Toxic Prison Housing: How Trump’s Playground Treats Its Poor
“‘You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,’ she pleaded. ‘Something beautiful and full of monsters.’
‘Beautiful and full of monsters?’
‘All the best stories are.”
― Laini Taylor,
They say that slavery is over, that the days of big plantations are long gone. This is the New South, so the saying goes, and the past ain’t nothing but a bunch of statues in a park.
The same people will tell you a rising tide lifts all boats.
I seen somewhere where the tide doesn’t do anything but drag people out to sea.
Down here in Florida times may have changed but they sound much the same: rich folks living in luxury while people sweat in the cane fields, armed white men patrolling and killing whoever they wish. In fact I’d go so far as to say Florida still has one big plantation in operation, one gigantic blight upon on earthly paradise that ought to be cleansed with fire and high-grade ammunition.
That place is Palm Beach County. And in Palm Beach County a rebellion is beginning that could topple the whole damn plantation.
The following cannot do justice to what I saw, felt, heard, or smelled. This, if nothing else, will stand as a testament to future generations. Let us never forget as we move forward how the workers lived. Let us never let our indignation grow sour and meek. Let us never forget how people first started groping towards real world solutions, instead of mindlessly arguing over historical fantasies.
The word will one day mean two things.
A Little History
I never planned on coming back to South Florida.
A ceremonial magician and devotee of Horus had contacted me about an investigation. He said there was big things brewing in Palm Beach County, real class war shit, and that I had to come cover them. Shadowy figures he’d dreamed of had called me by name and demanded my presence. He offered to hook me up with all the folks involved, house us overnight, and even to sacrifice a chicken for my protection.
Palm Beach County, you have to understand, is a vicious den of unending exploitation and lies. It’s merest mention often brings groans and cries of disgust from elsewhere around the state.
I know. I’m from there.
Born in Boynton Beach, I’d long ago forsaken my birthplace. Truthfully spoken justice might as well be a figment of imagination till the day comes when machine guns mounted on trucks roam Palm Beach County like wild boars, obliterating every mention of that wretched corner of the world.
The area that would become Palm Beach first appears on American radar back during the Seminole Wars. There, in the Battle of Jupiter Inlet, American colonial forces were resoundingly defeated by the freed slaves and indigenous peoples that made up the Seminole bands. Undeterred the Americans decided to convince the Seminoles they intended to give up the war, asking them to meet them under a flag of truce in exchange for the freedom to live as they wished. 600 Seminoles did just that.
They were immediately thrown in shackles, carted off to prison, and sent to the dusty wasteland of Oklahoma.
Skullduggery is built into the very fibre of Palm Beach County; even its name comes from a scam. The coconut palm, the specific palm in “Palm Beach”, is not native to Florida. Its presence in Palm Beach County is due to the shipwreck of the Spanish ship Providencia in 1878 near today’s Mar-a-Lago, a deliberate grounding to receive an insurance payout. Smallscale smuggling was the name of the game until a man named Henry Flagler came to town. He look one look at the people living in tropical paradise and just knew there was money to be made. He built the county into a playground for the Gilded Class.
The playground itself was a scam in a way: palaces like The Breakers or The Royal Poinciana Hotel became fashionable destinations for America’s uber-rich. Flagler’s railroad was the only way to get there. They paid him for the ride, paid him for the stay, and when they wanted a house it was Flagler that helped them out.
(The Royal Poinciana Hotel in 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Since then Palm Beach County’s golden rule has been a simple one: maintain the pipeline and do so quietly. Flagler ensured maximum comfort for his patrons by having his lieutenants kill and maim any workers that raised a fuss. Journalists that spoke unkindly disappeared. Labor disputes of any type were strictly forbidden and bodies were often buried beneath the rails.
Think about that: a giant cemetery guided the rich into Florida, and while they spilled wine and laughed they rode over the corpses of the poor.
Is it any wonder shit is so weird down here?
The Palm Beach Social Index-Directory, a yearly published, privately circulated little black book designed to separate the socially acceptable wealthy from the uncouth rich, keeps the circle of the ruling class small. Thirty of Palm Beach County’s residents are on the Forbe’s list of billionaires and they have no interest in being bothered. To this end they employ the police who have always understood themselves as servants of the rich.
