined: the sergeant, lieutenant and major who had not stepped in, even as Officer Williams called them from the assistant principal’s office, raising the alert. Each received a reprimand.
As for Templeton, who had initiated the arrests, the department made one finding: Her work had been “unsatisfactory.” She received a three-day suspension — her 10th suspension in 15 years — then kept working.
She retired in 2019 and, according to her LinkedIn profile, is now a life coach and member of Mary Kay, a multilevel marketing company that sells cosmetics.
Nashville police also participated in this investigation, to produce an external report with recommendations. Together, the two police departments delved into one of the case’s biggest missteps: the use of a charge that doesn’t exist.
The district attorney for Rutherford County confirmed to the police investigators that there’s no such crime as “criminal responsibility.” “You should never, ever see a charge that says defendant so-and-so is charged with criminal responsibility for the act of another. Period,” he said.
The investigators interviewed 13 police officers, four school officials, two prosecutors and a pastor. But two people refused to be interviewed: Amy Anderson and Sherry Hamlett, the two judicial commissioners.
They “failed to cooperate,” a Nashville sergeant wrote. “This is unfortunate. … Important information could have been obtained.” In his recommendations, the sergeant wrote that it’s “worth considering” whether police should give more weight to advice from prosecutors than judicial commissioners.
Hamlett was reappointed as a judicial commissioner in 2017, Anderson in 2019.
Their personnel files include no mention of this case.
All 11 children arrested over the fight captured on video sued in federal court. Defendants included the city of Murfreesboro, Rutherford County and various police officers.
At least six of the 11 children had been handcuffed. The four who were locked up spent twice as many days in jail, collectively, as Templeton did on suspension.
Starting in 2017, all 11 children received settlements, for a combined $397,500. For at least five children, some money was earmarked for counseling.
Rutherford County also faced the class action accusing it of illegally arresting and jailing children.
In January 2017, Davenport arrived at a law firm to be questioned by the lawyers for E.J. and so many other children.
Kyle Mothershead, a specialist in civil rights cases, deposed her. He knew about Davenport’s strict dress code — and he made sure to flout it. He wore blue jeans and a white button-down shirt, untucked. He later told us he was thinking, “I am going to fucking spit in her eye and come in all casual and take her off her little throne.”
Mothershead asked Davenport if she ever kept tabs on the number of kids detained.
“That’s not my job is to know statistics,” Davenport said.
Mothershead asked if she’d ever consulted with Duke about the filter system.
Not that she could recall, Davenport said, adding, “I don’t micromanage her.”
Mothershead asked about Davenport’s orders to law enforcement to take children to the detention center upon arrest.
“Because that’s our process,” Davenport said.
“OK. But I just want to make sure that we’re clear,” Mothershead said. “So — so that — that’s your process because you personally have ordered that process into existence?”
“From the orders, apparently so. Yes.”
In May 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to stop using its filter system, saying it “departs drastically” from ordinary standards. By being subjected to “illegal detention,” he wrote, “children in Rutherford County are suffering irreparable harm every day.”
This year, in June, Rutherford County settled the class action, agreeing to pay up to $11 million. Individual payouts figure to be around $1,000 for each claim of wrongful arrest and about $5,000 for each claim of unlawful detention. The county, as part of the settlement, “denies any wrongdoing in any of the lawsuits filed against it.”
With the end of the filter system, Rutherford County now jails fewer of its kids than before.
But that doesn’t mean its jail is ramping down. Quite the opposite. The jail keeps adding staff. Mark Downton, one of E.J.’s attorneys, says the county has “shifted gears.” Forced to stop jailing so many of its own children, Rutherford County ramped up its pitch to other places, to jail theirs.
The county has created a marketing video titled “What Can the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center Do For You?” Over saxophone music and b-roll of children in black-and-white striped uniforms, Davenport narrates. She touts the center’s size (43,094 square feet), employees (“great”), access to interstates (I-24, I-65, I-40) and number of cells, which she refers to as “single occupancy rooms.” “Let us be your partner for the safe custody and well-being of the detained youth of your community,” Davenport says.
