08 May Episode 75: The Trouble with ‘Florida Man’
Citations Needed | May 1, 2019 | Transcript
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Adam: “Naked Florida man revealed on video sneaking into restaurant and munching on ramen.”
Nima: “Florida man arrested at Olive Garden after eating spaghetti with his hands.”
Adam: “Florida man broke into jewelry store, cut himself on glass and bled all over everything, police say.”
Nima: We’ve heard this supposedly hilarious story for years. Florida-themed crime stories, we are told, are uniquely wacky and worthy of derision. But what are we really mocking when we mock “Florida Man”?
Adam: On today’s episode we’re going to be tedious liberal scolds and buzzkills and if your eyes haven’t already rolled and you’ve turned the dial, we want you to hear us out. We want to talk about what we believe is the anti-poor, mental health-shaming subtext that animates much of the viral Florida man meme and how that and our broader culture of quote “weird crime” stories and mugshot shaming serve as little more than a socially acceptable way of mocking the marginalized and indigent.
Nima: Today we’ll discuss the two primary drivers of this “Florida man” phenomenon: First that Florida has very liberal “sunshine laws” that, while ostensibly designed to make the government more transparent, have instead created a conveyor belt of searchable “crimes” that lazy journalists can cherry pick for salacious clicks. Second and maybe more importantly, Florida is in the midst of a major mental health crisis while having virtually no social safety net. Florida ranks 49th out of 50 among states for mental-health programs, 41st in support for those affected by drug addiction, and number three for percent of the population who are homeless.
Adam: This toxic combination of contempt for the poor, plus a laundry list of anti-black laws and anti-poor laws from barring thousands from voting due to felony convictions to its push for drug testing the poor for welfare benefits, Florida is notorious for having some of the country’s harshest systems in place for those on the margins of society. It’s really ground zero for neoliberal rot. The Florida man meme — if not in intent in effect — using a cutesy faux generalized framing device to provide cover for what is little more than just mindless poverty shaming.
Nima: We will be joined later on today’s episode by Michelle Bruder, an organizer with the Orlando Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and soon-to-be an organizer for the statewide Florida DSA.
Michelle Bruder: According to the Florida Supreme Court, jails and prisons are the asylums of the new millennium. Yeah right now, I believe the statistic is that you are nine times more likely to be arrested in the state of Florida if you are mentally ill then to be hospitalized and receive treatment.
Adam: Let’s start off by explaining what Florida Man is. Florida Man is an extremely popular trope that’s been around for years, but has caught more popularity recently due to a viral meme. Florida Man is a sort of general tongue-in-cheek thing that weird stories come out of Florida and that if you share a Florida-Man-does-this-crazy-thing-that’s-funny and sort of something people get together to make fun of and mock. It’s typically done, since this is an episode that’s more finger wagging than usual, we want to qualify this by saying that like this is not about shaming people who have partook in this. I think it’s fair to say we all have, this is a critical look at what the kind of cultural forces are that make this kind of clickbait so popular and to think critically about what we’re doing really when we partake in this kind of mockery. I assume there’s some percentage of people, Nima, who will roll their eyes and say, ‘you guys are a bunch of buzz kills’ and turn us off, but we really ask you to sort of bear with us.
Nima: Laughing at stupid people, mocking ridiculous things that happen, you know, bizarre stories, like, that is human nature. We completely understand that we, you know, I engage in that. Like, what do you mean? Of course, of course. But the Florida Man meme starting in earnest in 2013 and kind of only growing in frequency since then, both online and off. It’s often in print media, which is where it, you know, really started. The idea of “Florida Man” really has, as we said in the intro to this episode, has everything to do with the availability of crime information or you know, police statistics that journalists can find in Florida under what are known as sunshine laws, uh, for the sunshine state. And so therefore wacky, kooky, crazy stories that the cops, you know, report on and then journalists take and they create listicles or viral headlines. This has to do with the availability of this information. If anyone could just kind of dig into the police database for arrests or for police activity, police responding to 9–1–1 calls, I’m sure around the entire country you could get Wyoming Man, New York Man, Nebraska Man, Hawaii Man, like whatever. But because of these sunshine laws, journalists are able to do this with far more frequency and efficacy in Florida. And so you have things like January 29th, 2019 in USA Today the headline, “Florida Man thought he was stealing opioids but instead got laxatives, police say.” “Another one from September 2018, “Florida man, drunk and naked, allegedly set house on fire in failed cookie baking attempt.” If you Google “Florida Man” you will get endless examples.
