By Rob Rushin
EDITOR'S NOTE: We finished editing this column about an hour before news came of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. During their Tuesday debate, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran addressed the issue of mass shootings. Columnist Rob Rushin filed an addendum to this story at 10 p.m. last night, which begins at the end of the original column.
“But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble — that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void?”
— “Notes From Underground,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“A young girl, gunned down by an illegal immigrant who should have been deported…”
So begins the narration for a political ad that depicts the murder of a young, red-haired girl by a hoodie-wearing “illegal” on a leafy suburban street. Richard Corcoran, Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and a more than-likely gubernatorial candidate in this November’s election, founded and runs a political-action committee that spent $1.4 million putting this on the air, ostensibly to generate support for his so-called “anti-sanctuary” bill.
The ad takes direct aim at “Tallahassee politicians” who support sanctuary policies for immigrants. In the TV spot, which began running in late January, Corcoran name-checks Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman whose 2015 shooting death has been relentlessly politicized and misrepresented by the GOP. He says the ad was “inspired by” her story, but resemblance to the facts of the Steinle incident ends with the fact that a woman dies. The rest is pure theater.
Backlash was swift across traditional and social media. On Twitter, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum – already a declared Democratic candidate for governor – was especially scathing. Corcoran doubled down, then Gillum tripled. The tweetstorm escalated, with challenges to debate “anytime, anywhere” thrown around like “yo’ mama” on the playground. Amazingly, a debate ensued — even though Corcoran has yet to declare his candidacy, and the primary elections remain six months away. It was as if Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had decided to debate each other before the presidential primaries.
Thus, on Tuesday night when Corcoran and Gillum squared off in a Tallahassee television studio, it was an odd event. Only one topic was allowed: Corcoran’s House Bill 9, a piece of legislation the Florida Senate is refusing even to consider.
Polling puts Gillum and Corcoran in third place in their respective primaries, their statewide name-recognition numbers hovering between 20 and 30 percent. It’s easy to think Corcoran hoped the ad would go viral, and a fair bet Gillum figured his tweetstorm would, too. Both were right.
The debate itself? Almost certainly intended to do the same.
Nobody was allowed into the studio proper. A source familiar with the negotiations told The Bitter Southerner Corcoran insisted on no live audience. The several dozen journalists on hand crammed into a luxe viewing hutch: leather seating, snacks, and beverages abounding, a giant screen with larger-than-life audio.
No mistake: Gillum and Corcoran are polar opposites, near-perfect exemplars of the Duality of the Southern Thing, iconic embodiments of liberal Democrat versus Tea Party Republican. One, the most forthrightly progressive statewide candidate Florida has ever seen; the other, a perfect expression of GOP id as it stands today, one party under Trump. One black, a graduate of the historically black Florida A&M University, the other white, with a law degree from Pat Robertson’s Regent University.
The debate went as predicted, both men hitting the notes their bases want to hear. Both went deep on emotional appeal. The primary emotion stoked? Fear. For Corcoran, the fear of “illegals” killing Americans. For Gillum, the fear that anti-immigrant hysteria would lead to a “papers please” police state.
Gillum demanded Corcoran apologize for the ad. Corcoran refused, several times deriding Gillum’s “crazy liberal logic.” He name-checked Steinle seven times. Corcoran also invoked the names at least three other young white women he said are now dead because of sanctuary policies — women whose names have been enshrined as popular fetish totems for the anti-immigrant right.
“Kate Steinle would still be alive today if not for sanctuary policies.” Corcoran said. He accused Gillum of “treat[ing] illegal immigrants better than you treat your own American citizens in your district,” suggesting Gillum puts “criminal illegal immigrants” on the street while letting American citizens linger in jail.
Gillum held up a copy of HB9 and accused Corcoran of trying to conceal provisions that would make Florida into “a police state where we turn teachers against students, neighbors against neighbors, and turn law enforcement against the communities they are charged to protect and to serve.”
Near the end, Gillum tied Corcoran to the president: “We've seen the politics of Trump entering into state politics. I believe this ad and this debate that we're having tonight is simply a downflow and an outflow of that kind of ridiculous, bottom-of-the-barrel, dog-whistle, bullhorn politics.”
After the debate, I asked Corcoran about costuming his fictional assailant in a hoodie. Visibly annoyed, he said, “I have a 15-year-old boy who wears a hoodie all the time. You're reading into something that's far greater.”
Soon after, an Associated Press reporter picked up the same thread with Gillum.
“I certainly see it a different way, and I think many people in this state who saw the ad also saw it in a different way,” Gillum said. “The point could not be missed. … the way the Speaker portrayed that ad was of an individual that he characterized as an undocumented immigrant going up with a hoodie on. … and then in broad daylight snuffing out the life of a little young girl.... I don't believe that he makes mistakes about the kind of imagery and the kind of message that he wants to send.”
And so, in a neat bit of encapsulated symbolism, we face yet again the hoodie-as-signifier in America, six years to the month since Trayvon Martin’s murder, a week after what would have been his 23rd birthday. Partisans on both sides contend their deeply held beliefs are unassailably logical, while their opponents’ views are transparent nonsense. And both sides are driven by fear: For Corcoran’s camp, it’s Fear of the Other; for Gillum’s, it’s the Fear of Being Othered. We shout at each other, pouring from empty into void.
