Back Off, Miami Herald, Jacksonville Editor Says

Last Friday, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago took a petty swipe at Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city.  She said that it has "crazy crime, traffic congestion, and infrastructure" and that it "tackles fears by legislating morality," before concluding that the city "is going to have to grow up – and demand more of government than stale conservative rhetoric."

Santiago's broad-strokes attempt to tar a couple of Republican politicians, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (who, by the way, doesn't represent Jacksonville) and Mayor Lenny Curry, is wrong on many levels. Jacksonville is not defined by one issue. Drive around in the city,  and you can experience different realities.

On one radio station, a fire-breathing, nationally syndicated conservative pundit spews a peculiar brand of hyper-white, hyper-“Christian,” regressive social and political beliefs.

On another station, WJCT, the local Peabody Award-winning NPR affiliate, First Coast Connect host Melissa Ross interviews Duval County Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti about President Obama’s directive that transgender students in public schools be allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Vitti explains it’s a nonissue – because the school system’s policy for years has been to allow trans students to use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable. A caller asks the superintendent to address concerns some have – by her tone, she doesn’t share them – that the policy may lead to increased incidence of assaults. Vitti calmly explains that statistics show that doesn’t happen.

The syndicated shock jock broadcasting from a studio hundreds of miles away moves on to misogynistic analyses of precisely why Hillary Clinton would make a terrible president (hint: it’s Bill) while, on WJCT, another local caller opines that trans students' bathroom choice is not his concern — the quality of education in Duval County is.

But for the palm trees and the callers’ soft Southern accents, you’d think you were in liberal San Francisco or Buffalo, New York, not Jacksonville, which Forbes recently found to be the fifth most conservative city in America.

Elsewhere in the city, heavy-hitting civil rights’ attorneys file a lawsuit challenging the closed primary in the state attorney’s race, naming as one defendant the men-only family law attorney who filed as a write-in and later implied he did so for no purpose but closing the primary so Republican voters would solely determine the outcome of the election. (Many around Jacksonville were particularly appalled to learn that the write-in candidate is a huge fan of State Attorney Angela Corey, a woman whose legal ethics are about as on point as the Army Corp of Engineers’ projections of harm likely to result from dredging the Port of Miami.)
While debates over the rights of LGBTQ citizens rage throughout the city, a study finds that it has the highest percentage of LGBTQ people of any Florida city. That's the case despite the fact that Jacksonville – sprawled out over 874 square miles – is more like a really big town with five or six medium-sized towns around it. This is a place of 500 stitched-together neighborhoods filled with farmers, public servants, factory workers, clerks, artists, teachers, athletes, bankers, writers, major industry, and small business. There's an amalgamation of income, creed, race, religion, and ethnicity.

On one corner, Muslims kneel for evening prayer; on another, Orthodox Jews wait patiently for the light to change; on another, an entire neighborhood breaks bread and talks about #BlackLivesMatter. On another, an open-call space known as Wallgate, an artist paints these words: “You’ve been using bathrooms with transgender people your whole life.” On yet another, red-faced Baptists hold signs, sing songs and compete for who can yell the loudest about how the Bible hates gays; sadly, these are the most often depicted faces and voices when Jacksonville makes national news.

Sadder still, too many of the city’s power brokers spring from their ranks, fangs and claws freshly sharpened on the bones of their more progressive adversaries. But that doesn’t mean their close-minded opinions define this city or its people.

Jacksonville is a territory where many voices echo – from 12-term Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a polarizing figure whose “Go Gator!” speech on Capitol Hill will always draw a smile – to Republican Congressman Ander Crenshaw, an original recipe conservative whom no one would call an obstructionist – to former Jacksonville City Council president Bill Bishop, a real, live Republican who actively and publicly supports LGBTQ rights. Say it ain’t so! (It’s so.)

Pretty much everyone agrees that there are many more important issues than loos to address, such as the city’s crippling pension debt, its high incarceration rate, the local effects of sea level rise, and unethical politicians. And the media covers them all – sometimes evenhanded, sometimes bent to the right, other times to the left. It depends on the outlet and the audience.

See, Jacksonville is like any city in America, a lovely, diverse mess of people, opinions, and issues. Do oodles and oodles of us absolutely love living here? Yes. Is it perfect? Far from. But the people of Jacksonville are not just small-minded yokels.

Santiago used us as an easy target because a few vocal idiots stand in front of microphones and vomit nonsensical diatribes about boys in dresses preying on kids in bathrooms. We are not a burg of morons who have no clear understanding of the problems that plague our community. Florida’s largest city certainly isn’t a utopian society with enlightened politicians, a perfect media, and wall-to-wall intellectuals (psst: neither is Miami).

Like it or not, it’s a fucking lively, multicultural, frustrating, interesting, beautiful place to live, work, breathe and breed. No matter what you read in the paper.

Claire Goforth is the editor of Folio Weekly, Jacksonville's alternative newspaper. 

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