Adam: “Florida Man Attacks ATM With Hatchet After It Doesn’t Accept His Check.” “Florida Man denies syringes found in rectum are his.” “Florida Man Chews Up Police Car Seat After Cocaine Arrest.” Generally these bizarre stories involve some sort of public display of weirdness or sort of novelty, usually involves drugs or some sort of bizarre behavior in public. Now there’s there sort of obvious reasons why that is. So there’s sort of two main factors. There’s the sunshine laws, which we’ve talked about, which we’ll get into a little more later. But then there’s the other factor, which is something that we don’t want to talk about. I don’t wanna start off by saying a couple things. I wrote a piece in Truthdig about this and one common response was, ‘Oh, well people who are Florida men are not necessarily more poor or have mental health issues.’ But we know this is not true because people who are arrested in general are always on average more poor and almost always on average have more drug issues and mental health issues. Like overwhelmingly it’s not even close. And of course they’re disproportionately African American and Latino. So it logically follows that crime stories, if quote unquote “crime arrests” in general are disproportionately targeting the poor and those who had mental health issues, it logically follows that the wacky stories that fall under that category would also be disproportionately, uh, have mental health issues, drug problems and be poor. And if you examine most of these headlines anecdotally, you could sort of look at them and we’ll go over some of them, it is very clear that there’s a combination of drug abuse, mental health problems and homelessness. And many of these wacky stories are about what it means to have privacy and to be able to do normal human activities when you don’t have a home and what that looks like. Now, of course there are examples of people killing people or sexual offenses, which we’re not at all defending or apologizing for, but the vast majority of Florida Man/weird crime stories are fundamentally tales of poverty and a system, especially in a state like Florida, which we’ll go over, that has left people who are marginalized and poor basically to fend for themselves. So some quick statistics just to set the table here, as we noted in the intro, Florida is in the middle of a mental health crisis.
In the show notes we’ll have an Orlando Sentinel investigation and infographic into how bad this health crisis has gotten in Florida over the last few years. They are 49th amongst states in mental health programs. So Florida spends only $37.28 per person on mental health. By way of example, Mississippi, which is not known for its welfare state, spends four times more than Florida does. Florida also ranks 41st in support for those affected by drug addiction according to a life insurance company study from two years ago. And a lot of this panders to notions of homelessness. Now Florida is number three in the country out of 51 states and territories in it’s homelessness rate behind California and New York. Florida is number five in the US for school children who are homeless and number two in the US for homeless veterans.
Nima: Florida also is pretty notorious when it comes to how it treats those who you know live in poverty, who have addiction. I mean as we’ve been, you know, talking about these statistics, it’s kind of clear, but also, you know, Florida has pushed for drug testing the poor in order to allow them to get welfare benefits. Like, Florida does have a system in place that is especially aggressive, violent and non accommodating, non sympathetic to those who need help, those who need the most assistance and the most attention and the most care.
Adam: So certain headlines like “Florida Man Chews Up Police Car Seat After Cocaine Arrest,” obviously someone with a drug addiction. “Florida Man Learns Hard Way He Stole Laxatives, Not Opioids” again guy has a drug addiction.
Nima: “Florida Man accidentally butt-dials 911 while cooking meth with his mom.”
Adam: Like obviously drug addiction. And by the way, these, these come from a list from Esquire magazine of funniest Florida men headlines. “Florida Man Spent Weeks in Jail for Heroin That Was Actually Detergent.” Okay, well, again, we’re putting people in jail for detergent. Like that’s not funny. That’s bad.
Nima: “Florida Man attempts to smoke crack in ICU, almost burns down hospital.” So clearly addicted to drugs. That is a problem. That is something that needs to be dealt with. But when reporting on this, the idea that this is a Florida Man headline has everything to do with mockery and derision and not with and ‘he was at the hospital and then uh, he got all these great services and we’re really hoping things are okay.’ That is not the way these articles end.
Adam: Yeah. This is actually sort of similar to the perseverance porn episode we did where these headlines on their face, they’re either endearing or funny, but then you think about them and you’re like, actually wait, this is like actually really bad. And I know that people can’t always be on. Like I get that there is a such thing as levity. We’re not anti-levity on this show, but these are like most of these headlines. I think it’s fair to say the majority of them are really about people with really bad problems. And so you have “Florida Man attempts to ride bike through Taco Bell drive-thru, fights with police.” I mean again, this is someone who obviously doesn’t have a car. “Florida Man steals 850 pairs of underwear from Victoria’s Secret.” And this is all sort of funny. And then he says, it’s a Latino man and he says quote “has no money in the bank.” So he was obviously stealing to try to pay for something. Who knows what. “Florida Man calls 911 to check on his tax return.” You know, this is someone who is drunk who probably didn’t really know how the system works. Again, a lot of these have obvious mental health issues probably. Again, we, we, you can’t, we can never diagnose mental health from afar, but it’s fair to say in the aggregate that a lot of these people very clearly have mental health problems. I think that’s fair to say. And, or, and I stress and have drug problems as well. “Florida Man caught with ‘active’ meth lab in his pants.” Like, isn’t that funny? Um, no, he had a one pot meth synthesizer that he was hiding from police in his pants and he was, um, he was injured and hospitalized and later arrested. Like this is, this is kind of just sad. Yeah, I dunno. I think to me it’s like there are certain headlines that you read like ‘that’s funny.’ You know the guy drives a Lamborghini into the water. Okay, that guy’s rich. He probably was drinking, but you could sort of say, ‘okay, that’s a bit of a judgment call.’ Like I don’t think, I don’t think, at least, I’m not categorically opposed to like Florida Man jokes. But the vast majority of them, if you read them, are really about people with major problems and about a state that has left these people to die and just doesn’t care about them.