Hunter S. Thompson, when he did a story in the region, perfectly captured the social contract between the The Well-to-Do and the Well-Armed:
“The police are no problem in Palm Beach. We own them and they know it. They work for us, like any other servant, and most of them seem to like it. When we run out of gas in this town, we call the police and they bring it, because it is boring to run out of gas. The rich have special problems, and running out of gas on Ocean Boulevard on the way to an orgy at six o’clock on Sunday morning is one of them. Nobody needs that. Not with naked women and huge bags of cocaine in the car. The rich love music, and we don’t want it interrupted…
We don’t pay these people much, but we pay them every week, and if they occasionally forget who really pays their salaries, we have ways of reminding them…”
The Police are eager to avoid such reminders, and when not running errands for their masters they have one mission: keep the poor in line. Cases like Jewett v. City of West Palm Beach Police Department (in custody police beating death), Lamore v. City of Riviera Beach Police Department (jury verdict determination of municipal liability), and Mueller v. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (police beating injuries, conspiracy retaliation claims involving PBSO Internal Affairs Division) are stark reminders that the Flagler model is still in effect.
But that might be changing. In one of the worst neighborhoods, amid extreme segregation and implied violence, people were starting to fight back.
Out in Stonybrook the class war went from theory to tangible reality. My wife and I rushed down at ninety-five miles per hour, eager to bear witness.
After passing four accidents, two deer, an honest-to-god pterodactyl, and a smart car going as fast as we were with its entire passenger side caved in, we arrived in West Palm Beach.
Our contact was at a gas station and easy to spot: he was almost seven feet tall with a beard the length of my arm. My wife asked him where he was from. “Ohio,” he grinned, “but I came down here to get clean. Whenever I’d do Oxy’s I’d dream about alligators so…here I am! Now I work on an airboat and haven’t touched anything but a yew wand and the Lesser Key of Solomon.” Bingo, as he preferred to be called, motioned us inside. Salsa music played over the speakers and the three of us grabbed a table near a lunch counter. He ordered us each a Cuban coffee and empanada in fluent spanish, surprising everyone, myself included.
Coffee in hand he layed out the details of the case.
“The Palm Beach Tenants Union is organizing with folks in a section 8 project called Stonybrook Apartments. The tenants recently formed their own resident council with positions, all that jizz, and made their demands to their corporate overlords.” He chewed his own empanada voraciously, crumbs flying in all directions as he spoke. “In the time since the demands were presented none of them have been met, and the co-chair of the residents council has had her car vandalized and sabotaged in an act of intimidation and retaliation.”
“Why not move?” I asked. Bingo gnawed his arm for a moment, reached for a second coffee, and started pulling crumbs out of his beard.
“In such an expensive place most people need help getting housing. Section 8 seekers in Palm Beach County have two options: tenant-based rent vouchers or project-based housing. Tenant based vouchers allow people to live where they please, potentially coming within sight of Palm Beach’s wealthy.” Bingo shook his head and laughed. “The wealthy do not like this. The wealthy own the county. There hasn’t been a tenant-based voucher issued by the county in two years.”
He laid the racket out pretty clearly: project-based housing ensures tenants only receive benefits if they live in an approved
slum property, ensuring the property owner a guaranteed supply of rent. If the tenant moved, or if they were evicted, they’d lose everything.
The poor were being ripped off in the name of philanthropy. It appeared Palm Beach had remained true to its roots.
Most project-based housing is only found far out to the west of the county, places like Belle Glade and Pahokee. The population of these cities are predominantly black, and the policy of shipping section 8 seekers west has effectively kept West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, and Palm Beach predominately white. Belle Glade and Pahokee are so destitute, so broke, so poverty-stricken and terrible there’s been talk of dissolving the cities altogether; this would deny those that live there any local government and any local services other than those provided by the county.
“The wealthy own the county.” Bingo moved to a fourth coffee. “The wealthy like this.”
Stonybrook Apartments stood like an island in Palm Beach County, the last project in the last black city east of the sugar cane fields. The company that owned Stonybrook, Global Ministries Foundation, was being investigated by the FBI and being forced to sell its properties. Millennia Housing Management had run the place for two years and was looking to scoop it up cheap.
“The residents know it’ll get worse if they actually own Stonybrook. They’re not taking it anymore. You gotta check these assholes out and make people aware of the struggle.”
I wanted to know more and asked about Millenia. Bingo shook his head.
“I’m just a bridge, man. Moons in the right stars and I gotta bounce. I’ll hook you up with EGB and he’ll fill you in on the rest.” He went to leave, thought better of it, and came back. “If you manage to come back down after this let me take you out to Pahooke.” He grinned, revealing a bottom row of gold teeth. “They got Guatemalans out there workin’ in the fields and livin’ in fucking chicken coops. Some catch rainwater cause they ain’t got utilities. 40% unemployment! Hot damn! They don’t put that on the commercials!”
With that he tipped a hat he wasn’t wearing and left us with the bill.
Devils In the Details
We followed the address we were given to a working class neighborhood in West Palm. Most houses appeared to be built in the 40’s and strictly in the spanish revival style, the smooth white walls flowing into rounded curves, tower-like chimneys joining red terracotta in breaking the sky. Curly-tailed lizards the size of my hand scurried into bushes with each step. Hidden among the houses was a latin american grocery store, a gas station with a cuban bakery, and a gun dealer that also sold fishing rods.
