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  • Writer's pictureEqual Ground

On bus trip to Tallahassee, BlackFloridians fight uphill battle at Capitol

By Desiree Stennett

Apr 02, 2023 at 6:00 am



As the sun rises Gra’dy Marshall, 74, reads from his cell phone on the bus headed to Tallahassee with other

community leaders from the Orlando area Wednesday, March 29, 2023. The community leaders traveled with Equal

Ground, a Civil Rights organization, engaging the rising American electorate through equal access to education

about voting and empowerment. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel) (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)


As about two dozen people milled quietly in and out of a small room just off

the worship sanctuary inside Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional

Church around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, a poster of Rosa Parks hung

overhead declaring: “The choices you make in life determine your destiny.”


All of them, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-70s, rose hours before

dawn and made the choice to take the round trip from the Parramore

church to Tallahassee with Equal Ground, a nonprofit focused on building

Black political power. At the Capitol, they would join the uphill battle to

convince the Republican-led legislature to stop bills that could dramatically

change education policy, gun laws and voting rights in the state.


There they met up with nearly 200 other mostly Black residents from St.

Petersburg, Tampa, Daytona and Miami.


In the group there was a freelance artist, a clergy member, retired public

school employees, crime victims, aspiring politicos, Black women who

remember integrating public schools in the towns they lived in as children

and formerly incarcerated Black men, one of whom regained his voting

rights after serving prison time and another, a Vietnam War veteran, who

will likely never get to cast a ballot in an election again because of his

crimes more than 40 years ago.


“If we believe that we aren’t a part of that process, that we don’t have an


input, then we won’t be involved,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and

consulting director for Equal Ground. “That is why we’re taking people to

Tallahassee. ... Being able to talk on the record in Tallahassee and provide

public comment and share your position does create an opportunity to sway

a legislator who may not have ever heard from you specifically or heard

from Black constituents in their district.”


Black and crown community leaders from Orlando and all over the state listen during a workshop lead by State

Representative Anna Eskamani in Tallahassee at the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

(Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)


It would be easy to assume that in a conservative, Republican-dominated

legislature, it would be impossible to find allies who believe in the

progressive agenda of a group like Equal Ground, Burney-Clark said. But

moving the needle even a little can have an immense impact on the future

political landscape across the state, she added.


“Our hope is being able to change the hearts and minds of people,” she

said. “We don’t believe that the bills we want to be stopped will be stopped

but we do believe we can certainly mitigate the harm that is going to come

down from the bills that are going to be impacting our state because a

supermajority is difficult to overcome.”


The bills most concerning to the leaders at Equal Ground include House Bill

999 which would limit how colleges can spend on diversity, equality and

inclusion efforts on campus. Burney-Clark said she is concerned for what

that could mean for funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities,

multicultural campus organizations and even academic programs that teach

about subjects like African American History and Women’s Studies.


Before the trip, Kristina Lee-Moorer, 25, had never spoken directly to a

lawmaker tasked with representing her community’s concerns in congress.


[ Pictures: Day of Action at the Capitol ]


She sat in a morning session where she was able to hear Rep. Anna

Eskamani speak about HB-999 and other bills that had little support from

Democrats but would likely pass because of the Republican supermajority.

She said the trip was a learning experience.


“Reading up on [the legislative process] is different from them actually

speaking,” she said. “I follow some of these representatives but being able

to actually hear them talk, not only about the laws and bills that are going to

be passed but also hearing them talk on their stances, it inspired me and

made me believe in them and be motivated. ... It made me feel like I’m not

alone, like we’re not alone. It also got me feeling a little angry but I feel

fueled by that anger.”


The issues that brought others to Tallahassee were as varied as their life

experiences.


Gra’dy Marshall, the 75-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he has already

accepted that he will likely never see his voting rights restored after a

second-degree murder conviction from the early 1980s for killing his

girlfriend in an incident his lawyers said was caused by Post Traumatic

Stress Disorder from combat.