Nima: Right. So Florida spends $718 million a year for mental health programs, which sounds like a lot. That’s a lot of millions of dollars. But it also, you know, pours nearly $1 billion a year into jails and prisons for housing and concentrating and medicating mentally ill incarcerated people. So the idea that this is a state that actually has a lot of care and consideration for people who need help is fundamentally untrue. But then you have the kind of additional piece of this, which is why our Florida Man headline is so ubiquitous. And so this is where we should turn to Florida’s famously transparent sunshine laws. Now sunshine laws, federal policies and also state policies which basically enable more transparency into government actions. So, you know, these are ostensibly a good thing. Sunshine laws should be good things. They’re one of a number of FOIA laws. They’re able to, you know, journalists can get information from the government. And so, you know, different states have different levels of transparency. And in Florida we kind of have seen at least in this, in this respect where this can lead.
Adam: I did a piece for FAIR back in January, we had a broader conversation and we had Sharlyn Grace, the head of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, on and we talked about the problem with mugshots in crime reporting, specifically in the context of Chicago Block Club, who since we’ve publicly scolded them doesn’t really do it anymore. And this is a subset of that cause these Florida mean jokes are usually tied to some funny mug shot we all laugh at, you know, tattoos, whatever. Again, this is very, this correlates heavily with class, correlates heavy with people who are on the margins of society. And I interviewed three people who’ve had their lives ruined with mugshots and they did not think this was particularly funny. There was one quote in particular from a gentleman in Kentucky who I interviewed, he was anonymous, he was wrongfully accused, not that it matters, but he was wrongfully accused of robbing someone and had his, they put up his mugshot on local media and put it up in the local mugshot press. And he said, quote, “They’re rednecks and ‘oh, look at this.’ It’s like Jerry Springer. Like everyone’s just retarded or stupid and ha ha ha, ‘look at this,’ ‘look at their face.’” Unquote. He would go on to say, “Oh, look at his face. He looks like an idiot. And I would be like, ‘no man, I’m fucking pissed because I should not be there. This is wrong.’ And then, you know, people thought it was funny.” And so this is a more severe end of what we’d call mugshot shaming or kind of mugshot media where, you know, this is people’s lives. Like these are people, they’re not punchlines. Without being too precious or sentimental about it like this is the definition of punching down. These are stories that go viral where they take people in their most vulnerable moments, these are clearly, a lot of times manic episodes or mental breakdowns, nervous breakdowns, obviously meth is a huge factor here for anyone who’s lived in states where meth is a major problem. There’s meth all over these stories and anyone has ever known anyone who’s been a meth addict as I have and I know that many of our listeners have like you can see their faces in these mugshots. These are people you know, these are your loved ones. This is not sort of abstract. This is not a joke. And I think that it’s part of a general culture of callousness towards the poor and people who are deemed quote unquote “criminals.” And I think that this is a subset of that general mugshot culture we have, which by the way, a lot of cultures don’t have. A lot of cultures don’t make it legal to do this. This is a very American thing. And I think that these things are so cookie cutter and already made for us that we can kind of just share them and say, ‘lol isn’t this funny?’ I don’t know, I think it’s part of a broader callousness and hostility towards the poor and people who we deem criminal because when someone is deemed criminal in our culture, they’re sort of not people, they’re sort of written off.
Nima: Right. And so in the midst of mental health and also drug addiction crises, these headlines go a long way to further marginalize those suffering from these illnesses of addiction, of depression, mental health. And so what we see is this confluence, as we’ve been talking about, of a particular state of the nation that does not have sufficient, I mean, I would say none have adequate or sufficient policies or funding for these, but Florida really just ranks incredibly low across the board on this. And then coupled as we’ve been saying with the more specific Florida Sunshine Law, which was enacted first in 1995 which really allows for government transparency, which we would argue is a good thing. Open records, open meetings. These laws are very important to democracy, to transparency in government. These are good things, but what happens is the media decides how to treat these two things. So it’s not that the cops are called on people who are doing such and such activity in such and such Florida neighborhood. Like okay that happens. That will continue to happen and there are going to be reports on that. But it’s the journalists who use this as clickbait and use this as headline shaming and use this as a way to generate attention for people to mock those who are suffering from things that their readers are not. And so that, you know, there is this constant punching down. This is racialized very often. Definitely class-based, class-oriented.
