A while back, thumb some black barbers in central Florida must have felt like they fell asleep – and woke up in 1833.
That was the year when that Confederate state – as well as a number of others – passed codes that forbade five or more black male slaves from assembling. Such laws were aimed at discouraging slaves from plotting revolts, or sharing wisdom, or bonding too much for their masters’ comfort.
More than a century has passed since then, and black men have been gathering all over the place; at lodges, at the post and especially at the barber shop.
That’s where they get a haircut, where they take sons and grandsons to get their first haircuts, where they talk about the news of the day, and where they dispense wisdom and talk trash.
But nowadays, this misguided War on Drugs seems to have given law enforcement free rein to do what slave owners and Bull Connor once did: To act on stereotypes instead of evidence; to automatically see a bunch of proud and often boisterous black men as being up to no good.
At least that seems to be what’s been happening in Orlando.
Officers with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office raided some 40 barber shops in black and Latino neighborhoods between August and September. Rather than go through the trouble of obtaining search warrants, they tagged along with inspectors from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to enter the shops.
To hear the barbers and customers tell it, what happened next was nothing short of a nightmare.
According to the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets, witnesses said the officers conducted SWAT-style raids on the shops, complete with police dogs and, in some cases, drawn weapons.
In some shops, barbers were forced to lie on the floor and submit to pat-down searches. Drawers and lockers were pried open with bars and a battering ram, and extensive damage was done.
Lawyers representing the barbers said that customers, including those who were in the middle of getting haircuts, were ordered out of the shop, and criminal checks were run on them.
After all that humiliation, however, only three drug-related crimes were uncovered. But dozens of barbers were arrested and jailed for minor license infractions – and, for extra fun, were driven around in police vans as they moved on to raid other black barber shops.
Keep in mind that only three barbers in the past decade have been arrested for license violations. Most get a citation and a $500 fine.
To his credit Jerry Demings, Orange County’s black sheriff, has ordered an internal investigation of the raids and has said that the license arrests were overkill. The DBPR has fired three officials involved.
Still, lawyers who represent a number of the barbers have announced plans to sue for civil rights violations.
As they should.
This isn’t 1833. Nor is it 1960. This is 2010 – and black men shouldn’t be subjected to this type of harassment because law enforcement is either too negligent, too frustrated or cares so little about the dignity of black men that they don’t even bother to get warrants to prove whatever suspicions they might have.
Yet in many ways, this is nothing new.
It’s just another reflection of how the War on Drugs has ushered in a new era of Jim Crow. It’s an era in which the drug trade, with its accompanying fears of violence, has made it easier for even the most upstanding black men to be reduced to second-class citizenry.
It’s an era in which any black man can be stopped and searched for driving a certain car, or for walking down a certain street; onein which black mothers often urge their sons to not ride more than five to a vehicle, lest they attract the same suspicions as the black barbers recently did.
It’s one in which law enforcement believes society has so thoroughly bought into the image of the predatory, criminally-predisposed black man that it no longer fears that people will be more outraged over their rights being violated than their safety being protected; that they’ll urge the humiliated black men to suck it up and accept the inconvenience of being stereotyped.
But so far, it doesn’t look like the black barbers in Orlando are about to let it go.
That’s good – because the more such outrages are shrugged off, the closer we’ll get to waking up in 1833.
Or, for that matter, in a reality that’s even more nightmarish.