This piece was written on the five year anniversary.
You aren't from here but it seems safe. After fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the tragic 2005 hurricane that claimed countless lives, many black and brown lives, you pack up and bring your beautiful son and daughter to Hillsborough County, Florida. It seems friendly. It has a Southern charm to it, the Riverview area isn't so congested and everyone is neighborly. You want your son and daughter to grow up and fulfill their dreams. You want them to get married and have a family, just like any other family dreams. You meet the neighbors and your children start to make friends. Your son is excelling in his studies and, on top of that, he has become the popular star of the local football team, sporting number Five on his jersey. His father is his biggest fan and his mother his biggest advocate. His sister his biggest admirer. That was five years ago.
"One day, they're going to know my story," says Andrew Joseph III, as he pesters his mother to take his picture on his new tablet. "Oh, sure, Andrew, the eighth-grader in Riverview, Florida! That's quite the story! Let me call CNN!" Deanna Joseph laughs as she tries to finish up her chores about the house. "No, you watch! They're going to know my story!"
He was right.
We would all know his story.
We would know that on February 7th, 2014, the Hillsborough County School District issued tickets to the Florida State Fair, as they do every year. On this day, every year, the school invites the students for the festivities at the Fairgrounds to ride ferris wheels, fill up on cotton candy and make everlasting memories. Surely, Deanna and Andrew Jr. thought this had to be the event of the season for the young people. Everyone was talking about it. The schoolboard had invited all the children to come out and spend the day. They hadn't seen or heard anyone in the neighborhood caution them away from going, in fact, everyone was going. It must be important, they thought, if the schools were closed for the day!
Besides, Hillsborough County, Florida was so safe and unassuming. So charming even.
He's a big boy now, Deanna thought. He's going to be 15 in March and going into high school. He's worked so hard! Good grades. Excelling on the little league football team. Besides, he's already planned it all out. It was going to be great! The commercials on the television showed the fair as a fun and wholesome place, a place of safety and childhood memories.
“I saw nothing wrong with letting Andrew as a 14 year old almost 15 years old go to the fair,” said Mrs. Joseph. “He has never even been in the principals’ office, I’ve never received a call from a teacher, he has never had any discipline issues, as a matter of fact he was an honor roll student. It was a reward that he could go to the fair because you do such good work son, and we appreciate that much and we trust you enough for you to go to the fair.”
It wasn't Andrew Joseph III that these loving parents needed to worry about. It would be much deeper and much more sinister than that.
Systemic racism is not a new conversation in the State of Florida. Just recently, Florida's newly elected Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, along with several other cabinent members, proudly boosted their role in the 70 years too late pardon of the Groveland Four. The Groveland Four is an all too familiar case of four young black boys wrongly accused of raping and assaulting a Lake City, Florida woman and her husband in 1949. The four were treated adversely by both the police and the justice system, which categorically failed them. In 2019, 70 years later, Commissioner Fried pushed to have these four boys pardoned and to that end, Florida Commissioner Fried said this:
“Today's action marks progress and resolution on an undeniable injustice of the past — I'm proud of my colleagues and thankful for everyone who has worked so hard to help correct this disgrace. And although the action taken today can never fully revise this dark chapter of Florida's past, it's my hope that the families of Charles Greenlee, Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin can accept this pardon as a sincere attempt to set the record of history straight. I look forward to working with the Clemency Board and the FDLE to ensure a full proclamation of exoneration is obtained to clear the names of each of the Groveland Four.”
Commissioner Fried took the office in a controversial recount drama, narrowly beating Matt Caldwell for the position and overtaking the termed out, failed gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam. As the Commissioner of Agriculture, Nikki Fried is responsible for oversight of the Florida State Authority, a responsibility previously charged to Adam Putnam.
But Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr had not expected systemic racism to the root of their life's work five years later. On February 7, 2014, Andrew Joseph III, who was only 14, went to the Florida State Fair on Student Day and never came home.
They said he took part in "wilding". Wilding is a term with a very dark, racist history. Five young black men were wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting a white female jogger in Central Park located in New York City. Due to the shady tactics of both the police department and the prosecution team, all five of these young boys were convicted of this horrific act of violence, despite none of them having actually been responsible. They were said to have been wilding. According to the cited article, wilding is a broad term used to describe "general mischief" caused by gang related activity. This happened in 1989, only 40 years after the Groveland Four incident. Eventually, the five were found to be innocent through various means and are exonerated. Yet, it's another example of the justice system's role in systemic racism.