Adam: Yeah. Cause again, occasionally they’ll throw in a rich guy or use it ironically. Like Jeb Bush runs for president, a Florida Man. Isn’t that funny? And a lot of people who were from Florida, you’ll complain about this and they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m from Florida, I don’t care.’ But Florida Man is not about people from Florida. It’s a class signifier. It’s like, it’s like saying, if I say, I think hip hop is for stupid people, you can say, ‘oh, I listen to hip hop and I’m not stupid so I’m allowed to say that.’ Well, but we’re not talking, when I say hip hop, that’s obviously code for something else. People say, ‘oh, I’m from Florida and I’m okay with this.’ But this isn’t really about people from Florida. It’s, it’s not, that’s not the constituency being harmed here. That’s not the constituency being mocked obviously. It is a coded, socially acceptable proxy for making fun of people who are obviously suffering from conditions or are poor. And I think one thing we should talk about is the idea of homelessness and what personal space for homeless people means. And this is, this is an interesting thing because so many of these are ‘so and so eats in such parking lot’ or ‘so and so does this weird thing in parking lot.’ And for people who understand what it means to be homeless or have a sense of what that means a lot of this is just part of the criminalization of homelessness, which is arresting people for doing things in public. You know, you could argue that certain lewd sexual activities are beyond the pale and that’s a different conversation. But many of these things people describe are what people do anyway, but we criminalize homelessness so much in this country, especially in a state like Florida, that this is their personal space. And I know that may offend some people, but that’s what it means to be homeless. You have to engage in normal human activity. Like people say, ‘oh, it’s one of the Florida headlines is woman shaves at pool, shaves her legs in pool’ well she is shaving her legs in the pool because she probably is homeless.
Nima: And so, you know, many local laws serve to explicitly punish people who simply don’t have as much money as other people. I mean, that’s what anti-vagrancy laws effectively are. They not only criminalize people for being poor, for not having what, you know, you could argue the majority of people have, but like these laws and what they do, they’re not only shaming, they’re not only destructive and demeaning, but they’re actually fundamentally counterproductive because under these laws you then wind up rounding up people, imprisoning them and putting fines on them and having court fees, all of these things that would absolutely and obviously make it far harder for these people to then escape homelessness, to then build any sort of amount of money that would allow them to move beyond this like very horrible state of their lives that they have been trapped in. It just kind of like overlays problems onto themselves without ever seeking to actually alleviate anything.
Adam: Yeah, and I feel like it’s to be prescriptive here it’s sort of like with the perseverance porn episode where if you were to send me a story that says this 11 year old collected cans to pay for his college so his mom could afford to send him to college and then at the end you said, by the way, this is an indictment of our public education system and it’s a shame, I would actually have no problem with that story going viral. Like there has to be some context to it and I think like so many of these stories it’s like ‘okay, this is funny, by the way, this is obviously the fact that we even know about this as animated by the criminalization of vagrancy or a lack of support for people who are, who are homeless or have mental health issues’ I necessarily wouldn’t mind it. It’s the total stripping of context and being incredibly glib about things that are really like not, I don’t think people should be that glib about. Again, these are, these are real humans behind these headlines. These are not cartoon characters.
Nima: In a 2018 City Lab piece, it was dissected why at least half a million Americans experience homelessness at some point in their lives. And the article found this quote:
Researchers find that most people who become homeless have nowhere to live after being evicted, losing their jobs, or fleeing an abusive partner. Many emergency homeless shelters are perpetually full. Even those with beds to spare may enforce rules that exclude families, LGBTQ youth, and people with pets.
So you know, you kind of see what may lead to people not having homes. I mean, you know, being evicted, losing jobs, fleeing an abusive partner, that encapsulated in there, maybe also people who have lost all their money due to healthcare expenses. I mean you could take this apart in a number of different ways and yet someone being homeless in a lot of these articles is itself part of the punchline.
Adam: There was a study done by the Miami Herald that looked at prosecutions in Miami Beach from January to August of 2018 that revealed two thirds of those that were prosecuted, not arrested, but prosecuted, which means the number’s probably much higher for arrests, and another 15 percent of the cases, the defendant circumstances were unclear, although details indicated they were homeless. So roughly 81 percent of people in Miami Beach who are prosecuted are homeless.
Nima: So yeah, it’s a huge number. And especially when you realize that a lot of police activity and even arrests in Miami Beach come from, you know, reports of public drunkenness because of the tourism industry in Miami. However, when you look at those stats, those are not the people actually being prosecuted. And because of the overwhelming percentage of those prosecuted being homeless, the number of convictions is also incredibly high because homeless people can’t really afford to defend themselves. And so, you know, this is, this is a really, really staggering stat to just really show how Florida, but you know, in this particular case is like a microcosm, Miami Beach really does criminalize homelessness.
Adam: Well, right. And this is typical across Florida, and the country in general, which is the criminalization of homelessness, but Florida specifically criminalized homelessness because it has, again, it’s the, it has the third highest homelessness of any state, and unlike number one and number two, which is California and New York, there is no real liberal government to protect them. So it’s this real toxic, not to make a unfortunate pun, but it’s a perfect storm of a society that has no safety net and hyper criminalizes.
