Sarasota, Florida: “The Meanest City in America”
As their son’s killer was sentenced to life in prison last week, the parents of two vacationing Brits murdered in Florida expressed anger over receiving no message of condolence from President Barack Obama, even though the President had recently expressed sympathy in the slaying of a 17-year old black teenager, also in Florida.
The two young British tourists, still in their early twenties, were murdered by a sneering teen with a tattoo reading 'Savage' across his chest, who ‘capped’ them after ignoring their pleas for their lives, squeezing off round after round until his gun was out of bullets.
Unknown to the grieving parents was that Obama’s embarrassed silence may not have been a matter of race, but of place: Sarasota, where the young Brits were slain, has been called “the meanest city in America” for the less fortunate by one newspaper, USA TODAY, and "heartless" by another.
A “balmy, palm-studded resort town on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico,” is how the city of Sarasota likes to see itself. A more apt description might be “playground of the parasitic rich.”
In fact loathing for the homeless is so intense the city removed benches from downtown parks to prevent them from sitting on them.
“Cities like Sarasota are unsympathetic places for those down on their luck,” stated London’s Economist. “ One of the reasons they grew so fast in the boom years were their low taxes, leaving little money for social programs. Homelessness is often seen as a threat to migration and tourism.”
Hometown paper, hometown values
Nowhere are Sarasota’s philistine values more readily visible than in the pages of the hometown paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Despite the tragic dimensions of the crime, in the week leading up to the trial the paper ran numerous stories speculating on the impact of the brutal deaths on tourism from Great Britain.
“Tourism: New publicity over killing of two British visitors is a concern” read one headline. “With the trial of accused killer Shawn Tyson now under way, Sarasota County officials are closely monitoring reactions across the Atlantic through a London-based public relations firm.
“British tourist killings: Will trial affect tourism?” asked another. “A year after the killing of a pair of visitors threatened to derail travel to Southwest Florida from the United Kingdom, tourism officials are once again bracing for an onslaught from the British press — and a potential hit to the area's most important industry.
The next day the paper’s headline answered its own question: “Trial's effects likely to be slight.”
What saved Sarasota from further negative scrutiny were the nuptials of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, just two weeks after the murders, which took much of the tabloid heat off Sarasota. "That helped," Haley says. "We were going through a couple weeks of ever-more salacious stories, and then they basically went into 24/7 royal wedding coverage."
The paper's insensitive coverage is the legacy of David B. Lindsay Jr., the long-time owner and publisher, who ran a highly-unusual sideline for a newspaperman. He was a “a merchant of death,” selling arms to some of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
Lindsay left an indelible mark on life in his former fiefdom of Sarasota County, where he was a powerful force upholding a 70 year-old tradition of allowing covert operations to be carried out in secrecy under strict media blackout on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Take, for example, the Saudis of Sarasota County.
The Saudis of Sarasota County
What makes all this more than merely a local concern is the powerful and profoundly negative effect Sarasota has had on life in America in recent times.
Sarasota has long been a welcome port of call for grifters, from seedy American spy E. Howard Hunt, to, more recently, convicted felon Jonathon Curshen, henchman and fellow felon to Marc Harris, the drug trafficker and former Congressional aide to deceased North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.
Sarasota is well-known as the home of Katherine Harris, the pivotal figure who as Florida Secretary of State refused to count the votes in what many perceive as the stolen Presidential election of 2000.
More recently the city made headlines last year with revelations about a wealthy Saudi couple living in a gated community there who before 9/11 received regular visits from Mohamed Atta before abruptly abandoning their home a week before the attack, leaving behind cars, furniture, and food on countertops.
There was no mention of the couple in the Sept. 11 commission report, or in FBI briefings to congressional investigators, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Author Anthony Summers finally drew attention to it on the eve of publication of his book about the 9/11 attack. The dodgy Saudis, now safe from questioning in Riyadh, must have felt right at home in Sarasota.
Living behind "The Orange Curtain"
The new Sarasota County Jail is privately-run, either because of the history of ethically-challenged Sarasota County Sheriffs, or, more likely, because incarceration is a major local industry.
Sarasota is home to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in America, recently re-branded “The GEO Group” to escape bad publicity, much as notorious Blackwater Security became Xe Services when the war in Iraq wound down, or cancer mass merchant Philip Morris, now known as Altria.
Despite widespread protest and scandal after scandal, private prisons are a growth industry. But if the three-strikes rule applied to corporations—and why not, since Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney insists corporations are people— CCA, ironicaly, might be locked up in one of its own prisons.
According to an investigation by NPR, CCA pitched the construction of a new prison in Arizona to house illegal immigrants, but local officials were not convinced that the prison could be kept full. They were unaware that CCA was at the same time drafting, promoting and lobbying for a bill in the Arizona Senate to require police to lock up anyone unable to prove they were in the US legally.
While its hard to think of a more cynical way to earn one's fortune than to devise means of placing more people in prison, its not at all hard to see why CCA’s founder is a long-time resident of Sarasota.
No doubt he feels right at home.