by Tim Gilmore, 11/15/2020
1. Deep Blue Sunrise
The shades of blue deepen toward the earth, lighten toward the top of the old brick warehouse, long called the “Red Ball Building” for faded signage from when the structure housed conservative politician Joseph Kennelly’s moving company. The faces that inhabit this mural, 250 feet across one side of the building, span a spectrum of blue, another an almond brown, another bronze. The colors gleam an underwater radiance across the dark oxidization of the railroad tracks before them. The block letters read clearly and simply:
BLACK VOTES MATTER.
2. Good as Anybody Else’s
The way he says it is his legs “don’t really work.” He gets about the house on his walker, but rarely leaves home these days. He doesn’t have a driver’s license and has no email address or access to a computer.
Not far from Stanton College Preparatory School, originally the New Stanton School on West 13th Street, having moved from the Stanton School in LaVilla, the first secondary school for black children in Florida, not far from St. Pius V. Catholic Church, Mr. Smith, not his real name, answers the door of his handsome brick house built in the 1950s.
In a wooden flowerbox grow Wandering Jews and pansies. The lock on the front door is broken and there’s a hole in the screen door by the handle. Mr. Smith slides his hand through, fits a key into the screen door lock and pushes the door open.
He’s eager to sign the affidavit, but it upsets him that anyone would question his ballot. He drags himself on his walker toward an armchair, apologizes again that his “legs don’t work so good.” The sectional couch is curved and dark green and a dozen hanging plants bring rich deep verdure to the room. He nurtures the pothos and the ivy. He’d closed his pit bull in his bedroom to answer the front door and she’s whimpering, knows she’s missing out. “She’s just a big baby,” he says.
“I don’t understand why my signature ain’t good as anybody else’s,” he says, his eyebrows raised. He looks genuinely hurt. “I keep hearing all this Trump-Biden debate, people sayin’ your vote’s a fraud.” He shakes his head incredulously. “I ain’t no imposter. I mean they got my address. I been here all these years. My legs like this, I cain’t even hardly go nowhere.”
3. Ballot Cures
The Vote-by-Mail Cure Affidavit, per the Florida Department of State, serves for “a voter who returns a vote-by-mail ballot certificate that does not include voter’s signature or whose signature does not match the voter’s signature on file.”
Frequently the voter is elderly or disabled. A nurse comes to the door of a nursing home to meet a ballot cure volunteer and takes the affidavit inside to Mr. Jones (pseudonym again). Visitors can’t enter the nursing home without a Covid-19 test. When the nurse returns to the volunteer, the affidavit shows a shaky X on the signature line.
“That’s all he can do,” she explains. “Both his hands is paralyzed.” She says he knows his vote won’t count if he can’t sign his name.
Each ballot cure requires the voter’s signature on the affidavit and a photo of one of several forms of identification delivered to the Duval County Supervisor of Elections office by five pm the second day after the election.
The voter attests to being qualified with the understanding “that if I commit or attempt any fraud in connection with voting, vote a fraudulent ballot, or vote more than once in an election, I may be convicted of a felony of the third degree and fined up to $5,000 and imprisoned for up to 5 years.”
4. His 16th Presidential Election
Bleeding hearts bloom pink and red in the shade. Tendrils wrap easily and gracefully, graciously, across a wooden trellis by a camellia fully budded but not yet ready to flower.
A younger man answers the door. “Pop Pop” is waiting inside in his recliner, watching Bonanza on TV. He’s enthusiastic, but can hardly speak. This is the 16th time he’s voted for president in his life.
On television, a woman asks Ben Cartwright, with deep concern in her voice, if it’s right to deputize men so easily, if it’s not too much power to assign a gun and a badge seemingly haphazardly. Cartwright says something about the U.S. being a young country. Echoes of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, authority too easily abused, cast back to this random episode of a 1960s TV Western.
Pop Pop lives with his daughter and son-in-law on a quiet street of 1980s ranch style houses. He has a hard time speaking, can barely see the line where he’s supposed to sign. He leans forward in his recliner, struggling, heaving. His pen angles downward and his signature runs off the page. Beside the TV set stands an army of his grandson’s Tang Soo Do trophies. His grandson’s a blackbelt.
Pop Pop stands up on his walker and moves over to a dining room table where bright rays of sunlight angle in through an unblinded window. He sits down, puts his face close to the paper and signs slowly and with great concentration. Then he stares at his signature for a moment, nods his head satisfactorily, looks up from the light, and his ancient eyes beam.
5. Never Blinking
The deep rich blues curve and curl in the shades and shapes of afrofuturism. That movement in art launched through the strange and prolific jazz musician Sun Ra and this Arkestra, for whom “Space [was] the Place” in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but the aesthetic he pioneered makes the side of Kennelly Building the place in 2020.
Conservative politician Joseph Kennelly’s old moving service warehouse now speaks the surrounding community back to itself on three sides. A mural called “Mamas of the Movement,” or MOM, faces Myrtle Avenue with the likenesses of Jacksonville activists Monique Sampson, Christina Kittle, geexella, Nubian Roberts and Kiara Joyner. Above them floats a quotation from Assata Shakur’s 1988 autobiography: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The side opposite the “Black Votes Matter” mural memorializes victims of “In-Justice ’N Jacksonville.” The faces of 12 black men and women killed in the city’s long epidemic of gun violence stare across West 18th Street and never blink.
