Gov. Jeb Bush is facing a rapidly growing furor over the death of a 14-year-old boy at a juvenile boot camp, with about 1,500 demonstrators accusing authorities Friday of a cover-up, and Florida’s chief law enforcement officer resigning under fire.
The student protesters, led by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, demanded answers regarding the death in January of Martin Lee Anderson, who was punched and kicked by guards in a videotaped scuffle.
“You can’t beat a 14-year-old kid to death and expect to just ignore it, expect people to not take notice,” said student Mike Mathers. “Ignoring one injustice is ignoring every injustice.”
The protesters assembled on the Capitol steps, chanting “Justice delayed is justice denied” and “If you don’t act, we will come back.” They demanded the arrest of the guards and the release of the results of a second autopsy.
Anderson was the third young black male to die in state custody in Florida in the past three years. The guards who hit him were black and white.
A first autopsy found he died from complications of a blood disorder, but the boy’s family and others disputed that. Anderson’s remains were exhumed recently for another autopsy. Bush also has appointed a special prosecutor.
Friday’s protest came a day after Guy Tunnell, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, resigned amid criticism over his handling of the case and a joke that the governor called “inappropriate.”
The Miami Herald reported that at a meeting of department heads, Tunnell likened Sen. Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden and Jackson to the outlaw Jesse James.
Tunnell started the Panama City boot camp when he was Bay County’s sheriff. His agency was investigating the death until it was taken off the case by the special prosecutor. During the investigation, Tunnell had forwarded e-mails to the current sheriff that criticized those who questioned the effectiveness of the boot camp concept.
Resignation the 'right thing to do'
The governor said he did not ask Tunnell to step down. He said Tunnell recognized the problems the e-mails and his comments created.
“I think he realized it would be difficult to lead the agency and to deal with these perception questions,” Bush said. “I think his departure was the right thing to do.”
Tunnell said in a statement: “My attempt at humor was ill-conceived, ill-timed and inappropriate, and was not intended to be disrespectful to any individual or group.”
On Friday, Sharpton said Bush’s staff contacted him and Jackson for a private meeting with the governor as they were leaving the Capitol grounds. The two civil rights leaders called the meeting positive and said Bush was sincere.
“I just basically reiterated my position concerning this matter that the investigation be thorough, but we will push to get it done as quickly as possible because there’s a lot of doubts and concerns about this,” Bush said afterward.
On Thursday, the governor met with Anderson’s parents and their lawyer, a day after about 30 college students began a sit-in at Bush’s office. The sit-in ended that afternoon.
The Legislature is considering a bill named in memory of Anderson that would get rid of boot camps. Bush said he would sign the bill and hopes the Legislature passes it.