On August 29, 2005 Deanna Hardy-Joseph experienced what she imagined would be the worst experience of her lifetime. Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans. She along with her husband, Andrew Joseph, Jr and 5-year old son Andrew Joseph III were uprooted from their home and moved to Florida to make a new start, looking to a hopeful future. On February 7, 2014 Hurricane Katrina became a distant afterthought as she learned her oldest child and only son had been killed in a traffic fatality while he was supposed to have been at the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
Andrew III had asked his parents months before if he could attend the fair along with one of his football teammates. He raised his own spending money. Andrew went to private St Stephen Catholic School while his friend attended a local public school. Hillsborough County Schools offers free tickets to children K-12 to attend the fair on the first Friday night. It was a tradition that some say dated back to the 1950’s and “Negro Day” which was the one day black people were allowed to attend the fair. Andrew was to go and return with his friends mother. The parents exchanged contact information and Deanna’s number was stuck on a pink post-it note on the other mother’s dashboard.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office expected trouble. They were aware of incidents at other locations across the state. They were concerned about gang activity. There’s no evidence they took proactive steps to tell the schools and the community. The schools didn’t require permission slips. The Sheriff’s plan was to arrest, evict and if need be shut down the fair.
The Sheriff had two paddy wagons on-site and throughout the day they made 12 arrests for fighting or trespassing. They “evicted” 99 youth, almost all black and claimed that they were “wilding” which apparently consists of running through the fair. Some allegedly grabbed candied apples and threw them at deputies. In 2013, 56 people were evicted and two arrested. In 2012 it was 48 evictions and eight arrests. In 2011 it was 93 and nine.
The Sheriff’s Department wants you to know that an “eviction” is not an arrest. They detain a child. Require them to hold up or remove their shirts in a search for gang tattoo’s. They take mug shots while holding a card with their name in front of them. It sounds very much like an arrest except for a specific charge or due process. Many of those “evicted” were minors. Their parents were not contacted. None were handed off to parents but instead transported to a site in groups the two paddy wagons could accommodate which was across Interstate 4 from the fairgrounds.
Andrew Joseph III had never been in trouble. He was an outstanding student who strove to achieve academically at his almost all-white Catholic school. His mother said of him, “He was an aspiring designer of shoes and clothing. He loved people, family, and friends. He would give the shirt off his back or half of any money he had.” Andrew had no gang tattoos to show the police when detained. He was wearing three bracelets made by his younger sister Deja, then in fourth grade.
Andrew had his cell phone with him when dropped off by the Sheriff’s Department. His friends mother was scheduled to pick him up at the fairgrounds on the other side of the Interstate. Perhaps the 14-year-old was still thinking of what to tell his mother and father about how he’d been stopped by the police, had a mugshot taken and been dropped off at a different place. Whatever his thoughts, he decided to make his way back to the fairgrounds and his ride, crossing the Interstate to get there.
When his friend’s mother arrived at the fairgrounds to pick up the two boys. Andrew was nowhere to be found. Her son hadn’t seen him in some time. She called Deanna who advised her she could leave and that Andrew’s father would pick him up. “Big Drew” arrived as the fairgrounds was closing down, earlier than expected. He inquired about his son and was ultimately directed to State Troopers. He was in constant contact with Deanna who was steadily calling the younger Andrew’s cell phone. It rang unanswered.
The State Trooper asked “what was Andrew wearing?” Deanna kept calling and the phone only rang. The trooper got in his car and rolled up the window as he communicated with others where Andrew’s father could not hear. He eventually got out and told him Andrew III was at the morgue, victim of an auto accident. Nothing was said about the “eviction” or the role of the Sheriff’s Department or the fair. They found Andrew had been listed as a John Doe. When his parents inquired about his phone they were told, “Yeah, a phone keeps going off in his pocket.” Apparently the simplest and easiest way of identifying the black boy on the slab was ignored. A child’s life and subsequent death was so insignificant that identifying him and notifying his family was of little priority. He just didn’t matter.
I spoke with Deanna Joseph for over an hour and that point came up in different ways several times. Yes she wanted someone to be responsible. She wanted policies to change so that no other parents had to get news like she got that day in February. She wanted Andrew to have a legacy. She needed him to matter.