Thirty-nine counties now contract with Rutherford, according to a report published this year. So does the U.S. Marshals Service.
How did Rutherford County get away with illegally jailing kids for so long?
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services licenses juvenile detention centers. But its inspectors didn’t flag Rutherford County’s illegal filter system, which was right there, in black and white. We collected nine inspection reports from when Duke put the system in until a federal judge ordered it out. Not once did an inspector mention the jail’s process for deciding which kids to hold. “There was very little graffiti,” an inspector wrote in 2010. “Neat and clean,” the same inspector wrote in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Two inspection reports in 2016 said, “There were no concerns regarding the program or staff at the detention center.”
We requested an interview with the department’s longtime director of licensing, to ask how inspectors could miss this. The department refused to make him available.
The state’s failures don’t end there.
Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts collects crucial data statewide. In 2004, the consultant hired by Rutherford County used that data to sound an alarm: Rutherford County was locking up kids at more than three times the state average.
But then, Rutherford County stopped reporting this data. From 2005 to 2009, the county had 11,797 cases of children being referred to juvenile court. How many were locked up? The county claimed to have no idea. “Unknown,” it reported, for 90% of the cases. The county’s data, now meaningless, couldn’t be used against it.
Later, when the county resumed reporting how many kids it detained, lawyers representing children sounded a second alarm. By 2014, the county was locking up children at nearly 10 times the state average. But then the state stopped publishing its annual statistical report, which had provided the statewide comparison points that allowed troubling outliers to be spotted.
In 2017, a state task force on juvenile justiceconcluded that Tennessee’s “data collection and information sharing is insufficient and inconsistent across the state.” This “impedes accountability,” it reported. The following year, a state review team reported that without good data, “the state cannot identify trends.” The team recommended creating a statewide case management system with real-time, comprehensive data. But that hasn’t happened.
We sent written questions to Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts, asking why it stopped publishing the annual statistical report and about the data gaps. The office’s spokesperson didn’t answer.
While Rutherford County’s filter system was ultimately flagged (by lawyers, not through oversight), it is only one illegal system under one juvenile court judge. With Tennessee’s inadequate inspections and data, there could be trouble in any of the state’s other 97 juvenile courts, without any alarms being sounded.
In Rutherford County, Davenport still runs juvenile court, making $176,000 a year. (She’s up for reelection next year, and has previously said she’d like to run for another eight-year term.) Duke still runs the juvenile detention center, earning $98,000. And the system as a whole continues to grow.
In 2005, the budget for juvenile services, including court and detention center staff, was $962,444. By 2020 it had jumped to $3.69 million.
Earlier this year, Davenport went before the county commission’s public safety committee. “I come to you this year with a huge need,” she said. By now she had two full-time magistrates and another who worked part time. Davenport said she wanted an additional full-time magistrate. And another secretary. She wanted to increase her budget by 23%.
She also wanted to expand the system’s physical footprint. A small school in the same building was closing, so Davenport proposed converting classrooms into an intake room and a courtroom.
The commissioners gave Davenport’s budget request a favorable recommendation. Their vote was unanimous.
During the meeting, one commissioner, Michael Wrather, took a moment to express his admiration for the judge.
“I have said this for years and years,” Wrather told Davenport. “If we have a judge that has a box in the courtroom with belts in it, that requires young people to put a belt on and hold their pants up in a courtroom, I’m all for it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Davenport said.
We’re planning to continue reporting on the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County and elsewhere in Tennessee. If you have any stories that you’d like to share, please get in touch. Meribah Knight’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and Ken Armstrong’s is email@example.com.
A faction of the right believes America has been riven into two countries. The Claremont Institute is building the intellectual architecture for whatever comes next.