Here’s Jordan Davis, eyes wide open, head slightly tilted, 17 years old, murdered in 2012 at a Jacksonville gas station by a 45 year old white man named Michael Dunn for playing his music too loudly.
Here’s Kenya Davis, no relation to Jordan, regal in wisps of clouds, looking right in our eyes, blue tasseled earrings falling away from her stare, bold, 42 years old when she was gunned down in her Ortega Hills apartment in January 2016.
The murals are the brainchild of Jacksonville-based artist Shawana Brooks, part of her larger “Color Jax Blue” project. They’re the work of 20 artists and designers. “The art on this building is a conversation with the community,” she says. While the Black Votes Matter mural tends afrofuturist, this side of the building meets a responsibility to photorealism.
Most of the faces had already been chosen for the mural when Brittany Matthews was shot in her car at an Edgewood Avenue gas station this past August. Shawana called artist Overstreet Ducasse and said, “We’ve got to figure out a way to get Brittany up there.” So here she is, smiling, eyelashes full, her hair cascading in luxurious curls.
“Brittany’s sister brought her son by the mural to see his mother here,” Shawana says. She told Shawana, “I never thought my sister would be somebody who’d need to be remembered this way.”
At the opposite end of “In-Justice ’N Jacksonville,” the face of Desmond White looks across 18th Street beneath tall slender birch trees. Desmond’s the son of d.j. Gene Dot Com at 93.3 FM, The Beat. He was killed in late October, 2018.
Two blocks down Myrtle Avenue at 2212 is the office for Families of Slain Children, Inc., founded by Beverly McClain, whose son Andre Johnson was murdered and left floating in the Ribault River in 2005. Part of the difficulty in creating this project, Shawana says, is to make it represent the community without being able to memorialize everyone. There’s a seven-panel memorial wall at FOSCI that does that. It commemorates more than 3,000 homicide victims.
6. House on the Disappeared Road
Mr. Anderson, not his real last name, lives just beneath 45th Street west of Moncrief Creek. Most of these small houses were built in the 1950s, concrete block, close together, tiny yards. About a dozen young black men stand in the street or sit in plastic lawn chairs. The only white men on the street stand shirtless in a yard littered with garbage beside a pickup truck with tires the size of a small sedan.
A young black man with dreads says he doesn’t know where Mr. Anderson lives. “What’s the address?” he says. The address before it and the address after it are clearly visible from the road, but not Mr. Anderson’s. “Oh, that’s it back there,” he says and points to a tiny wooden house, painted purple, set back from the other two addresses. Built in 1940, it’s about 600 square feet. The dirt road on which it was built disappeared sometime in the intervening decades.
He’s waiting at the door. Wiry, sinewy, in his late 70s, Mr. Anderson smiles, signs his name, holds out his driver’s license for a quick photograph and closes the door, ballot cured. “Thank you!” his daughter shouts from somewhere inside.
7. Intersection of Inequities
When artists Shawana Brooks and Roosevelt Watson lived on West 15th Street, between Myrtle Avenue and Fairfax Street, Fairfax Street Wood Treaters, a former wood treatment facility, became an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site, one of several deeply polluted locations across inner Jacksonville with cleanup costs that only federal entities will meet.
Fairfax Wood Treaters operated in the old American Motors Export Company assembly plant, built in 1921, from 1980 to 2010, contaminating the ground and storm waters with copper, chromium and arsenic.
Shawana’s and Roosevelt’s home was one of 51, in addition to Susie E. Tolbert Elementary School and R.V. Daniels Elementary, where 60,000 tons of soil was removed and replaced.
“We couldn’t even go outside with our baby,” Shawana says. “And so many people in the community talked about how their health problems might be connected. You know, this person’s daughter miscarried or that person had asthma and respiratory problems. I was even scared to plant anything in the yard.”
Though Shawana and Roosevelt have since relocated to Murray Hill, she’s remained deeply connected to the Durkeeville area and the neighborhoods around Myrtle Avenue. She’d had her eyes on the “Red Ball Building,” the Kennelly Building, for years. The murals are a part of the couple’s larger “Color Jax Blue” project, “to bring local black artists and voter advocacy groups together to inspire Jacksonville citizens and turn out the vote in August and November.”
As much as it’s a testament to black votes mattering, a tribute to black women leaders, and a memorial to victims of violence, the old brick warehouse is also an emblem of the movement for environmental justice.
“Environmental injustice is the intersection of all these inequities,” Shawana says. “Think about the inequities between this area and other parts of town—food inequity, public health inequity, housing inequity, greenscape inequity.”
And at that crossroads, the Red Ball Building, once the warehouse and business headquarters for a conservative white City Council member and state representative, now colored blue, becomes a jewelbox of community expression, a Kaaba validating the neighborhood’s suffering and pointing it forward.
