Death of Florida teen leads to Capitol protest

Boy, 14, died in January after scuffle with guards at boot camp

April 22, 2006|By MARK HOLLIS | MARK HOLLIS,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- College students from as far away as Fort Lauderdale and Miami marched with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton outside Florida's Capitol yesterday, capping a racially charged week of protests over a black teen who died after a scuffle with guards at a boot camp for troubled youths.

More than 2,000 marchers, most of whom were black, chanted "Justice delayed, justice denied" and held signs with pictures of Martin Lee Anderson. The teenager's death in January has infuriated black leaders who are demanding reforms, including the firing of guards at the Panama City camp.

A medical examiner determined that Anderson, 14, died as a result of complications from sickle cell trait, a usually benign blood disorder common among blacks. Anderson's family and their supporters contend that his death was caused by the punching and kicking he received from guards, a beating captured on videotape. A second autopsy is being conducted, and both state and federal criminal investigations are under way.

"Hovering above us is a certain degree of sadness," Jackson told the protesters at the end of the march. "There's been another murder at the hands of officers of the state. And what do we want? We want the truth to be told. We want justice served, and the laws to be adhered to."

Gov. Jeb Bush has attempted to quell the storm over Anderson's death and the state's handling of the investigation by apologizing to the boy's parents Thursday. He has urged a special prosecutor to expedite the case.

Bush accepted the abrupt resignation Thursday of Guy Tunnell, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The agency was removed from the investigation after it was revealed that Tunnell, the former sheriff of the county were the camp is located, sent e-mails to the current sheriff about how the state probe was going. In the messages, Tunnell lashed out at the camp's critics, and criticized a lack of state funding for the program.

Bush said yesterday there were multiple reasons for Tunnell's resignation. The governor expressed disappointment over Tunnell's admission that he made disparaging remarks about prominent black leaders. "There was a meeting where he made a joke that was inappropriate," Bush told reporters.

Tunnell in a written statement called his comments an "attempt at humor" that was "ill-conceived, ill-timed, and inappropriate, and was not intended to be disrespectful to any individual or group."

Bush said Tunnell "realized that it would be difficult to lead the agency and to deal with these perception questions."

Sharpton, a New York City radio host who conducted his national broadcast from Tallahassee yesterday, referred to the former FDLE chief during a fiery address to student protesters. He said Tunnell's departure needs to be followed by more firings and criminal action against state officials.

Demonstrators, who ended their several-block march at the steps of the Old State Capitol, wore black and white T-shirts with the words: "The next Emmett Till?" a reference to a Chicago youth who was brutally murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.

Laroy Harris, 23, of Miami, was among the protesters wearing bandages over their right eyes in a reference to Anderson's beating. He said the point of Friday's demonstration was to point the finger at Bush and other political leaders.

"If the people aren't happy, then the politicians can't be happy. The elections are this year, and we're going to remember this," said Harris.

Mark Hollis writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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