“‘You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,’ she pleaded. ‘Something beautiful and full of monsters.’
‘Beautiful and full of monsters?’
‘All the best stories are.”
― Laini Taylor,
They say that slavery is over, that the days of big plantations are long gone. This is the New South, so the saying goes, and the past ain’t nothing but a bunch of statues in a park.
The same people will tell you a rising tide lifts all boats.
I seen somewhere where the tide doesn’t do anything but drag people out to sea.
Down here in Florida times may have changed but they sound much the same: rich folks living in luxury while people sweat in the cane fields, armed white men patrolling and killing whoever they wish. In fact I’d go so far as to say Florida still has one big plantation in operation, one gigantic blight upon on earthly paradise that ought to be cleansed with fire and high-grade ammunition.
That place is Palm Beach County. And in Palm Beach County a rebellion is beginning that could topple the whole damn plantation.
The following cannot do justice to what I saw, felt, heard, or smelled. This, if nothing else, will stand as a testament to future generations. Let us never forget as we move forward how the workers lived. Let us never let our indignation grow sour and meek. Let us never forget how people first started groping towards real world solutions, instead of mindlessly arguing over historical fantasies.
The word will one day mean two things.
A Little History
I never planned on coming back to South Florida.
A ceremonial magician and devotee of Horus had contacted me about an investigation. He said there was big things brewing in Palm Beach County, real class war shit, and that I had to come cover them. Shadowy figures he’d dreamed of had called me by name and demanded my presence. He offered to hook me up with all the folks involved, house us overnight, and even to sacrifice a chicken for my protection.
Palm Beach County, you have to understand, is a vicious den of unending exploitation and lies. It’s merest mention often brings groans and cries of disgust from elsewhere around the state.
I know. I’m from there.
Born in Boynton Beach, I’d long ago forsaken my birthplace. Truthfully spoken justice might as well be a figment of imagination till the day comes when machine guns mounted on trucks roam Palm Beach County like wild boars, obliterating every mention of that wretched corner of the world.
The area that would become Palm Beach first appears on American radar back during the Seminole Wars. There, in the Battle of Jupiter Inlet, American colonial forces were resoundingly defeated by the freed slaves and indigenous peoples that made up the Seminole bands. Undeterred the Americans decided to convince the Seminoles they intended to give up the war, asking them to meet them under a flag of truce in exchange for the freedom to live as they wished. 600 Seminoles did just that.
They were immediately thrown in shackles, carted off to prison, and sent to the dusty wasteland of Oklahoma.
Skullduggery is built into the very fibre of Palm Beach County; even its name comes from a scam. The coconut palm, the specific palm in “Palm Beach”, is not native to Florida. Its presence in Palm Beach County is due to the shipwreck of the Spanish ship Providencia in 1878 near today’s Mar-a-Lago, a deliberate grounding to receive an insurance payout. Smallscale smuggling was the name of the game until a man named Henry Flagler came to town. He look one look at the people living in tropical paradise and just knew there was money to be made. He built the county into a playground for the Gilded Class.
The playground itself was a scam in a way: palaces like The Breakers or The Royal Poinciana Hotel became fashionable destinations for America’s uber-rich. Flagler’s railroad was the only way to get there. They paid him for the ride, paid him for the stay, and when they wanted a house it was Flagler that helped them out.
(The Royal Poinciana Hotel in 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Since then Palm Beach County’s golden rule has been a simple one: maintain the pipeline and do so quietly. Flagler ensured maximum comfort for his patrons by having his lieutenants kill and maim any workers that raised a fuss. Journalists that spoke unkindly disappeared. Labor disputes of any type were strictly forbidden and bodies were often buried beneath the rails.
Think about that: a giant cemetery guided the rich into Florida, and while they spilled wine and laughed they rode over the corpses of the poor.
Is it any wonder shit is so weird down here?
The Palm Beach Social Index-Directory, a yearly published, privately circulated little black book designed to separate the socially acceptable wealthy from the uncouth rich, keeps the circle of the ruling class small. Thirty of Palm Beach County’s residents are on the Forbe’s list of billionaires and they have no interest in being bothered. To this end they employ the police who have always understood themselves as servants of the rich.
Hunter S. Thompson, when he did a story in the region, perfectly captured the social contract between the The Well-to-Do and the Well-Armed:
“The police are no problem in Palm Beach. We own them and they know it. They work for us, like any other servant, and most of them seem to like it. When we run out of gas in this town, we call the police and they bring it, because it is boring to run out of gas. The rich have special problems, and running out of gas on Ocean Boulevard on the way to an orgy at six o’clock on Sunday morning is one of them. Nobody needs that. Not with naked women and huge bags of cocaine in the car. The rich love music, and we don’t want it interrupted…
We don’t pay these people much, but we pay them every week, and if they occasionally forget who really pays their salaries, we have ways of reminding them…”
The Police are eager to avoid such reminders, and when not running errands for their masters they have one mission: keep the poor in line. Cases like Jewett v. City of West Palm Beach Police Department (in custody police beating death), Lamore v. City of Riviera Beach Police Department (jury verdict determination of municipal liability), and Mueller v. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (police beating injuries, conspiracy retaliation claims involving PBSO Internal Affairs Division) are stark reminders that the Flagler model is still in effect.
But that might be changing. In one of the worst neighborhoods, amid extreme segregation and implied violence, people were starting to fight back.
Out in Stonybrook the class war went from theory to tangible reality. My wife and I rushed down at ninety-five miles per hour, eager to bear witness.