Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Rethinking mob mentality, a state fair tradition

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From atop a neon Ferris wheel on a cool February night, you can see the big city high-rises of downtown Tampa. But really, the Florida State Fair is a world away from all that.

It's our annual homage to our agricultural roots. It's cows raised by 4-H kids, splashy midway glitz, rock-and-roll carnival rides and deep-fried everything. It's politicians glad-handing at the governor's luncheon, blue ribbons and shortcake topped with Plant City strawberries.

But there is an uglier tradition, one that has gone on for years, a tradition that took things up a notch as the fair opened last week.

On Friday night of "fair day" — a charming old-Florida throwback that gives kids the day off school and free admission to boot — hundreds of young people went on a midway rampage.

They reportedly fought, threw things, destroyed property and terrorized people. The crowd overwhelmed some 200 sheriff's deputies to the point of shutting the fair down hours early. Sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera told me it was like trying to stop a dam breaking loose.

A fairgoer in a wheelchair had her purse snatched. Glass was broken and garbage cans and candy apples hurled at deputies, which almost sounds funny until you think of the damage they could do. A midway vendor said that when the madness hit, he hid his cash register and lay huddled on the floor of his booth to hide until it was over.

Officers tried to quell this group-insanity and hauled troublemakers off the midway.

And we are so far beyond not-okay here.

In the midst of this was a tragedy, the single miracle being that there was only one.

Amongst the 99 young people kicked out that night — nearly all teenagers — was a 14-year-old boy named Andrew Joseph III, accused of disorderly conduct. He died hours later trying to cross Interstate 4. And this is horrifying.

There is much to talk about in the aftermath of all this.

One — a big one — is the responsibility of adults. Where were the parents of these kids, particularly the youngest of them? Has late night at the fair become teenage day care?

Then, the uncomfortable subject of race. All but three of the young people removed or arrested that night were black, prompting Sheriff David Gee to bring black leaders into the conversation with a letter that calls their help "imperative." And it will be, if there's any chance for change.

Officials need to talk about the tradition of fair Friday. How sad it would be to lose the day of free admission for kids who might not otherwise be able to afford to go, kids more interested in fun than trouble.

This week the Fair Authority began sensible changes, saying after 7 p.m. students would get in free only if accompanied by an adult. And adult supervision can only be good.

The Fair Authority says it's willing to "provide any resources necessary" for security the Sheriff's Office needs, including more deputies. There's talk of observation platforms to put an eye high up.

And security is good. But the biggest change has to be to this mind-set that this kind of dangerous mayhem somehow equals fun — or , at least, that we will tolerate it.

"I think the only thing that solves it is to get the community involved, get the parents involved," Gee says.

It's a start, for one fair tradition that needs to end.

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