Nima: And to be clear, this isn’t merely just us trying to be scoldy. Again, it’s from this Miami Herald investigation, they found that nearly 88 percent of these cases that were prosecuted were for drinking in public. So again, you have poverty criminalized and also addiction further criminalized and drinking in public in Miami Beach is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and carries a fine of up to $250 for a first violation. So remember, again, people who do not have homes and do not have money are just going to be thrown in jail instead of actually getting any sort of treatment. And so the study goes on at least 95 homeless people out of this time, out of the 212 were booked for nuisance crimes over the course of the period, studied those seven months, which the article says “advocates say isn’t an effective or humane way to address homelessness.” End quote.
Adam: And then you have this, again, you have this pipeline of, this is where journalists literally look at the arrest sheet from that day and work backwards of what stories they have. So a lot of these Florida Man stories, the vast majority of them were just basically finding the wackiest moments of the police arresting homeless people, and then the media using it to gawk. And this is reflected also in the inverse, which is that libertarians love Florida. So, yeah, again, we want to stress of course not all Florida Man stories are about people who are homeless or mentally ill, but the vast, vast majority of them are. I suggest you take a sample of ten at random and look at who’s in these stories and you will, you will see that is clearly true.
Nima: So speaking of, uh, a kind of Floridian dystopia, which I think has really shown through the Florida Man meme, but the Florida Man meme is really about mocking individuals for perceived incompetence or absurdity or weirdness or worse. But what a lot of these stories, if not literally all of them, is that there is a concerted effort to paint Florida by the libertarian right as almost a haven for free market libertarianism. And so you see this actually there’s a report that came out in January of this year, January 2019, by the Reason Foundation, which is a Koch brothers and Scaife funded group that is all about promoting the most kind of fantastical right-wing libertarian fantasies and undergirding that with some element of research to pretend that, you know, somehow they are talking about real things. And so you have, for instance, this Reason Foundation report called the US Metropolitan Area Economic Freedom Index. It is written by someone named Dean Stansel, who lo and behold, used to work at the Cato Institute. Surprise, surprise. He is now a research associate professor at the Cox School of Business at SMU in Texas and actually earned advanced degrees from where else Adam? But our favorite: George Mason University.
Adam: Yeah. And so here again, you see this idea that to them that’s freedom. That homeless people have no safety net, but there’s low property taxes, so this is freedom. Death, dying of homelessness, dying of alcoholism: freedom.
Nima: In the Miami New Times a writer named Jerry Iannelli actually wrote a really good piece about this Reason Foundation report, and he started this way, quote:
Yesterday, the United Way released an utterly bleak study showing nearly 60 percent of Miamians either live beneath the federal poverty line or struggle to afford rent, groceries, and childcare — even though many work full-time. And the number of “working poor” Miamians has dramatically increased over the last decade. In short, Miami is a massively unequal and unfair place to live if you aren’t part of the global 1 percent. But don’t fret, says the libertarian Reason Foundation, a nonprofit funded heavily by the Koch Brothers and other billionaire oligarchs. Everything you hate about Miami’s economic and political structure is actually good and working just fine!
And so he goes on to explain that. In this report, Miami is listed as the seventh most economically free city in America. Three other Florida cities are also on the top ten lists. They include Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando. And so this idea of what constitutes economic freedom where capital can move freely, where rich people get richer, whereas as Adam said, property taxes are low etcetera and yet normal people cannot actually live decently under these conditions. For the libertarians that is deemed “free.”
Adam: Uh, so here you have four out of the top ten cities in this report that are, according to this libertarian institute that are free are in Florida, which if you know anything about how they view freedom, this means it’s very, very bad for poor people. I think we’ve, maybe we’d beaten this horse a little bit, but Florida is bad for being poor. And by way of contrast, Oregon, New York and California are the least free states. Uh, those that have some baseline, again, it’s a very minimum baseline, but some baseline of support for those who are the most vulnerable. So yes, um, friend of the show, uh, the guy who designed the logo and patron and friend of mine, Jack Phelps, has designed a Chrome plug-in, which we will have both in the show notes and on Twitter and Facebook that you can download. So there’s a Google plug-in you can find. You can also find it on the Chrome store. It’s called Florida Man Replacer by Citations Needed and it replaces “Florida Man” with “man likely suffering from mental illness or drug addiction.” So if you see a headline that says “Florida Man arrested at Olive Garden after eating spaghetti with his hands,” it’ll say “man likely suffering from mental health or drug addiction arrested at Olive Garden after eating spaghetti with his hands.” Which makes it not nearly as fun.
Nima: So, sorry, it’s the buzzkill Chrome plug-in by Citations Needed.
Adam: Because we think it’ll sort of, uh, it’ll give a sense of what we’re talking about here.
Nima: Yes, but it is clarifying and edifying and I’m already using it on my web browser and I have found already it to be a sobering reminder of the frequency at which we mock poor people and people who need help more than punishment. And so that is available now. To talk more about this all, we’re going to be joined by Michelle Bruder, a Florida native, an organizer with Orlando Democratic Socialists of America and soon to be an organizer with the statewide Florida DSA. Michelle will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Michelle Bruder. Michelle, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Michelle Bruder: Thank you for having me.
