[Late ed. note: There are several comments awaiting approval -- including a couple of juicy critical ones. Remember, I have to know your real name in order to comment. You can comment under a fake name if you want. It's pretty lame to go fake name when you're trying to cast aspersions on people -- but you can do it. However, I have to know who you are. So please forward on your names. Also, the core of the juicy comments is my shocking relationship to my Uncle Tom Townsend, Putnam's former superintendent. Since we share a name, since I grew up with half the people involved in this silliness, and since I've written about him and Palatka before in this very space, I figured that was self-evident. My apologies on my conspiracy of silence and congrats to my critics' powers of deduction.]
From time-to-time, as long-time readers will know, Lakeland Local becomes Palatka Local. I find that my two hometowns often echo each other; and thinking about one can yield insight for the other. This is one of those times.
So I’m writing today about the great Palatka-Gay-Agriculture-Teacher-Shows-Anti-Bullying-Video-Scandal-and-Shit-Show-Fail-Parade of 2014. It’s been a bit difficult to piece this together from newspaper accounts. Mostly that’s because The Palatka Daily News is a comically corrupt, lazy, and inept paper, for reasons I will explain in moment.
But here is one semi-official version that sort of makes sense from the (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, if you care enough to peruse it.
However, the Times-Union story does not convey the full bonfire of buffoonery described to me by well-placed sources, including the creator of the anti-bullying film that became such a source of controversy.
So let me try to run through my understanding of the high points quickly–for the benefit of Palatkans stuck with the Daily News‘ version of journalism. For you non-Palatkans, read this and understand that your government can always get worse.
1) Palatka High School, my alma mater, has a first-year agriscience teacher named Jeremy Rhoden. Rhoden is gay. I’m not clear if he made some sort of announcement to his class. But he’s out. Reflect on that for moment, Palatka High has an openly gay Ag. teacher. The times they are a changin’.
2) On Feb. 20, during a large classroom gathering of Future Farmers of America (FFA) students, Rhoden showed an anti-bullying video called “Love is all you need?” (Question mark is part of the title.) Here’s a link to the trailer.
And here’s the angle: a young girl grows up in a world where homosexual attraction is the norm, and her hetero attraction to a boy makes her a target of ongoing abuse. She eventually kills herself at the end. Like the movie “White Man’s Burden” from the 90s, this film seeks to make the majority think about daily life from a minority point of view. It has won a host of awards and been shown in schools all over the world.
Any film that ends with child suicide is inherently heavy. On the other hand, schools often make kids watch all sorts of school-sanctioned heavy videos and talks about drugs, driving, etc. And, of course, everyone is focused on bullying these days. It has become a major educational cause. And I am told that this specific video has been shown at schools in Palatka and Interlachen without incident. Until now. Until a gay teacher showed it.
3) The combination of Rhoden’s sexuality and the premise of the video had a predictable effect on the usual suspects. Thus, a lynch mob of pastors came swarming the School Board at a March 4 meeting.
Quick aside here: I use that provocative phrase, “lynch mob,” deliberately. Pastors were the core leadership of the Ku Klux Klan in Palatka and elsewhere in the 1920s, when drunken Klan mobs went after blacks, drinkers, Catholics, women considered slutty, Greeks, and business enemies. You can read all about this in my book “Age of Barbarity.”
So, when Pastor John Iskat of Faith Baptist Church said: “That video had nothing to do with bullying. … It had to do with a militant sodomite agenda,” he was upholding a long tradition of pastoral nastiness in my home town and elsewhere.
4) You can see highlights of the March 4 meeting spliced together here by Kim Rocco Shields, creator of “Love Is All You Need?”
As hatefully derpy as the public comments are, the incoherent meeting procedure of the actual elected officials and staff is even better. It is unclear to me what exactly the School Board intended to do because they changed their minds or redefined their actions several times during the meeting. At the request of one of the pastors, they decided to hold a follow up meeting on March 11. This would either be a hearing to decide what action to take against Rhoden or just an extension of public comment at which everyone could enjoy more “sodomite agenda” hoo-haa. In any event, Rhoden perceived that the mob had every intention of running him out of town.
5) Fearing for his job and career, Rhoden put out a distress call to Rocco Shields. To her great credit, she jumped right into the fray and made plans to travel to Palatka. She asked to screen Love Is All You Need? and discuss it as part of the special March 11 School Board public meeting/hearing. School officials agreed. At the same time, she also began splashing Putnam County’s stand against the “militant sodomite agenda” all over social media. And here is where things get comical.
6) The minister who asked for the March 11 meeting abruptly asked to cancel it — and the School Board did so. (It seems odd to me that a single pastor sets Putnam County’s government schedule, especially on an issue so pressing as the “militant sodomite agenda.” But whatever.) As she waited in LAX to board a plane for Florida, Rocco Shields got a call from someone in the Putnam school system telling her the meeting was cancelled and that she shouldn’t come. She came anyway, cameras and staff in tow.
7) It’s important to note that the freakout and subsequent malicious silliness came from the district administrator and political layer of the Putnam Schools — not teachers and principals. Indeed, Rocco Shields made contact with the Palatka High principal and got permission to talk to kids about film-making generally. Rocco Shields said the principal, shockingly, saw educational value in exposing Palatka high students to a successful, entrepreneurial woman who had built a career merging technology, the arts, and business.
8) Instead, district administrators interceded and treated Rocco Shields and her gear like a contagion. When she arrived at PHS, she found Jim Roach, a high-ranking Putnam administrator and my high school baseball coach, blocking the door like a petty George Wallace.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to pack up your stuff and go back to California,” Roach said, according to Rocco Shields, as if he owned the hallowed land of Putnam County.