. . . As Donald Trump rose to power, the Claremont universe—which sponsors fellowships and publications, including the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind—rose with him, publishing essays that seemed to capture why the president appealed to so many Americans and attempting to map a political philosophy onto his presidency. Williams and his cohort are on a mission to tear down and remake the right; they believe that America has been riven into two fundamentally different countries, not least because of the rise of secularism. “The Founders were pretty unanimous, with Washington leading the way, that the Constitution is really only fit for a Christian people,” Williams told me. It’s possible that violence lies ahead. “I worry about such a conflict,” Williams told me. “The Civil War was terrible. It should be the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs.”
That almost is worth noticing. “The ideal endgame would be to effect a realignment of our politics and take control of all three branches of government for a generation or two,” Williams said. Trump has left office, at least for now, but those he inspired are determined to recapture power in American politics. My conversation with Williams has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The new multifamily buildings in your neighborhood actually slow displacement.
” . . . That discussionof gentrification is instead frequently diverted to what the buildings look like is a massive coup on behalf of existing property owners. Those current owners often want to maintain aesthetic control, sometimes as a means ofblocking new homes from being built (experts have found that historic preservation is often weaponized to prevent new, more affordable housing options).
It is fine to dislike the way a home looks; not all art is for everyone. But the convergence of aesthetic preferences and physical displacement under the same “gentrification” banner only serves to maintain the current system of housing development, one that has made housing prohibitively expensive for many Americans anddisplaced people under countless different architectural styles.
The problem with this conflation became clear when I looked into the building depicted in the aforementioned Camden TikTok video. Branch Village isn’t a “gentrification building.” It’s actually an affordable housing project funded in part by low-income housing tax credits. According to the Courier-Post, the project’s second phase included the construction of 75 townhomes, all of which “will be considered affordable, accessible to those making less than 80 percent of the area’s median income.” Per an affordable housing database, the development now has 245 units.
Despite the primary concern of gentrification usually being the displacement of low-income residents, the top two comments on the Camden video, which collectively received 76,000 “likes,” were stylistic complaints: “why is it ALWAYS h&r block green, and “they really had to pick the worst colors didn’t they?”
This is common in gentrification discourse. People want to use a word that evokes visuals of marginalized communities being displaced, either through evictions, rising prices, or even violent displacement. But, after prodding, the actual concern is artistic. The rhetorical sleight of hand is not always intentional. For many, the concepts of “new, modern buildings” and “displacement” have simply become inextricable. But the confusion around how the word gentrification is being used has real policy consequences: If people believe that new buildings work against housing affordability, they will oppose the very policies necessary to solve the nation’s housing affordability crisis . . .”
“You ever been here?” Yterenickia Bell asks me as we wait for the door to the Cascade Skating Rink to be unlocked. “It’s historic,” she says, ushering me out of the December rain and into the fluorescent-lit roller-skating spot in west Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood. “People have been gathering here for years.”
The rink is awaiting the night crowd. Video games sit silent in a corner. The snack bar is dark except for a flashing neon sign. But it’s not empty: a handful of people in orange shirts and masks are chatting at the other end of the rink before braving the rain to get out the vote for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. Bell is the GOTV director for Care in Action, an advocacy group whose members are mostly nannies, housecleaners, and home health workers. “We operate out of here because we have everyday folks that are workers that may have lost their jobs due to COVID, and a saturation of them live in this area,” she says. “It’s the community helping the community.”
I’d come to Georgia to see Democrats’ ground game ahead of the Senate runoff, and in particular, to understand the role that this group of domestic workers, most of whom are women of color, has had in turning the state purple. Right now the rink is the center of the action. From here, Bell has been organizing 250 door-knockers a day to get the word out about the race and voting logistics. “It takes people who are committed to this work, who know what’s at stake,” she says. “They have to get up every morning at eight o’clock to be here by nine for training and then go out to their specific turf and knock on people’s doors.” In the two months leading up to the runoff, Care in Action reached out to 5.85 million voters, either by phone, by mail, or in person, including more than 1 million door knocks. “Georgia is about to save our whole democracy, so we’re all in,” Bell says.