8. Corruption on the Canvassing Board
All completed ballot cure affidavits have to be approved by the Duval County Canvassing Board.
Less than a week before Election Day, as millions of early votes have already been cast, both in-person and by mail-in ballot, The Florida Times-Union breaks some disquieting news about Judge Brent Shore, chair of the canvassing board.
Shore is already infamous for leading the invalidation of more than 26,000 Duval County votes, the majority of them black votes, in 2000. That was the year George W. Bush beat Al Gore to the presidency by winning Florida, after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a Florida recount, on a margin of 537 votes.
As Andrew Pantazi writes on October 29, 2020, “A local judge and head of Duval County’s vote-counting board has donated repeatedly to President Trump’s re-election campaign and other Republican efforts, and his home is covered in signs supporting Trump, despite rules requiring judges like him to refrain from donations or public support.”
The board has already banned public photography or videotaping of proceedings, increasing suspicion for lack of transparency. Shore says he doesn’t want to have to “babysit” journalists.
Though the Times-Union attains its information about Judge Shore’s donations from the Federal Elections Commission’s donor database, his wife, Kathryn Petway Shore, lies to the press about Shore’s donations, saying, “I’m not convinced just because somebody put it on a list that my husband did it.” She says the judge has not publicly advocated any candidate, claiming Trump signs were hers and were on her “half of the front yard.” The Trump sign on his side of the yard, she says, is also hers.
“My husband would never do anything unethical or improper,” she says. The next day, Brent Shore resigns from the canvassing board.
9. Poetic Justice for Kennelly’s Bad Poetry
Poetic justice reigns in the conversion of the Kennelly Moving and Storage Company Building to Color Jax Blue and its celebration of black community, art, empowered women and voting.
Joseph Kennelly incorporated his moving company here in 1971 at the end of his political career. He’d served on Jacksonville City Council from 1947 to 1958 and for eight years on the Duval County Budget Commission. He was a Florida state representative from 1966 to ’68 and 1970 to ’72.
Kennelly flamboyantly opposed tax increases and school desegregation. He argued property taxes should be “chiseled in stone,” so no one could ever change them. In the mid-1960s, property in Duval County was assessed at a mere 30 percent of actual value, lower, for many Jacksonville houses, than the state homestead exemption. As Jim Crooks writes in his book Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, two thirds of Jacksonville homeowners, thus, paid no property taxes, robbing public schools of funding and leading to the disaccreditation of Jacksonville’s still segregated schools.
In 1968, Florida teachers held labor strikes across the state in response to Duval and Hillsborough County legislators favoring “property tax relief” over funding schools. When Governor Claude Kirk’s tax package addressing “Florida’s education crisis” passed, Representative Kennelly left the legislature airing bad free-verse poetry: “O Duval County, / With your thousands of foreclosed homes, / we have failed you, / and I, for one, / will not seek return to these halls!”
Yet he did. He returned to the House in 1970, capturing signatures on local petitions to opposing bussing as means of school desegregation and drafting a bill for a U.S. Constitutional amendment banning bussing.
He ran Kennelly Moving and Storage until his death in 1999. The old metal sign remained over the sidewalk, name framed in two halves of a “red ball” that looked more like sodden hamburger buns, letters missing, until black artists took over the building and painted “Mamas of the Movement” in unintentionally brilliant irony. When the sign came down, Shawana posed before it for a photo.
10. Bearing Witness
Some voters answer their doors, speaking very little English, unaware there’s a problem with their signatures, confused and discomfited about what could be wrong.
There’s the old Vietnamese man. Cucumber vines encase the walls, part of his roof, and the front windows of his small woodframe house. Only the doorway stands free of the creeping gourd vine’s encumbrance.
There’s the elderly Korean woman. She lives with her son, a hospital nurse who takes care of her. He’s always at work. A labyrinth of tall dragon leaf begonias in pots blocks the front door. The soil in the pots is topped with raw eggs, slowly cracking, breaking and decaying down into the roots for nourishment and vaguely souring the air.
There’s the young black fashion model with half a dozen phone numbers and addresses from here to North Carolina to New York who never responds but eventually cures her ballot on her own.
Jacksonville, like all other Florida cities, eventually votes to elect Joseph Biden president and Kamala Harris the first woman and first black and Asian vice president, but Florida overall sides with Donald Trump by just under 400,000 votes. Though Trump has refused to concede, Biden won the election by at least five million votes, the most of any presidential challenger against an incumbent since FDR beat Herbert Hoover, and probably by the same number of electoral college votes, 306, that Trump won in 2016.
On West 18th Street, smaller silhouettes of black men and women face up to unblinking eyes in smiling faces. Some of the silhouettes hold picket signs. Some raise a fist in the air.
Pedestrians, drivers-by and neighbors, an audience of thousands of people every day, see these faces, but the gaze works both ways. The faces on the wall are more than those of murder victims. They thunder, but quietly and still, with life, with dignity, with individual identity. They close not their eyes at night, in thunderstorms, or in blinding early afternoon sunlight. They look. They watch. They see. We bear witness of their bearing witness and they bear witness of ours.