Adam: So Michelle, you do organizing in Florida. This show is about Florida, specifically what it’s like to be in the margins of society in the state of Florida. And I know it’s hard to make a generalization, but states typically have a coherent regime of support network. We began the episode by talking about the ways in which that support network in Florida is at the bottom and sometimes very bottom in terms of rankings with other states. In your experience, what is it like from the work you’ve done and the organizing you’ve done, what is it like in general to be poor in Florida?
Michelle Bruder: It’s rough. Um, it’s definitely rough. There’s not a lot of support systems. We don’t have Medicaid expansion here. Housing is incredibly expensive compared to wages, so it’s, it’s rough. There’s not a lot of support both to get back on your feet and there’s really not a lot of support for people who have been poor a long time. So it’s um, you kind of lose a lot of safety nets that I think in other states that people tend to have. Not that it’s fantastic anywhere, but you lose a lot of those safety nets and it can get pretty scary.
Adam: Can you give us a specific example of either stuff that you’ve encountered personally or those you’ve worked with that can maybe illustrate this for people who are, who are unfamiliar?
Michelle Bruder: Yeah, I mean, one personal example is, is our lack of Medicaid expansion in Florida. I right now, my household income is identical to a friend of mine who lives in Illinois where they have Medicaid expansion and she and her family all have insurance, are able to consistently see healthcare for their chronic conditions that allows her to be able to, to work and to keep her apartment and pay rent. If she did not have access to that healthcare, she would not be able to work. On the other hand with the exact same income, exact same household size, we don’t have that in my family. So, um, I don’t have the ability to work a normal job because some of my healthcare issues, I cannot get treated well enough to allow for that.
Nima: So I think part of what we’re talking about on this episode is how the Florida Man meme is in many ways used to disparage poor people, to disparage people with probably mental health issues with addiction issues. And so, you know, trying to really get a sense of why the Florida Man meme while I’m sure so many people use it to lighten their day and to say, ‘oh, this is a ridiculous story’ but there’s a very sinister undertone which we’re really trying to unpack here in terms of mental health, drug addiction, homelessness, and how, you know, these stories always come from cops. Can you just tell us from your experience as a, as an organizer in Florida, how the relationship between homeless people and people, you know, dealing with a lot of, a lot of very serious and important issues, how their interactions with police are just exacerbated by the fact that Florida really doesn’t have support systems and yet when it does have support systems, those supports go to police departments?
Michelle Bruder: Yeah, and the thing is the Florida Man meme it is funny because when it’s presented as a little clickbait-y headline, it’s removed from, from, you know, the actual horrors of the way we treat our poor Floridians and our mentally ill Floridians. So yeah, if, if your completely separating it from those sinister undertones it’s funny and I’m definitely guilty of laughing at them, but yeah, there’s definitely those undertones. And right now the state of Florida, they rank 49th for spending per capita on the mentally ill. Right now we devote $718 million a year to mental health programs, but $1 billion a year into jails and prison for mentally ill inmates. So what little support mentally ill Floridians are getting is involved in their incarceration, not in their treatment.
Nima: Mhmm. Right. So that jails become mental health centers and prison guards are the service providers somehow.
Michelle Bruder: Yes. And have obviously that’s, that’s not a safe environment and that’s not, that’s not going to solve the mental health crisis in Florida. We actually, according to the Florida Supreme Court, jails and prisons are the asylums of the new millennium. Right now I believe the statistic is that you are nine times more likely to be arrested in the state of Florida if you are mentally ill then to be hospitalized and receive treatment.
Michelle Bruder: Yeah. It’s um, it’s rough and it’s something that you see in Florida, just you see it happen to, to your friends, to your family, to people that, to people that you organize with or that you work with in your communities. We have the Baker Act in Florida that basically is a means to have involuntary inpatient examinations for the mentally ill. A lot of times what happens is if somebody is having a mental health crisis, the first step is the cops are called and the individual is Baker Acted and it disproportionately affects the poor and it does not really do much. There’s very little that shows that this actually decreases suicide rates amongst the mentally ill or decreases any harm that they might cause to others. It is really just a way to take the poor and the mentally ill and take away their ability to seek treatment on their own and seek effective treatment.
Adam: Yeah. The reason why the Florida Man thing is a thing at all, for the most part, there are exceptions, but I think a rough estimate from some of the numbers we looked at, 80 to 90 percent of these articles are about some crime, typically trivial crime or the bid is that it’s eccentric and it’s typically something done in public that’s typically not done in public. Whether it be something that we would consider a sex crime, like you know, masturbation. Fair enough. But something like a woman shaving her legs in a public pool. Many of these crimes are homeless crimes and the whole reason we know about them is because homeless people are deeply criminalized.
Michelle Bruder: Yes.
