Johnson made little effort to hide after fleeing the shooting. Police arrested him at his home and took him to the county jail, where a mob of 75 men immediately formed outside. They eventually dispersed without violence. After that, the Alachua County sheriff transported Johnson to Palatka and the custody of Sheriff Peter Hagan, who accepted the prisoners at the Putnam County Jail.
A few nights later, Peter Hagan single-handedly repulsed a mob of Cross’ co-workers as they stormed the Putnam County Jail in an effort to lynch Johnson. I’ve already published my account of that historic, heroic stand in an earlier Lakeland Local article. It left Hagan wounded in the hand. And the mob fired shots that narrowly missed his wife and terminally ill daughter.
But what I want to focus on briefly is the trial that Peter Hagan bled to secure for Arthur Johnson. The prosecutor was a man named J.C. Adkins, who would become Gainesville mayor eventually and whose son would become a prominent Florida Supreme Court justice. But the Johnson trial was Adkins’ first high-profile, media-saturated trial.
During that trial, according to the Gainesville Sun account, Adkins told this to the jury about the conflict that led to the killing:
“Johnson was coming along Virginia Avenue on the night of the shooting and bumped against [the victim] Cross, knocking him from the sidewalk. Cross came back at him as one naturally would and said, ‘what do you mean bumping into a white man’?”
After that, Johnson allegedly went into his sister’s house, grabbed a gun, and went back out to shoot Cross. A black woman, the sister’s neighbor, testified that as Johnson left with the gun, he declared, “He’s playin’ bad but I’m goin’ to show him how [expletive] bad I am.”
Think about that sequence of events — and the human nature on display — in connection with the awful case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, a black teenager suspended from school and a white, unregistered “neighborhood watch captain” with an apparent obsession with “suspicious” characters and at least one arrest related to violence towards cops.
Exactly how Martin, who was unarmed, ended up dead is obviously the core of the outrage in this case. But it’s also worth looking at the nature of the conflict that led to it. Ultimately, Martin is dead because George Zimmerman believed Martin did not have the right to walk through Zimmerman’s neighborhood acting “strangely” while wearing a hoodie in the rain. Perceiving those circumstances gave Zimmerman the right to carry out aggressive civilian surveillance, as one naturally would, in such a situation.
The 911 tapes indicate that Martin, an American citizen walking in a public street, reacted to this aggressive surveillance, this “playing bad,” with confrontation of his own — as one naturally would.
The rest is madness and death and pointlessness.
I compare these two cases to emphasize that the tribal and masculine instincts that underlie them have not changed in 89 years. We are still, all of us, I would argue, more likely to view people outside our tribe with suspicion. We are, all of us, apt to resist authority or scrutiny we consider unjustified or unfair. We don’t like people having power over us. Period. Men are particularly prone to let our testosterone get the best of us.
What has changed since 1923, since the Age of Barbarity, is how our laws read and how police enforce them. Those boundaries have helped shape custom. And thankfully, because of these well-ingrained customs of behavior, a vigilante case like Martin’s and Zimmerman’s makes big news because it is so shocking and aberrant. (Actual police killings — and the day-to-day tension of the failed drug war — are a bit of a different story for a different time.)
Back in 1923, Arthur Johnson was convicted of murdering Hugh Cross and sent to the gallows. He may have been the last person legally hung in the state of Florida before the electric chair and Death Row came into existence at Florida State Prison. (He was definitely one of the last two or three.)
But the trial that Peter Hagan bled to provide helped change Florida’s law enforcement customs — or so I argue in my book.
Just three years later, in 1926, J.C. Adkins aggressively prosecuted the murders of two Palatka black men — Willie Steene and Ed Chisholm — who were killed by vigilantes as they tried to rescue Steene’s mother from a vicious flogging by Ku Klux Klansmen. Adkins hauled in for questioning virtually the entire Putnam County political and law enforcement power structure in the face of withering public disapproval of his investigation.
The results led Gov. John Martin to threaten to declare martial law in Putnam County if the new sheriff — who had defeated Peter Hagan in 1924 — did not halt the mob violence in the county. It was the first and only such state-level intervention against Florida’s organized white vigilantes or the Klan during the heyday of their power in the 20s. But even that couldn’t get anybody punished. The Putnam grand jury refused to indict anyone and dismissed Adkins findings with a critical public statement.
Despite that, 1926, because of Adkins and many others, became a turning point in establishing civil society in Florida. It’s impossible to know, but I think it’s very likely that the 1923 trial of Arthur Johnson, during which Adkins was forced to prosecute Johnson using a disclaimer — as one naturally would — fed his commitment to fight the Klan. I think the idiocy of the sidewalk confrontation and killing — based on the pointless application of power — helped drive Adkins to apply the spirit of the 14th amendment, the equal protection amendment, to his jurisdiction.
And Adkins’ investigation wasn’t the only futile, but vital, act of law that emerged from 1926. Just before the Steene-Chisholm killings, a mob of respectable white men in the southwest Florida city of Labelle — most likely including the town marshal — gruesomely murdered a black man named Henry Patterson on May 11.
Why did they do this to Patterson, a construction laborer? A white woman had seen Patterson and become afraid. That seems to be it. It was enough to justify the torture and lynching of a completely innocent man.
And what does torture mean in this instance?
First the men of the mob shot Patterson, without killing him. Then they let him get away a few times, like the proverbial cat taunting the mouse, before catching him again. Then they cut pieces of his flesh and waved it to each other and bystanders.
One of the bystanders was the county prosecutor, who was named Herbert Rider. He unsuccessfully tried to talk the mob down. And in the aftermath, he moved to prosecute them with the full force of his office. It was the first 20th century prosecution of a classic lynching in Florida. It unfolded with no support from the state or local police, who were most likely involved in the lynching. It went nowhere. But again, like Adkins would a few months later, Rider began to establish custom and legal expectation that would pay dividends later.
These were men, agents of the state — doing great, great things — difficult things — with the power of their offices. They suffered the consequences. Peter Hagan lost the 1924 election after his stand at the jail. Rider was reviled in his hometown for years. Adkins was publicly humiliated.
Contrast the bravery and duty of Hagan and Adkins and Rider with the whiny buffoon who runs the Sanford Police Department today.
Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.
The lie to this, of course, is obvious. Just ask yourself if there is any chance if Zimmerman was black and Martin was white — given the exact same circumstances — that the gunman wouldn’t have been arrested. Be honest.
What’s the out there that allows this to happen? What allows the Sanford police to go so passive aggressive? It’s the awful gray area inherent in our state’s stand-your-ground law. Based on honest observation of this case, we might as well rename it the vigilante-enabling act. It provides an easy excuse — a custom — for doing nothing.
The only conclusion one can draw from this case — thus far — is that we all have a license to kill as long as no one sees us, and we claim that we felt fear for our lives. At least when the conflict involves a clash across tribes. And we’re in the right tribe.
With the state and feds getting involved now, I’m hopeful this case will simply become an awful footnote, a moment of madness that killed a child and ruined lives. That’s the best case.
The worst case is a cultural move toward death by feeling. George Zimmerman says he felt scared of Trayvon Martin. So did the woman who encountered Henry Patterson in Labelle in 1926. You tell me what the difference is between what happened to them and how local police reacted. Loopholes for feelings are dangerous. When law enforcement permits tangible force based on abstract feeling, it undermines hard won custom. And custom is not permanent.
The Age of Barbarity always lurks where humans dwell. In a world where feeling dictates the contours of power, we all just play bad with each other.