But what does that have to do with Andrew Joseph III? Our honor roll, Catholic school, football playing star witnessed a group of friends, all young black boys, being rounded up by the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office at the Fair on February 7. It was specifically the Gang Task Unit and Andrew Joseph III knew wrong from right. When he tried to get his friends attention, he wound up roped into the round-up and was also taken with the Gang Task Unit and detained with the fairgrounds. Andrew Joseph III was detained for the crime of being a black boy in America--but the police and the media would accuse him of wilding, as they had accused the Central Park Five. And like the Central Park Five, it would later come to light that Andrew Joseph III had not done anything wrong.
He was told he could not speak to a supervising officer nor call his parents. Instead, he was stripped down and searched. They looked for piercings and gang tattoos, none of which were present. In traditional fashion, as the police had done to the Groveland Four and the Central Park Five, Andrew Joseph III was determined to be a criminal in their minds.
"These are children, not criminals," [Andrew Joseph Jr.] said. "Andrew had no gang tattoos, his name wasn't in the system. He was in their custody. They were responsible for him."
"We received no condolences, no apologies," Deanna Joseph said. "I had to go on TV to get even one call."
Ninety-nne children, mostly black, were ejected from the fairgrounds and the operations were closed down for the days. Twelve of those children were arrested and taken to the the juvenile jailing operations, none of whom were Andrew Joseph III nor his group of friends.
Andrew Joseph III was taken in a patrol car operated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and left near a dark busy highway-Interstate 4, once named the deadliest highway in the nation.
No one from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office nor the Florida State Fairgrounds bothered to call Andrew Joseph III's parents. Despite having a 14-year-old in their custody, neither party thought it pertinent to make this call. Instead, they left Andrew Joseph III unsupervised. Sheriff David Gee said it "wasn't logistically possible" to call all the parents, given the scope of the trouble, the former Sheriff of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is cited as having said in a Tampa Bay Times article.
Due to this "logistical impossibility", Andrew Joseph III is dead.
Tragically, he was struck by an SUV on Interstate 4 driven by Jonathan Hatfield. The 14 year old is now dead. Hatfield was interrogated by the Florida Highway Patrol at the scene but no charges were ever filed and the reckless driver was permitted to continue on about his day.
Andrew Joseph Jr and Deanna Joseph would receive the news later in the evening, when their beloved son was no where to be found at the pick-up point and was not responding to phone calls.
And their lives changed forever, as you would imagine.
If your child was at a school-sponsored and advertised event, would you not expect that safety protocol would be in place to prevent the unthinkable? If your child was in police custody, would you not expect to be called? If your child was in police custody, wouldn't you expect that those officers would ensure the safety of your child before releasing them?
But Andrew Joseph III's black life did not matter to the Florida State Fair or the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. It did not matter to Former Sheriff David Gee nor to Former Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.
Silence is not the modus operandi of Andrew Joseph Jr, Deanna Joseph nor their advocates. Since the tragedy, some changes have already been implemented at the fairgrounds to ensure safety. The Tampa Bay Times quotes, "The Florida State Fair will limit entry with free student tickets to before 7 p.m. each night for the duration of the fair," Pesano said. Access with free student tickets after 7 p.m. will be allowed only with an adult.
Col. Jim Previtera said the Sheriff's Office is making changes and considering more, but its ejection policy will likely remain.
In January 2015, the Florida Fair Authority announced some robust changes, that the Joseph family approves of, although they do not believe it goes nearly far enough. These changes include: New measures include a joint operations command center overseeing 228 live surveillance cameras, raised platforms to monitor crowds, a wider midway to help with congestion, and additional lighting. On Hillsborough County Student Day, Feb. 6, students who enter the fair with a free ticket after 6 p.m. must be accompanied by an adult. An adult may accompany up to four students and will be granted free admission into the fair after 6 p.m. If students 16 or younger are ejected, they must be allowed to call a parent or guardian.
Although the Florida Fair Authority has made these changes, they have refused to do so in Andrew Joseph III's name, which is an example of whitewashing. It is Andrew Joseph III's tragic exit from this Earthly world that led to these changes and nothing else.