Adam: In general, but specifically in Florida. And I guess to the extent to which you sort of dig down and like we said these things, this episode really is just sort of a backdoor episode to talk about the way we criminalize homelessness and the ways in which the media does the absolute worst thing you can do, which is to turn it into a punchline, which I personally think is actually worse than demonizing because it, it makes it into a joke as opposed to something that’s sinister, at least something sinister you take seriously. And from your observations and from your sort of general feeling about that, to what extent does this kind of homeless criminalization and mockery complex, we don’t want to be too scoldy here, I get that it’s just a meme, people laugh and we don’t want to be a bunch of finger waggers, but I, to what extent do you think that actually can sort of perpetuate a culture of callousness and indifference to people who are in the margins of society?
Michelle Bruder: Yeah. It kind of just comes down to if you treat, if you consistently treat people’s struggles and desperation, a lot of these Florida men stories are, they’re acts of desperation. Not just people who are mentally ill or who are doing things in public that are weird, literally because they do not have a place in private to do them. If you’re homeless, you can’t do your weird stuff in your house. There’s no house, but it’s also, these are acts of desperation a lot of times. I actually have my own Florida Man story where on my birthday a man leapt onto the car that I was in along with many other cars on a major road in Orlando while naked. He was an addict. He was mentally ill and it was an act of desperation. This was somebody who needed help and the system failed him and he did not get the help that he needed until that is what he ended up doing. So when you turn it into a joke, it’s just this silly thing and then it translates to how you act in real life and how you interact with homeless people and mentally ill people. If you just see them as the little clickbait headline that pops up on Facebook, then you’re not seeing the complexity of the issues. You’re not seeing the ways that these are people, they’re not jokes. They are people who need help and who are not receiving that help.
Nima: So something that, uh, you know, we were talking about earlier is that a lot of these stories, a lot of these seemingly outrageous news reports, you know, always, always taken from police reports incidentally, could, and I’m sure do happen all over the country. But with, you know, Florida’s very, very, terrible record of providing safety nets for people, for providing social services, coupled with the fact that these police reports and people’s records are very easily searchable. And so there’s this kind of nexus of a cop to media pipeline where the most outrageous stories can just be written up, yeah, as clickbait. So it’s not that these things only happen in Florida. It’s that maybe because the system is failing so many people, plus it’s so much easier to get this information into the public sphere that we’re kind of seeing the Florida Man meme continue to blossom.
Michelle Bruder: Yeah, it’s our sunshine laws where kind of on the surface in Florida, they seem really nice. They seem like you get a lot more transparency. There are in some areas where it is actually nice government agencies and Florida are that because things are more transparent, they can sometimes be easier to hold accountable. However, you also, when you have these police reports that are very easy to access by the media, it’s violating the privacy and the rights of the people these police reports are about. So you have people who need help who are not getting it, who something happens, they’re desperate, they are in a crisis situation and they get arrested or Baker Acted, then their mental illness and probably what would be the worst day of their lives, these things are not happy situations most of the time, so you have the worst day of your life when you are ill and not getting the help that you need publicized, it’s a violation of privacy. It’s a violation of basic rights and that’s not something that would happen if it were a physical illness versus a mental illness. The public and the media would not see it as okay to just publicize it and turn it into a clickbait-y joke, but it’s easy for the media to do it. You kind of handed these nice little stories that you know are going to get clicks, especially as the Florida Man meme gets bigger and bigger and it becomes more and more of a joke. If you put Florida Man in your headline, you’re going to get a lot of clicks. You’re going to get a lot of visibility and it’s easy. It’s kind of a cheap way to get attention to your, to your publication.
Adam: What are people doing on the ground to combat both stigma and also sort of just to provide material relief to these people to the extent they even have the ability to do so?
Michelle Bruder: Since a lot of these struggles are so closely intertwined with homelessness and the criminalization of homelessness, that’s where a lot of of effort is being put. In the state of Florida we don’t really have a whole lot of trust in our electoral system. We’re kind of known nationwide for screwing up elections. So there’s not really, when you have activists, obviously there are electoral focus organizations, but we tend to kind of see this as something where the state is not doing what they’re supposed to be doing to provide these safety nets. So we will just do it ourselves. There’s a lot of tenant union work happening. In Palm Beach County there was, uh, there’s now a pretty large tenant union down there and that has inspired a lot of tenant union work elsewhere in the state, including Orlando, and there’s also a big thing that I don’t know if it’s really touched upon is hurricanes leave a lot of people homeless.
Michelle Bruder: The people who are struggling the most to pay rent are living in the apartment complexes, the manufactured homes that are most likely to be impacted badly by storms. They are largely members of communities that are ignored by FEMA, by state emergency response. So a big thing that’s happening, especially over the last few years as hurricanes are just becoming a regular thing, activists in the state of Florida have gotten fed up with watching members of marginalized communities be ignored. Watching people go years and years before receiving any sort of help in housing and are stepping in and you have a lot of very small grassroots organizations fixing people’s homes, networks of driving people around to get a place to stay. So it’s kind of budding right now, but I’m seeing a lot more of that kind of, we’re just going to get our hands dirty and fix it and help people get homes, help people stay in their homes, help fight, you have a lot of after a hurricane, if an apartment building is damaged, the landlord, instead of fixing it, will just find any loophole they can, sometimes just boldfaced break a tenant rights laws and kick everybody out and never replace it to let them back in. They are able to sell the property. An investor will come in and make something much more expensive. Its disaster capitalism, sort of ideas. So disaster relief in Florida is integral to all of our activism, particularly with helping the homeless population, who of course also they’re out on the streets during hurricanes too, people who are already homeless. Helping the homeless is criminalized pretty heavily in Orlando.