In fairness to Roach, the real blocking was coming from his cell phone and the screeching voice of his boss Putnam Superintendent Phyllis Criswell. Roach seems to have served as little more than Criswell’s do-boy. (I understand that is his general role in the government. It must get tiresome. But cash is cash.) According to Rocco Shields, she could hear Criswell berating Roach via phone throughout much of their conversation. At one point, Rocco Shields nearly convinced Roach to let her in. But then Criswell got on the phone again and began “screaming” for Roach to “GET HER OUT OF THERE. GET HER OUT OF THERE.” Thus ended the historical confrontation.
8) Rocco Shields then unsuccessfully tried to line up a number of other venues for the screening. She said as soon as one would agree, word would get out on social media, and the venue would change its mind.
9) Eventually, the local bowling alley opened itself to the wayward filmmaker, and a crowd of about 40 people, including Rhoden, gathered to watch the screening of the film that Shields supposedly wanted to cancel. Afterward, the crowd had a supportive discussion. Among the people in attendance was a reporter from the Palatka Daily News. He may or may not have sat next to one of my sources for this story. I am told that the PDN reported the next day that it was not somehow not properly informed of the meeting and couldn’t send a reporter. The reporter who attended was apparently a phantasm. (The PDN puts its content behind some kind of registration/pay wall. If you think I’m coughing up a dime or registering just so I can verify anything that lying insult to journalism prints, you are mistaken.)
9) For now, this all appears poised to end happily. Rhoden has received a reprimand of some sort, of which there seems to be no record. But no further action appears forthcoming.
What happened? Well, it seems cameras and social media scrutiny happened. Specifically, Rocco Shields brought her cameras to Palatka with the intent of putting people on video and having them account for their roles in leading mobs or surrendering to them. And that caused panic and humiliation amongst Putnam’s finest religious and educational leaders.
To its credit, the Palatka radio station put Rocco Shields on the air, and she begged some of the haters to come on camera so they could tell their side in their own words. No one took her up on it. But one of the chief mob members did speak to her during a chance encounter at a restaurant. And he said the mob “panicked” when it learned that Rocco Shields’ cameras were coming. That’s what caused the March 11 meeting cancellation.
If this all seems galactically silly and absurd, that’s because it is. But sometimes you have to review a thing in its petty detail to feel its import.
It’s true that the film’s subject matter is a bit provocative and not exactly related to agriculture. On the other hand, this was an FFA group. Check out FFA’s mission statement. It includes the following two bullet points:
— Builds character and promotes citizenship, volunteerism and patriotism.
— Promotes cooperation and cooperative attitudes among all people.
You could justify showing an anti-bullying film to an FFA class for those reasons alone.
Additionally, according to the Times-Union, Rhoden told his class about the film before showing it; and he gave kids the chance to go to study hall if they didn’t want to stay.
The clear fault here lies with the school officials, some of whom I know personally. I am not surprised by their actions. But they should have let the mob have its moment and sent it on its way. Instead, led by chairwoman Nikki Mussoline Cummings, the School Board and school officials revealed themselves as cowards who lack the courage of their own homophobic convictions. When the cameras and the ridicule and humiliation came, they hid like scared children. Bullies always do.
And that, of course, is the great lesson here — and why this silly moment in small town north central Florida is quite revealing.
Everywhere in this country, the power of anti-gay mob is collapsing. Even Palatka. Even Lakeland. A pastor’s “militant sodomite agenda” smack talk — which once ruined lives and careers — now invites ridicule. When called on to say it again in front of a camera, the mob members hide, as do their elected officials and the “media organization” that covers them.
That’s the nature of abusive power. When you take the power away, the abusers scurry. That’s exactly what just happened in Arizona when the same people who wrote an anti-gay business discrimination law fell all over each other to take it back within days of it becoming an issue.
In a recent New York Times column, anti-gay-marriage columnist Ross Douthat conceded that his side has lost this debate and said a pretty wise thing at the end.
Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.
I am all for negotiation and reasonable cultural settlement, when there’s a negotiation to be had. For instance, I would fight for a church’s absolute right to exclude gay couples from its wedding rites. Business services are a more complex question for a different time.
But I think Douthat and the other reasonable Christians need to recognize that the winning side won’t negotiate with terrorists. You can still do too much damage to real people like Jeremy Rhoden in places like Palatka — or Lakeland.
When you represent your god with talk of “militant sodomite agenda” and seek to bully weak government officials into harming gay citizens, you will get the full force of our growing power to ridicule you. And my dear Palatka pastors, how many of your cowardly school board members and local news outlets have leapt to your defense in the last couple of days?
By contrast, our side does have the courage of its convictions. That’s why we’re routing you. Jeremy Rhoden and Kim Rocco Shields are far braver and more competent than you.
That doesn’t mean this is over in Palatka by any means. Phyllis Criswell is a small and petty person. She may very well decide not to renew Rhoden’s contract at the end of this school year out of spite. That seems completely in character for her. As a very new teacher, I don’t think he has much protection. So put the cameras on notice, Kim. And those of you in Palatka who are horrified by this need to organize.
During my conversation with Rocco Shields, I tried to defend my home town a bit. I explained to her that there has always been a battle raging for its soul — with its best instincts and worst continually going at it. It happened in the 20s when we beat back the Klan. It happened in the 1980s, when an openly gay Palatka Daily News reporter named Butch Prevatt bravely outwitted his own publisher — looking at you Jody Delzell — to strike important blows against the abusive power of judges and misogynistic law enforcement. The same place that elected Phyllis Criswell superintendent also elected very progressive superintendents twice in the last 20 years. Nothing is permanent except the need to battle for what’s right and decent.
But understand this: Power on the issue of gay humanity is shifting to different hands now. We saw what you pastors did with that power for decades and centuries. You should consider yourself lucky that your persecution will consist only of mocking and shaming you in self-defense.