Her husband lost his namesake, they shopped together, mowed the lawn, pressure washed the house. Many of his friends he had met from coaching their son’s along with Andrew over the years. He now finds it painful to be around them talking about their son’s progress and goals while his is gone. Younger sister Deja Marie Joseph would tell Deanna, “Mommy don’t cry, he’s in a better place.”
After the tragic fatality, Hillsborough County Sheriff sent a letter to various black community organizations. It said in part, “I am more concerned that the overwhelming number of youth and young adults arrested or ejected from the midway for misconduct were African American, and I recognize the responsibility to address the issue and ensure that the circumstances are not repeated in the future.”
Dr. Carolyn Collins, President of the Hillsborough County NAACP responded to the letter saying, “We need the help of law enforcement, educators, the media. We need all the groups together, and this cannot be an African-American issue,”
The letter from Sheriff David Gee placed the blame for the situation on the black community while defending the deputies who “evicted” youth that day. His department has never released a police report. They indicating the Florida State Highway Patrol has a report, seemingly referring to the accident report taken at the scene there. Andrew’s parents ultimately sued the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department and the Florida State Fair Authority. In addition to monetary damages. They wanted recognition that the role Andrew’s death had in the new policies implemented after his death. They wanted perhaps a pavilion at the fair named after him. Some indication he mattered.
The driver that killed him surely didn’t try to kill a black teenager that day. He indicated “when he looked up” the teenager was “right there.” That response indicates he was looking down as opposed to watching the road. The driver was not drug tested nor given a breathalyzer. There was no need, it was just a black teen that shouldn’t have been there. Weeks later when Jonathan Hatfield was being sentenced for an unrelated crime in a neighboring County. Andrew’s death wasn’t mentioned nor part of his record. Were it not for Andrew’s father the Judge wouldn’t even have known. It apparently didn’t matter.
The boy’s evicted from the fair were given no due process. After the event, the Sheriff’s Department asked the public for videos and photo’s. Hoping to document crimes after the fact to justify their actions that day. One of the boy’s evicted said Andrew was not among the kids running. He got off a ride and saw some of his football teammates being manhandled. One was “slammed” by an officer and his hat fell off. Andrew witnessed the hat fall and picked it up and handed it to him. Andrew was then grabbed and arrested with the rest though the Sheriff’s department prefers to call it something else.
After his death, there were many including the Sheriff’s department that needed this to be Andrew’s fault. He was called a thug, they made the issue his behavior, with no witness, video or evidence of any kind attesting to it. Andrew’s crime was one of kindness. He handed a friend his hat.
Sheriff Gee recently announced he’s retiring in September, unexpectedly after just being re-elected. The lawsuit goes on but Gee will not be held accountable for his methods. Andrew’s parents formed the Andrew Joseph Foundation which focuses on “Safety First” in community venues. They “illuminate the disparity among policies that impede the premise of protecting children and those entities that claim safety as their #1 priority.”
Many changes have taken place at the Tampa State Fairgrounds. The Sheriff’s Department still plans to use “evictions” which they claim aren’t arrests. Deputies will contact parents or guardians of minors who can be picked up at the Amphitheater. If no parent/guardian can be contacted, children will be held at the County’s Children’s Service Facility. Youth will not be admitted after 6pm without an adult.
Andrew’s parents want schools to require permission slips to receive the free tickets. They think it would be safer to disperse attendance throughout the week as opposed to all coming on a single day. The Fairgrounds serves alcohol. In 2011 the Florida Legislature passed a law that says you can bring your permitted gun to the Fairgrounds. What could possibly go wrong? Former Congressman Alan Grayson asked the Justice Department to investigate Andrew’s death… they declined. In one of his last official acts after he lost his bid for re-election. Grayson filed the Andrew Joseph III Act requiring those who request a specific type of federal funds to have a Civilian Review Board. In this Republican Congress, it will likely never receive a vote.
There is still much to be done yet Andrew has left an important legacy. His death had resulted in changes at the Fairgrounds which have already made minors safer. The Foundation bearing his name is making strides to increase safety at public venues across the country. Perhaps one day around the world. The lawsuit will eventually shine a harsh light on the Sheriff’s Department evictions that are arrests in all but name. Lastly, he left a legacy of love. Not only his family that he loved as they loved him. Because of the way he lived his life with kindness, caring for others, and the changes ultimately wrought. He is survived by us all. He accomplished much in his too brief stay but his impact will be everlasting. Perhaps the next time a phone goes off in a dead black boy’s pocket, someone will bother to answer.