Those efforts paid off. Just after Georgians elected a Democrat for president for the first time in 30 years, they went on to pick Warnock, a Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, to represent them in the Senate, clinching Democrats’ narrow control of the chamber. In majority-Black precincts, early numbers indicated that the turnout in the January runoff would surpass that of November 2020 and reach a level not seen since Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Republican turnout was also strong, but not enough to turn back a second blue wave in so many months.
Though Care in Action is not affiliated with Stacey Abrams, who has been widely credited with turning Georgia blue, its work is a direct extension of Democrats’ decade-long effort to reshape the state by organizing voters of color. “What it takes to win in Georgia is a multiracial coalition,” says Rep. Nikema Williams, who served as Care in Action’s deputy director in 2018 and now holds the US House seat formerly held by Rep. John Lewis. And just as that coalition did not come together overnight, it also drew upon generations of organizing by Black domestic workers. “I do believe that investment in long-term, community-based organizing and power building does pay off,” says Ai-jen Poo, Care in Action’s senior adviser and the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Throughout our history, Black domestic workers have organized and have really asserted their dignity through organizing.”
Atlanta is the birthplace of that movement. The first recorded domestic workers’ strike was in 1881, when Black women in Atlanta left their posts to demand better wages. Dorothy Lee Bolden helped create the National Domestic Workers Union of America (a precursor to NDWA) in the city in 1968. It was less a formal union than an education and advocacy effort, which Bolden led for nearly three decades. She built an infrastructure that took the union directly to the people it represented, using public buses to hold informal meetings and recruit domestic workers during their daily commute. There were two requirements to join the union: Members had to be domestic workers, and they had to vote.
Bolden started her career as a domestic worker when she was 9, washing diapers for the family who employed her mother as a housekeeper. As an adult, she cleaned houses and looked after children during the day, and spent her nights watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches on television while she sewed for her daughters. She marched with King when he came to Atlanta and she organized a boycott of city schools in 1964 to protest disparities in education quality between Black and white children, and she applied the lessons from her activism to the NDWU. “A domestic worker is a counselor, a doctor, a nurse; she cares about the family she works for as she cares about her own,” she said in 1983. Even so, she noted, domestic workers “have never been recognized as part of the labor force.” She was determined to change that, and in doing so she built a lasting community among domestic workers where there once had been disempowered people working in isolation.
The NDWU eventually spread to 10 more states, won workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits, and helped raise the minimum wage in Atlanta by 33 percent. Bolden also had an influential voice that affected national policy; her expertise was sought by presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
The movement fizzled a bit in the ’80s as union power declined but it was revived a decade ago when Poo began organizing home care workers to push for greater labor protections. After notching win after win, she realized that the women she’d helped bring together were an untapped voting bloc. In 2018, she launched Care in Action to get out the vote for women candidates who stand by policies that domestic workers could benefit from. That same year, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia while pushing an unabashedly progressive agenda that included expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring quality public education. Abrams received Care in Action’s first endorsement, and the group mobilized 300 domestic workers to canvass for her.
People who worked on that campaign recall there was a beautiful synergy in domestic workers rallying for the possibility of Abrams becoming Georgia’s first Black governor. “We were very intentional about running a program that reached out to people that have been overlooked in the political process for way too long,” Williams recalls. “Our unique skill set was having our membership actually do the canvassing. It really changed the game for us and the way we were able to expand the electorate.”
Though Abrams lost her bid, thanks in no small part to the voter suppression tactics of her opponent, then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Poo and others felt they had bottled lightning. Indeed, in terms of people pounding the pavement, Care in Action was the largest independently funded grassroots effort in Georgia during the 2018 election cycle. Since then, it has expanded into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. It started small, focusing on a few state candidates and the presidential election, with an eye toward expanding its operations in Georgia.