In the darkness, Gra’dy Marshall, 74, reads from his cell phone on the bus headed to Tallahassee with other

community leaders from the Orlando area Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)


At the time, he pleaded insanity but PTSD was not fully understood. Still,

expert testimony was able to convince the jury that the killing was not

premeditated. That helped him avoid a first-degree murder conviction and

the death penalty, he said. He was released in 2011 after serving 28 years of

his 75-year sentence.


Since his release, he rebuilt his life, started a lawn service business and

became a homeowner. Though he can’t vote, he said he’s still engaged in

the political process.


“The issue that brought me here is the voting rights of ex-felons and

basically just the criminal justice system overall,” he said. “I think it needs

revamping. There should be bipartisan support for that. ... I can see the

injustice.”


Also on the trip was Gail Gardner, who is the namesake for Gail’s Law, which

passed in 2021 and allowed the creation of a tracking system for sexual

assault evidence kits. Gardner was raped in 1988 but in 2019 learned that

her rape kit had never been tested. When it finally was, she learned that her

rapist had been jailed for another crime years earlier and was still in prison.


After seeing bipartisan support for her law, she said she was motivated to

see support for other laws that could protect sexual assault survivors. But

she has also embraced a new cause, affordable housing, after she had to

move because she couldn’t afford skyrocketing rent.


Gardner said she rotates between staying with friends and relatives locally

in Orange and Seminole Counties to maintain her Florida residency and also

spends time with family in Georgia.


Gail Gardner shares a smile and conversation with other community leaders riding the bus to Tallahassee and the

State Capitol buildings to lay out their priorities and demands for their representatives Orlando area Wednesday,

March 29, 2023. The community leaders traveled with Equal Ground, a Civil Rights organization, engaging the

rising American electorate through equal access to education about voting and empowerment. (Willie J. Allen

Jr./Orlando Sentinel) (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)


She said she didn’t support a housing bill signed into law by Gov. Ron

DeSantis on Wednesday that promises more money for affordable housing

but would bar municipalities from creating rent control ordinances like the

one being considered in Orange County.


While many of the attendees listened to lawmakers who came to address

them, Hope Bellamy went with a group that walked through the halls of the

Capitol speaking with representatives and senators who were available to

listen about Equal Ground’s position on a series of bills.


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In particular, Bellamy, who spent time in prison but later regained his voting

rights and ran for local office in Ocoee, was concerned about Senate Bill

150, which eliminates permit requirements for guns. Its supporters claimed

the measure would aid in public safety but Bellamy felt it would make guns

more accessible to criminals.


“The thing about me is that I did 12 years in the feds — in prison,” he told

Senator Shervin Jones, D-Miami Gardens. “I’m one of the only ones that got

my rights back through the governor. ... As someone who came from the

criminal lifestyle, that public safety bill, if passed the way it’s written, it gives

the green light for the criminals to get more guns. That bill, it’s very, very

important that we oppose that.”


Ocoee resident Hope Bellamy, left, shares a moment with State Senator Shervin Jones, right, along with other

Black and brown community leaders visiting the State Capitol to lay out their priorities and demands for their

representatives Orlando area Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)


But shortly after that conversation, the bill was approved by the Republican-

led Senate.


After the drive back to Orlando that was slowed by several crashes on

Interstate 75, Bellamy said his only wish is that the group could have gone

to Tallahassee sooner to have a greater chance at softening the bill, even if

Republican senators were determined to pass it.


His hope is that even if the bills he and others with Equal Ground opposed

pass, Black Floridians from Orange County and across the state will become

more engaged in the legislative process.


“Doing something like this, you need at least two trips” he said. “The first

trip should be two weeks prior and you give them the information. Then you

come back the day before the session with emails in between. We have to

stay repetitive asking, repetitive with reaching out, with calls, repetitive with

emailing. That’s how this works.”


dstennett@orlandosentinel.com

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