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They arrived in October and found a house for rent in Homestead. Ever since his big dream, Graves has remained fixated on lobbying the Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force to do away with formal ethics proceedings and replace them with a dunking stool.
The review has taken place every five years since 1957, with little fanfare. The outlook for this year's process was not terribly good. In June, a blogger at Eye On Miami despaired, "On a sliding scale, I expect nothing from this task force all the way to bad things." In November, former county manager and task force chairman Merrett R. Stierheim told the current panel: "I don't have much hope for substantive and meaningful change, no matter how badly needed or justified."
Realizing the whole system was under review, Graves began reading the papers like mad — poring over old clips online and trying his best to get a handle on how things work in Miami. He has no car and a limited grasp of technology; his research and publicity are handled entirely by a 14-year-old neighbor named Cesar Melindez.
Public meetings of the Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force: January 9 at 10 a.m., Main Library Auditorium, 101 W Flagler St, Miami; January 16 at 6 p.m., Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW 1st St, 2nd Floor, Miami; January 17 at 10 a.m., Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW 1st St, Conference Rooms 18-3 and 18-4; and January 23 at 10 a.m., Main Library Auditorium, 101 W Flagler St, Miami.
At the end of this month, the 21 appointed members of the review panel will recommend changes to Miami's home-rule charter (essentially a county constitution). If the county commissioners approve the recommended changes, they will be put to a public vote.
Graves's idea has a slim chance, but he believes voters would support it if given the opportunity.
Most people think Graves is crazy, he acknowledges. He has staked out a site for the stool and has constructed several (poor) prototypes in his living room. If Graves had his druthers, the device, a modified seesaw with a chair attached to one end, would have gone up in Bayfront Park this past January 1.
Graves believes the stool will create a "terrifying scourge" for all "the nasty little devils on [crooked politicians'] shoulders." If he ruled the county, anyone looking to take office would agree to be dunked if he or she were caught violating the county's code of ethics.
From a purely historical perspective, Graves's idea is not crazy.
In the Old World, the process of being strapped into a chair and publicly submerged was reserved mainly for shrews and hot-tempered women, the belief being that the waters would somehow cool their ire. Underhanded merchants and cheats also got dunked, sometimes to the point of execution.
The New World preserved the great white tradition of public ruination. "We used to cut people's ears off," asserts Professor William Dunlap of Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut. "We used to brand them on their faces. We've put them in the stocks or in the pillories. We've banished them — out of colonies and towns — and publicly whipped them. [We've] stuck them in the stocks with an iron wedge in their mouth so they couldn't talk. We've burned them and pelted them with rocks."
The Fredericksburg (Virginia) Police Department's website proudly notes that, in 1782, the town sergeant enforced the law by dunking convicts in the Rappahannock River. "This device caused great discomfort and even death," it notes.
Dunlap guesses that most of it came to a stop after the end of the Revolutionary War. But dunking officially ended in 1829, when a Washington, D.C. circuit court convicted newspaper editor Anne Royall of being a common scold. The Marines at the Washington Navy Yard had constructed a stool for her punishment and were prepared to dunk her in the Potomac, but an appeal saved her hide at the last minute.
Royall still had to pay a fine of $10.
Despite the kibosh on dunking, Americans have trumped their European forebears in terms of humiliating and beating undesirables. Prisoners in Delaware were whipped in the yard until the mid-Forties. In Arkansas and other Southern states, corporal punishment continued into the late Sixties. The current administration has long asserted its right to torture and humiliate "enemy combatants," often by dunking them during lengthy interrogations.
In Florida, the tradition lives on — albeit somewhat less severely. Peter Miller, a 63-year-old judge in Putnam County, has sentenced more than 600 shoplifters to the task of carrying a sign reading, "I stole from a local store." Miller offered thieves the option of carrying the sign in lieu of jail time.
Dunlap, who teaches Comparative National Security Law and holds a side interest in bizarre sentencing, does not believe Graves's proposal would stand up to constitutional review. "The government can't make people give up their constitutional rights to hold office," he scoffs.
For his part, Graves laments that public humiliation has been reserved for the poor and pathetic. "We need to bring humiliation back in America, but it needs to fall on the shoulders of the rich and the slick. I want every politician in the county to understand they're skatin' on thin ice. When they take office, they need to fear the wrath of this town."
Miami could use some wrath. From its humble beginnings as a torpid hideaway for pirates and fugitives, the town has provided a kind of frontier for human mischief and avarice. Ruthless plumage hunters and gator poachers composed its earliest economy, followed by gangsters and real estate hucksters. The very soil we stand on is thick with scandal. Swindlers hawked the land to out-of-towners before it was even dry.