Adam: Explain that.
Michelle Bruder: We actually had, um, a few years ago, multiple arrests with Food Not Bombs feeding homeless people in downtown Orlando. And it was, you know, it’s illegal to feed homeless people and eventually an agreement was arranged where —
Adam: Clarify. So it’s illegal to feed homeless people in Orlando?
Michelle Bruder: Yes.
Nima: That’s like a law? You can’t feed homeless people?
Michelle Bruder: It’s not as explicit as ‘you may not feed homeless people’ but basically in public spaces you are not allowed. So Food Not Bombs, there were a lot of arrests, they were feeding, yeah, it made national news. A lot of Orlando DSA members were among those arrested in that and now Orlando Food Not Bombs worked out an arrangement with the city where they can have meals at certain times that have to be right in front of City Hall, which is definitely not as comfortable of a place to feed. They were out under a tree and it was a much nicer setting. A much more comfortable setting for people who have been treated so horribly by, you know, by the city government to go and get their warm meal. So there’s still, you know, they worked it out to where they are able to feed people. But that’s kind of, that’s kind of what we’re working with.
Nima: Yeah, no, that’s astounding. And everything you’re, you’re talking about Michelle really speaks to how interconnected things like climate change are to mass incarceration to now what we’re seeing in Florida and the Florida legislature with the house basically destroying the gains of Amendment 4 where, because of climate change and extreme weather, more people are homeless, homelessness is criminalized, people are put in jail in mass numbers and then mocked by the media, they lose the right to vote and then when they get out of prison or jail, when they are no longer incarcerated, they have lost all their rights.
Michelle Bruder: Yeah. When you have these Florida Man memes, and obviously all of the jokes about us screwing up presidential elections every four years, you kind of get to where, and it’s when I talk to people from outside of Florida, ‘oh, you’re from Florida.’ And it just kind of becomes a joke. And I think it distances people from the fact that we’re one of the most populated states in the country and we are all people. Like we’re not, yeah, we’ll laugh at some of the stuff that happens here too. But we are all people and a lot of us, the majority of Floridians do not represent a lot of our policies. There’s a fair amount of corruption in our government and in districting, so we aren’t our libertarian hellscape policies. We are people. We’re diverse, we have a lot of people of color. But when you have these memes and, and it’s turned a joke, it distances the rest of the country from the struggles that we’re dealing with and also the really good work that we’re doing. Activism in Florida is really, it’s really inspiring and we kind of get looked over because, you know, we’re just that mess over there in the south.
Adam: Right. What are some of the groups that people can check out before we let you go?
Michelle Bruder: I would say DSA is a big one. DSA is growing really rapidly in Florida. Orlando DSA, of course. We also have some really good tenant union work happening with Organize Florida. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief based out of Tampa, but they have gotten people out on the ground fixing things with their hands in Standing Rock, in various different hurricane disaster areas. So Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a big one. The Palm Beach Tenant Union. So yeah, we have a lot of, and um, Orlando Food Not Bombs would all be organizations that are really getting their hands dirty and actually making a difference. Uh, Tallahassee DSA in North Florida did a lot of work to help with people displaced after Hurricane Michael and all of the DSA chapters in Florida plus our at large membership are working to organize a statewide level organization which will allow us to do this work on a broader scale and coordinate better and really be able to move people around the state to help where help is needed.
Nima: That is amazing that we will have all of the links to those organizations in our show notes. And thank you again Michelle Bruder, a organizer with Orlando Democratic Socialists of America and soon to be an organizer with Florida DSA. Thank you again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Michelle Bruder: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, that was wonderful. It’s interesting to see the way that people sort of try to work against these forces, you know, activism in red states, deep red states is always a, is always impressive. Uh, obviously all activism is impressive, but there’s something about doing it in a totally thankless context and yeah, I feel like I’ve heard from other activists in Florida, they feel like they are oftentimes overlooked or seen as a punchline when they, when you know, when they do so much great work. So I’m glad we can highlight that. At the very worst, you know, you may listen to this and think ‘oh you guys are a bunch of busy bodies,’ but at the very least we could see, we could see the positive side of Florida —
Nima: It’s true.
Adam: And see the positive side in the way that people are operating against these deeply reactionary forces, you know, many of which go back hundreds of years.
Nima: We do again urge you, listeners, if you are interested, download the Chrome plug-in, Florida Man Replacer by Citations Needed. You can find that on the Chrome web store. We will have that in our show notes, but also post it online so people can get that. It replaces “Florida Man” with something maybe a bit more accurate. So if you are interested please do that. Thanks again for listening everyone that will do it for this week’s episode of Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show and our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out, as always, goes to our critical level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 1, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.