Denial and Silence in Florida

In an editorial on The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes about the fight being waged by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against modern-day slavery:

Last Friday–just days after CIW’s visit–a Florida judge rendered his sentence on the state’s most recent slavery case. CIW had helped the Department of Justice investigate what Chief Assistant US Attorney Doug Molloy described as one of Southwest Florida’s “biggest, ugliest slavery cases ever.”

The Navarrete family had pleaded guilty to holding twelve men on their property from 2005 to 2007. They were beaten, chained and imprisoned in a truck, and forced to urinate and defecate in the corners. Two family members were sentenced to twelve years, and four were sentenced on lesser charges and will serve up to three years and ten months.

CIW worked with federal and local authorities during the prosecution and investigation as it has in seven Florida slavery cases over the past decade. Prior to escaping, the workers had listened to programming on labor rights on CIW’s multilingual radio station–Radio Conciencia–which encouraged them that they would be able to find help if they escaped. Some of the workers who then did escape made their way to CIW for assistance.

While it’s good to see some accountability for the practice of modern slavery, and the ongoing cooperation between CIW and prosecutors, the tolerance for slavery was all too evident in the wake of this trial. For one thing, Molloy told the Fort Myers News-Press, “We have a number of similar–and ongoing–investigations.” He also said, “It doesn’t help when people deny that [slavery] exists. That’s like throwing gasoline on the fire.”

But that’s exactly what seems to be happening when it comes to the state government. Republican Governor Charlie Crist has remained silent on the issue of slavery and this sentencing–including not returning calls from The Nation–and his press secretary suggested that a reporter contact Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which oversees the states’ farms and labor contractors. McElroy seemed to dismiss the significance of the case and the existence of slavery, saying, “… You’re talking about maybe a case a year.” After a public outcry– including responses from former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Amnesty International USA, Florida ACLU and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights–McElroy attempted to clarify his statement but only made matters worse, describing slavery as “quite a rarity when a case pops up.”

Read the entire piece here.

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