Despite the challenges presented by a pandemic that forced a rethink of its campaign outreach and infrastructure, Care in Action was able to carry the energy from 2018 through two more hard-fought races in 2020. “I think that [Abrams’ loss] was the momentum that we needed, that propelled us to be ready and to be able to launch for the Senate runoff as well as engage in a general,” Bell says. “We were able to essentially flip our state blue.”
The stakes are clear to Melanie Jackson, a domestic worker in the Atlanta area who tells me that canvassing with Care in Action made her feel like she was making a difference in a state whose elections have deep repercussions for the rest of the country. She recalls a recent conversation she’d had with a Black man in his 30s who told her he wasn’t planning to vote—he just didn’t feel like there was any point. She says she stared at him, incredulous. “You’re gonna miss the first opportunity to send a Black man from Georgia to the United States Senate?” she asked him.
He responded, “Sister, just because you said that, I’m going to go vote for the guy.”
“We locked eyes,” she told me. “I know that he went and followed through on that, and he probably thought about me as he was pressing those buttons. No doubt in my mind.”
The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
“Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable.”
Policing in America is facing a PR crisis. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the term “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for thousands across the country. Six months later, however, America has not defunded its police force––and in fact, has in some cases taken steps to give police departments even more money. Instead, police forces across America have taken an insidious approach: painting their departments in blackface.
After the January 6th Trump riot at the Capitol building, Yoganda Pittman, a Black woman, was named the new Chief of Capitol Police. Her appointment followed the resignation of former Chief Steven Sund and the arrest and firing of several white police officers who were found to be in attendance at the MAGA riot. Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals who falsely believe that allowing Black folks to infiltrate or run law enforcement agencies will lead to higher levels of safety for Black Americans. The termination of several officers who took part in the riot has convinced many that we are one step closer to “reforming” the police by weeding out the racist, bad apples within the department.
“Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals.”
This is a nice narrative, but a false one; in order to understand why, we must look at the history of policing in this country. Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system wherein squadrons made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. These “enforcers” were in charge of locating and returning enslaved people who had escaped, crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, and punishing enslaved workers who were found or believed to have violated plantation rules. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865, America created its modern police force to do the exact thing under a different name: maintain the white supremacist hierarchy that is necessary under racial capitalism. The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
Liberal media has also contributed to the recent valorization of Black cops. In the days after the January 6th riot, many news outlets aggressively pushed a story about Eugene Goodman, a Black capitol police officer who led several rioters away from the Congress people’s hiding places while being chased by a white supremacist mob. Several news outlets published testimonials of Black police officers disclosing instances of racism within the department. A January 14th article in ProPublicanotes that over 250 Black cops have sued the department for racism since 2001: some Black cops have alleged that white officers used racial slurs or hung nooses in Black officer’s lockers, and one Black cop even claimed he heard a white officer say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
“Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system.”
These white officers’ racism is unsurprising, and I am not denying any of these claims. But focusing on these singular, isolated moments of racism wherein white cops are painted as cruel and Black cops are the sympathetic victims grossly oversimplifies the narrative of structural racism that modern American policing was built upon. After hearing these slurs that they were allegedly so disgusted by, these Black cops still intentionally chose to put on their badge, don their guns, and work alongside these white police officers who insulted and demeaned them, laboring under a violent system with the sole purpose of harming and terrorizing Black and low-income communities. Similarly, while Goodman’s actions most likely saved many lives during the riot, we cannot allow one moment of decency to erase centuries of racist violence.
The great Zora Neale Hurston once said: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Her words ring ever true today, and these Black police officers are an excellent example of why. It’s tempting to believe that putting Black folks on the force will solve racial violence, but this is a liberal myth we must break free of. Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable: a quick look at many Black folks in power today, such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Lori Lightfoot, and Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately prove this to be the case. Everyone supporting racial capitalism must be scrutinized and held accountable, regardless of their identity. We cannot on the one hand say that ‘all cops are bastards’ and then suddenly feel sympathy when those cops are not white. If we want to defund and abolish the police, we must resist the narrative that Black cops have anything to offer us.
