Bruce Wright — Pinellas County Florida Shadow Sheriff
“We have to live by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ It is the job of law enforcement to address injustice, not just be arms of hyper-reactive justice.”
So Bruce Wright expressed his fundamental commitment to justice in becoming the St. Petersburg Green Party’s Pinellas County Shadow Sheriff, the first member of the Pinellas County Green Shadow Cabinet. Wright is an Executive Committee member of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, founded by Green Party 2012 vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala, and the General Welfare representative on Jill Stein’s Green Shadow Cabinet nationally.
Explaining how it would work, Wright declared, “I know what evil lurks. So whenever the sheriff, or any politician in this county, spouts their usual bullshit, the shadow person, in my case the sheriff, would also have something to say about it. In effect, it gives me and the people of this county a bully pulpit. And it is an organizing tool to bring clarity to what the Greens and other progressives believe about how the sheriff’s office should function. Then, when Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announces that he is handing complete control of Safe Harbor, a shelter for the homeless, to a private security firm, as he has, I would have something to say about that. It is completely inappropriate.”
As Safe Harbor’s mission statement puts it, “The primary purpose of Pinellas Safe Harbor is jail diversion—that is to keep the homeless out of the criminal justice system … Internal security is provided by G4S Services (contractor). Facility perimeter security is maintained by existing Pinellas County Jail perimeter patrols, which are backed up by deputy sheriffs who routinely patrol the surrounding community.”
“To begin with, the sheriff’s office shouldn’t be running homeless shelters at all,” continued Wright. “But then handing it to a jail-for-profit private security firm to run? That further criminalizes the homeless folks who are staying there.”
An action program
Outlining what he would do if he were sheriff, Wright went on, “The first thing would be to issue a moratorium on all foreclosures and evictions. Currently, there are evictions here which are completely illegal and which the sheriff’s department is complicit in. There are homeless folks staying in hotels who are routinely thrown out without an actual eviction process. Florida law states that if someone is staying in a hotel and they’re not a tourist, it’s their only place to live, then there has to be a three-day eviction process, you can’t just throw people out. But that doesn’t stop Gualtieri.
“The Tampa Bay area has the highest rate of homelessness in the country with 25,000 official homeless,” Wright pointed out. “Over 8,000 of them are in Pinellas County, a third of them are veterans. And we’re just talking about official statistics. The homeless are not always visible. The majority of them work — 40% of the homeless work full-time jobs, but they don’t make enough to make ends meet. You don’t see them because they are trying to keep themselves invisible, so they won’t be harangued or harassed. Maybe five or six band together to share a hotel room. They go out to try to get day labor, try to get sent out, and if one of them does get a job, they survive one more day.
“The fastest growing rate of homelessness is with women with children,” Wright said, “but they’re not as visible because they have to hide, they’re so afraid of losing their children, because the state takes children away from their mothers simply for being homeless, again criminalizing poor people. I would completely overhaul Child Protective Services, which the sheriff manages. I would set up a civilian review board made of parents who have been victims of the Child Protective and Foster Care system, or have been involved with it in the past. And I would make sure that the review board had teeth.
“Then I would of course decriminalize marijuana. I can’t change the laws, but I would have the power to minimize and eliminate most arrests for it.
“The handling of our jails is a disgrace,” Wright stated. “Again, I would immediately create a civilian review board for the jail system. I would immediately demand psychological testing of all the guards. Any time a guard was involved in abuse and brutality, like in the recent case of an African-American named Omar, those guards wouldn’t just be fired. They would face criminal charges of assault and attempted murder and they’d be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And I would turn over the Safe Harbor shelter to a committee organized by homeless and formerly homeless individuals. It would be self-managed. Social Service agencies would network with Safe Harbor, and I would make sure the sheriff’s guards stayed away.”
“A Militarized Occupying Force”
Wright holds a doctorate in Ministry and a Master’s degree in Pastoral Psychology. He is a licensed addictions counselor and a licensed domestic violence counselor, as well as being a Baptist Pastor and Director of Refuge Ministries in St. Petersburg. As a long-time activist, a former homeless person himself, a poet and a musician, Wright has much to say about his general approach. Responding to the fact that St. Petersburg has the highest level of violent crime in Florida, he related, “That doesn’t surprise me, because how the police choose to operate is violent themselves. The police are violent, the police are aggressive, when your philosophy is one of police containment and police repression, when the police are militarized, that doesn’t decrease violent crime. It’s never done that. The states that are the strictest in their law enforcement and punishment, like Florida and Texas, have the highest rates of crime.
“St. Pete had a major riot in 1996 over the police murdering a Black youth,” he recalled. “The state of race relations here was horrible then, and it is horrible now. The policy is still containment, aggressive force. The police forces do not have adequate racial balance. They don’t live in the communities they police, they don’t do neighborhood policing. Instead, they are a militarized occupying force. They are not about protecting and serving, they are about harassing and haranguing. This is not the community building we need.
“The officials have nothing to say about removing the causes of violence,” Wright charged. “The answer is not police containment, it’s economic development. Of and led by the people impacted. That is the only answer.”
Wright is extremely proud of his role in the Green Party, and his being a member of Green Party 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein’s Green Shadow Cabinet. “Being their General Welfare representative connects very well with my being the Green Shadow Sheriff here. General welfare has to do with what is good for society, what makes for a healthy society, what makes for a healthy community. At the core of that is how people are treated. And the sheriff’s office has enormous impact on that, in our everyday lives. The Green Party has been perceived as a bunch of tree-huggers,” he observed, “but nothing could be further from the truth. Our party has a 10-point platform, and it has the Green New Deal. It addresses not just ecology and sustainability and the environment, but fundamental economic issues. It addresses civil liberties, war and peace issues. And it is deeply committed to ending poverty. Ending homelessness. Ending racism, ending sexism. Not only is the Green Party committed to these ideals. We offer solutions, based on truly empowering the American people.
“We have to expand this Green Shadow movement,” Wright concluded. “It’s a great idea. At every level of government in this county, there is corruption, and cronyism. Most of the county commission and the city governments are in the back pockets of developers and the Chamber of Commerce. They are not representing the people. So my becoming your Green Shadow Sheriff is one step in us beginning to take back our city and take back our county. And we need to expand this Shadow movement to every county in the state!”