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Searches continue old story

The stories were small ones.

But as often is the case, a bigger story seemed to be crouching behind them.

The first one said the Nassau County Sheriff's Department would continue its searches _ possibly illegal _ of all cars entering American Beach.

The second story, a couple of days later, said the searches would stop while the district attorney considered their constitutionality.

Tuesday, the district attorney hadn't gotten back to Sheriff Ray Geiger with his verdict on the issue and Geiger didn't know if the searches would resume Sunday.

The story could end there, and maybe it will. But there is reason to suspect that it won't, enough to suggest that this is just another chapter in an old story often retold.

For starters, American Beach is one of the last remaining black beaches, frequented overwhelmingly by black people, with property and businesses owned by black residents. Other pieces of coastline that have laid claim to that status _ in Georgia and the Carolinas, and even in St. Petersburg _ have been developed into posh waterfront resorts and residences inhabited by white people.

Residents of American Beach, surrounded by such developments, have been fighting for years to survive the pressure all that money exerts on its continued existence.

It takes no giant leap to fear that in Nassau County _ especially in Nassau County _ law enforcement has been dragged into the fray to help shoo black people away from the beach. This is, after all, the place where a few months ago the sheriff was forced to resign to face federal charges. He was swiftly followed by his cousin, an assistant state attorney.

That happened after nine pounds of cocaine seized by the Sheriff's Department wound up in the hands of a drug dealer. As then-Sheriff Laurie Ellis awaited trial for improperly disposing of the drugs, his cousin Wayne Ellis, the assistant district attorney, allegedly tried to convince witnesses to support their local sheriff.

Current Sheriff, Ray Geiger, who took office a few weeks early by gubernatorial appointment, says he is using the roadblocks and searches purely to try and reduce the crime that has proliferated on the beach. He said he doesn't know anything about a struggle between residents and hungry developers.

American Beach is bordered on the south by Amelia Island Plantation, a playground for rich white folks, built on top of the bulldozed ruins of Franklintown, a black community, in the 1970s. On the north side, there's a hotel where you pay as much to rent a room for the night as you would in St. Petersburg to rent a house for a month.

Wealth can afford to insulate itself, and rich people don't like ugly.

That's why they pushed the last black family off Pass-a-Grille in the 1920s when it became apparent that the narrow peninsula would make its fortune off tourism. That's why Spa Beach, which was the designated black beach in St. Petersburg, lost its melanin. And in a similar motif, the Gas Plant area of St. Petersburg was sacrificed for an industrial park that later became the site of the Florida Suncoast Dome.

It is easy to suspect, even through his adamant denials, that Sheriff Geiger is part of a coalition of government agencies that have in the past worked so well to steal _ sometimes outright, sometimes at fair market value _ stability from long-established black communities.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the two small stories are all that needs to be told. Perhaps Sheriff Geiger is truly motivated only by his desire to protect and to serve the handful of black residents and business owners on American Beach, so much so that he will risk illegal policing to do it.

But history doesn't point that way. History _ some of it recent enough to be considered news _ has made black people vigilant.

Waiting for the motives of government officials to become clear has too often made us victims.

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