Mary Retta is a writer, virgo, cartoon enthusiast — a queer Black writer for sites like Teen Vogue, The Nation, Bitch Media, and Vice.
One Capitol Police officer was caught taking a selfie with a member of the white supremacist mob that overtook the US Capitol last week. A second officer has been suspended for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and directing insurrectionists around the building rather than handcuffing them. The storming of the Capitol has revived concerns about the ties between police and white supremacists, in part because officers arrested far more Black Lives Matter protesters this summer than they did Trump supporters who broke into the legislative building with weapons, at least one Confederate flag, and bundles of zip ties.
It wasn’t just on-duty cops who raised eyebrows: Off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the mob itself, with some flashing their badges and identification cards as they rushed through the doors, according to an on-duty DC Metro Police officer who saw them. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote later on Facebook, according to Politico.
Police departments around the country are now investigating officers who are suspected of attending the rally in DC, or were caught posting racist messages on social media. Days after the attack, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill that would require a commission to examine whether Capitol Police officers have white supremacist ties.
For some experts, these investigations are far too little, too late: Police departments and federal agencies have long understood that certain cops are connected to racist groups, and have largely looked the other way. “We’ve known for decades that there are racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice process, from who gets stopped to who gets arrested to who police use force against to how they get charged,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments as a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. “It’s treated as implicit bias or structural bias without an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of explicit bias driving these disparities.”
As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German went undercover with white supremacist and militia groups to thwart their bomb plots. At the time, the Justice Department warned him to be careful about sharing details of his investigations with cops, because some of them had ties to white supremacist groups themselves. Even so, in the decades since then, he says the FBI has not prioritized investigating those police officers and getting them off the streets, allowing them to continue their jobs. I caught up with German this week to ask how law enforcement agencies have fallen short in identifying and firing racist officers, and what they should be doing now, in the wake of the Capitol siege, to root them out.
Do we know roughly how many cops have ties to white supremacists?
Unfortunately we don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem because no entity has made it their mission to identify the scope. But the FBI regularly warns its agents who are investigating white supremacists and far-right militants that the subjects of those investigations will often have active links to law enforcement, and that they need to alter their methodology to protect the integrity of their investigations. Those were warnings I received in the 1990s when I worked these cases, and they appear in published leaked FBI materials, including the 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.
When you say FBI agents alter their methodologies, do you mean they’re not supposed to collaborate as much with police while investigating white supremacists?
Exactly. The counterterrorism policy guide recommends that the FBI put the subjects of these investigations on a watch list with what’s called the silent-hit function; if a police officer pulls over the subject of your investigation, a silent-hit function would not tell the officer that he’s interacting with someone who’s the subject of a terrorism investigation.
If the FBI knows this is a problem of such significance that it has to alter its methodologies of investigating cases, I would argue it also has to have a strategy to protect the public from these white supremacists and far-right militants who carry a badge. The fact that they don’t even document who these police officers are shows an inexcusable lack of attention to their mission to enforce the civil rights laws of this country as well as the counterterrorism laws.
In 2006, the FBI warned that for decades, white supremacist groups had been attempting to “recruit” police officers. Can you talk about the history of this?
It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy. After slavery ended, you had Jim Crow. After the civil rights era, you still had sundown towns, where the police enforced unwritten rules about who could stay in town past dark. To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.
The most egregious are examples where police officers were actually members of white supremacist groups and would go to public events representing themselves as police officers. And their membership was known to law enforcement for years and unaddressed, and it was only when the public learned about it that the police department took action.
We do so little examination of police violence in this country, but we know it disproportionately targets people who are Black or brown. How much of that is driven from actual white supremacist ideology rather than isolated incidents that happen on the job is something the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate.