Andrew Joseph III's parents, sister and their advocates haven't been silent about it either. In February 2015, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, 100s took to the streets to march, for the purpose of bringing attention to this tragic case and the demand for accountability and change.
The 2015 march was led by Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr, and the parents of other black boys and men taken too soon by the negligence of the system, including the parents of Kendrick Johnson, Rodney Mitchell and others. In each case, the victims are dehumanized by the media, the police departments and the public at large but in each case, the family's stand together to spotlight truth and justice.
The work hasn't stopped there.
In 2016, four activists with Black Lives Matter Tampa took a different approach. These four activists courageously chained themselves together and defied orders by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to vacate the area on February 7, 2016, the two year anniversary of the tragic death.
In the same year, the Andrew Joseph family had officially filed a lawsuit against the Florida Fair Authority and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, a case that is still ongoing.
"We have made some progress because we have demanded progress. We have demanded safety and we have a very long ways to go still," said Andrew Joseph Jr.
That same year, thanks to the advocacy of Black Lives Matter Tampa, U.S. Representative Alan Grayson officially filed a bill in honor of Andrew Joseph III into the federal house. Grayson spoke on the case openly on the floor and worked as an advocate for the family during this time, just as he was about to enter a bid for a spot in the U.S. Senate. You can read the bill here. As of today, it has not yet been enacted into law.
In late 2017, the Restorative Justice Coalition met with Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr and joined the efforts to bring not only attention to the case, but also justice. An official set of demands have been issued by the Restorative Justice Coalition on behalf of the Andrew Joseph III case:
(a) A percentage of proceeds of every fair to go directly to the Andrew Joseph Foundation annually for the next 14 years--each year symbolizing the time Joseph lived on this Earth. (Or a cause of their choice)
(b) A written, genuine apology that admits fault by the Florida State Fairgrounds.
(c) A memorial to Andrew Joseph III placed in the fairground every year where the public can see it--where the fairgrounds acknowledges their wrongdoing and acknowledges that their changes to their safety plans (and their commitment to continued updating of their safety plans) are in honor of Andrew Joseph III.
(d) Implicit bias training, as taught by an outside provider, for ALL fair management, directors, supervisors, security personnel and any police officers who will work on the fairgrounds at any time--to be completed annually.
In January 2018, the Restorative Justice Coalition sent physical letters and emails to Former Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and many board members, including former Buccaneers player Derrick Brooks, County Commissioner Les Miller, among others, demanding these simple demands be enacted as part of the pursuit of justice. No individual involved with the Florida Fair Authority has responded to these demands.
Along with Deanna and Andrew Joseph Jr, the Restorative Justice Coalition also attended a board meeting by the Fairgrounds to make public comment addressing these concerns but were met with stone-faced board members of whom refused to comment "due to litigation."
The fight continues.
Among the contentious election that made national headlines for voter recount scandals, a Florida staple, the Restorative Justice Coalition arranged a meeting with Nikki Fried, at the time a candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture. In this meeting, which took place via Zoom, Andrew Joseph Jr and Sadie Dean briefed Nikki Fried of the particulars of the case and the hopes and cries for justice. This meeting took place on Friday, November 2nd, only a few short weeks before Nikki Fried was officially sworn it. In the meeting, Nikki Fried's campaign promised a follow-up meeting after she takes office--as of this writing, the follow-up has not occurred.
But the Joseph's are hopeful. With the ousting of Adam Putnam and the transition to Nikki Fried, a candidate who has claimed numerous times to be committed to social justice, the Joseph's are hoping to finally have an advocate on the inside.
And with Nikki Fried so gleefully and thoughtfully proclaiming justice for the Groveland Four--it leads all of us to wonder what her legacy will be as the Executive of the Florida Fair Authority. What role in justice will she play for Andrew Joseph III?
Only time will tell.
February 7 will be five years. "Justice delayed is justice denied." The Groveland Four had to wait 70 years. The Central Park Five had to wait 25 years. 5 years is long enough to clear Andrew Joseph III's name of the bogus "wilding" claim. To give his life and legacy due credit for making changes to the fairgrounds and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office policies. To enact state and federal laws that protect children, work to end racial biases and hold police departments accountable, such as repealing the Florida Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.
What will your legacy be in bringing awareness to this case?