What to make of this sound and fury? Faulkner, in his novel “Sanctuary,” puts these words in the mouth of his hero: “I am too old for this. I was born too old for it, and so I am sick to death for quiet.”
Tempting though it may be to tune out the noise, this social moment renders such tactics irresponsible. The conditions that give rise to legislation like Florida HB9 are not unlike the conditions that spawned the Alien & Sedition Acts in the late 18th century, the Palmer Raids in the early 20th, and the McCarthyism of the mid-1950s. These troubling conditions precisely spotlight the choice we will face in all this year’s elections at hand — the choice between a South less bitter and one more better.
We will choose through engagement or allow others to choose for us. As old or tired as the whole thing might make us feel, we dare not look away. Quiet can wait.
Addendum, 10 p.m. Wednesday, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
Shortly after we wrapped this article, news broke of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Parkland abuts the Everglades to the west, a short 15 miles due east to the Atlantic Ocean. The town is about 75 percent white, with a median family income of $277,072 (2008 estimate). Less than half a percent live below the poverty line.
It is, therefore, reasonable to assume “criminal illegal immigrants” constitute little problem in Parkland.
As of today, Parkland is now a town our country will name alongside Columbine and Newtown. A former student strolled into the school, armed to the teeth with an AR-15, a large cache of ammunition, smoke grenades, and enough other ordnance and materiel to end the lives of — as of late Wednesday evening — 17 people. The exact number is hard to pin down.
We can pin down this figure: Parkland brings to 18 the number of mass shootings in schools. This year. In the United States.
So what does this have to do with the Tuesday debate between a couple of longshot gubernatorial candidates in Florida?
At one point, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said this when Speaker Richard Corcoran insisted his highest concern in fighting the idea of sanctuary cities is the safety of our people:
I want to take the Speaker at his word when he expresses with such passion his desire to keep all families safe. And I think we all have to recognize that any loss of life, anyone, is too great. But we’ve had senseless, senseless, senseless mass shootings. In fact, three days before I became a sworn in as mayor of the city of Tallahassee, there was an attempted mass shooting at Florida State University, which resulted in one student who, due to his his bravery, ended up becoming a paraplegic. We’ve seen what happened [after] Dylann Roof. We’ve seen what happened at the Fort Lauderdale airport not too long ago. We’ve seen what happened in Las Vegas and at Sandy Hook. The Speaker, if he was so sincere about his intent to make sure that no life is lost unnecessarily, then I would ask him to stand up to the NRA and to the gun lobby, [which] is interested every session in passing more and more bills that allow guns everywhere. Or something as simple as an individual who has committed domestic violence in their own home not being able to have a gun, because the wife or the spouse or the partner who lives in that home is 16 times more likely to be killed by gun violence. And so the truth is, is that this is a red herring. If we’re sincere about helping save lives, there are things that we can actually do, things that are within the purview of the Speaker of the House to do.
Corcoran was, firstly, annoyed Gillum raised the issue of guns at all. (Corcoran is easily annoyed, his expression perpetually poised at the pissy edge of disgust, even when goes all smiley and avuncular.) He replied:
Now you’re talking about gun control. The debate was supposed to be about House Bill 9 and and now you’re talking about gun control. California is gun-control state, and the the absolute statistics and facts, whether it’s Chicago or California, it doesn’t matter. Gun control, it has done nothing. Nothing whatsoever to reduce crime rates. In fact, those crime rates go up because the only people who have those guns are the criminals.
Corcoran carries an “A” rating from the gun lobby and supports expanding concealed-carry permissions to airports, schools, police stations and polling places, and on college campuses. Shortly after the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting (five dead, 42 injured), he had this to say:
If law-abiding citizens could carry a gun to a baggage claim, I think you’re going to see gun violence rapidly decline. So, why don’t we do that for a change? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Corcoran believes more guns — more semi-automatics, more assault weapons, more silencers, more ammunition, more high-capacity magazines, more bump stocks, more, more, more — are the answer to our safety problems. Yet today we see, one more time, the cost of these policies — the real cost, in the lives of children.
Corcoran was saddened and shocked. Oh, yes, he was. He tweeted, “We just had a moment of silence on the floor of the Florida House. No words are adequate to lessen the pain. We pray for the victims and families affected. May God comfort them and guide us.”
The best Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, with $3.3 million and counting from the NRA, could come up with was this tweet: “Just spoke to Broward School Superintendent. Today is that terrible day you pray never comes.”
Once again, only thoughts and prayers.
In the debate, Corcoran invoked four young women who died, tragically and too young. This is real human cost, and the pain of their families is deep and enduring. But Kate Steinle died three years ago; Sarah Root died two years ago; Tessa Tranchant and Allison Kunhardt died in 2007.
Corcoran digs deep into memory for examples of the alleged horrors of “criminal illegal aliens,” but rebuffs any suggestion the easy availability of weapons designed to kill lots of people, very quickly, might have anything to do with the massive carnage at which we now simply shrug.
Just another day in America.
Another mass shooting.
What else is on the TV?
This is such a downer.
We all want to look away. Surely, we are damned if we do.