What kind of recruitment techniques do white supremacist groups use with police?
Having spent time as an FBI undercover agent, I think the term [“recruit”] doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. It’s not so much that this group will put a pamphlet together and make a recruiting pitch and approach officers. In many cases, these are people who grew up affiliating with white supremacists. One guy went to work as a prison guard, one guy went to work in factories, and the other guy went to work as a police officer. And they are just carrying on attitudes and associating with the same people they associated with when they weren’t a police officer.
Are there any police departments that have tried themselves to root out racist cops, and any that did a good job?
The departments tend to be reactive to public outrage. Part of the problem is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have written policies specifically addressing the issue. So when the public identifies somebody who’s operating in league with a white supremacist group or far-right militant group, they end up disciplining them under broad prohibitions against engaging in public conduct detrimental to the public interest, or similarly worded policies.
Sometimes this doesn’t stand up to the due process scrutiny that’s designed to protect innocent officers from being treating unfairly. So they end up getting their jobs back after they’re fired.
What I argue is that even where the conduct is not sufficient to terminate that officer, the police department still has an obligation to mitigate the threat they pose to the community. There are plenty of jobs in police departments that don’t regularly interact with the public. Or perhaps some extra level of supervision of that officer would be warranted.
Right. Or just the lack of policy, or disparate treatment, where other officers known to engage in racist behavior weren’t fired in the past, so it’s unfair to fire this officer. Often, if the police department knew about your involvement with this white supremacist group for five years but is now trying to fire you, you can argue: “I’m not being fired because of the conduct, because the department knew about the conduct; I’m being fired because the public demanded it, and that’s not appropriate.” That’s the problem with the way we have just turned a blind eye to this problem for so many decades.
Is there anything else that government can do to address this problem?
What we need is to empower prosecutors and defense attorneys. When these [white supremacist] officers are identified by the agency or by the public, that information should be provided to prosecutors and they [the officer] should be put on no-call lists or Brady lists. Today these no-call lists are lists of officers who are known to have previously engaged in some kind of dishonest conduct that a defense attorney could use to impeach their testimony. My argument is that racist behavior is one of those categories that should be available to the defense attorney. [This can] force those agents off the street.
In an ideal world, what do you think the Justice Department or FBI’s role would be in rooting out white supremacist police officers?
What I would recommend is for the Justice Department to implement a national strategy to identify these officers, document the scope of the threat, and design programs to mitigate it. It’s a matter of priorities. If the FBI heard through the grapevine that a police officer was affiliating himself with Al Qaeda or ISIS, we can be confident the FBI would react quickly. They should act just as quickly when the police officer is associated with white supremacist and far-right militant groups.
Some people have expressed the idea that we need to create a list of designated domestic terrorist groups, but that’s a silly approach because these groups change their names regularly. In other words, writing a list of groups that are banned is not going to help. Because officers can look at the list and say, “Okay, I won’t join this group, but I’ll join this other group. Or I’ll be part of a group that previously called itself the KKK but now calls itself something else.” But it’s the same people engaged in the same racist conduct. It takes an understanding of how these groups actually organize before you can write a policy.
The officers and agents within these federal, state, and local law enforcement departments know who the racists are among them. What we need to do is make sure officers who see racist misconduct or far-right militancy within law enforcement are protected when they report it. We need to strengthen whistleblower protection laws.
You wrote in a recent report about a man in Anniston, Alabama, who applied to be a police officer, and listed on his application that he was part of the League of the South, a white supremacist secessionist group. He was hired anyway. Are cops’ racist ties often that obvious?
Yes, often it is that obvious. So it’s not that they can’t be seen, it’s that nobody is looking for them.
Update (January 15): The Capitol Police officer who wore a MAGA hat claims he put on the cap as part of a plan to save some of his colleagues who were in danger, according to a new Wall Street Journalreport.