EGB, a tall young kid with a buzz cut and soft voice invited us in. He looked tired, weary, like the wind had blown his spirit out into the gulf. He normally worked 6am to 4pm, but today he’d been over at Stonybrook to celebrate July 4th. Far from being a celebration of America, the residents were celebrating their own independence.
“Crystal went all out,” he’d tell us. She was the co-chair of the newly formed residents council and the main advocate for liberation. She’d bought the cakes, the balloons, and even thrown the entire party against the desires of management.
She did this at considerable risk. “The things she’s gone through, the vandalism, the intimidation…she held her brother as he died in her arms. Most people would be broken. She just gets stronger and stronger.”
I was eager to meet her, as was my wife, and EGB assured us she knew of our arrival. She’d been showing a Miami New Times reporter around and needed some rest.
Fine by me. It had started to rain and mosquitoes would be thick. In South Florida they grow so big on moonless nights they’re said to carry away children. Instead I wanted the background, the details, of where this all began.
The Palm Beach Tenants Union started about a year ago, born from disaffected DSA members who wanted to actually do something rather than simply attend rallies. “What drew me in,” EGB said, “how I got to know the people I know, was these people were actually doing stuff: working at the Mayans Women center, taking part in La Migra Watch….just like really down in the dirt. Doing actual work with their hands.”
The Union started doing legal aid clinics, advertizing the fact that they were in the area and willing to work with anybody having issues with their landlord. It wasn’t long before people started bringing issues and cases to them. One of these cases was Stonybrook Apartments.
“We canvassed the area,” said EGB, “knocked on every door. Talked to everyone. Set up the first meeting.” He leans in and looks me directly in the eye, a strange seriousness taking over. “We had over 40 people show up to that meeting.”
“We were not prepared. It was chaotic, we didn’t really know how to run a meeting, so we just primarily listened. Listened to their stories, their experiences, how parents were sharing breathing machines with children. Holding their loved ones dying from gunshot wounds.” Stonybrook quickly became their primary focus.
The residents were at first skeptical. The Mayor of Riviera Beach once said action was going to be taken. Things were going to be fixed.
Nothing ever came of it. He told residents to stop paying rent. When they did they were evicted. The city was silent as they packed their things and were shipped west to the sugar cane fields.
That video is five years old and shit has gotten worse.
Senator Marco Rubio a did tour. Said it was the worst thing he ever saw. Promised change.
Nothing ever came of it. That video was from a year ago. Millennia gave Rubio a $5,000 donation just seven months ago. He’s forgotten everything.
This time was different. Without any funding, without any political backing, the Palm Beach Tenants Union promised the residents they wouldn’t leave till the situation was resolved.
“Everybody in this city owes the people of Stonybrook.” EGB stared directly into my eyes, a far away glance like one might see in a veteran of a particularly gruesome war. “That place has sat there, it has fallen apart for the past ten years, and nobody has done anything about it. Everybody has fingers to point why the kids are testing positive for lead, why everybody has asthma, why everybody is getting sick….nobody will stand up and do anything. Nobody wants responsibility. The city says it’s the developers and management, they say it’s the city. When they want to play real dirty they blame the residents and just say their all a bunch of criminals.”
EGB noted it was difficult, if not impossible to find a job nearby: the entire area was an industrial park. “All the residents I’ve talked to have completely smashed the stereotype of somebody that lives in section 8. The reactionary view is these people are leeches, that they’re living off tax-payer money and not doing anything. They’re not contributing to society in any way or whatever. Everybody that went there thought this was going to be temporary. They thought this was going to be a place they could save money, get a job, and move out.”
“They keep getting their rent raised, they keep getting ridiculous fine and fees from management. For anything. Like, there was some kind of vandalism done to a building and management fined everybody in the building for it. They all had to pay $100.”
“How’s that legal?”
“It’s not. It’s not legal. But places like this are able to operate under the radar. They tow the cars of residents. You get fines for standing outside your apartment. The management says it ‘discourages criminal activity.’ What….” He shakes his head. “These people can’t breathe because of the mold in their apartments and you’re not allowed on your porch. I mean is it a prison? You can only come out of your cell when you have permission? Welcome mats aren’t even allowed.”
“What the fuck?” My wife looks incredulous.
“They throw them away. The laundry room been out of service for over a year. People started hanging their clothes up on the railings to dry. Their clothes got thrown away. It’s an insane amount of cruelty.”
My wife is standing now, grasping the air as if it’s the throat of a landlord. “Ya can’t sit outside,” she says, “ya can’t have welcome mats, ya can’t dry your clothes…what can you do?!?”
“You can die in there. And this is all at the will of management. None of this is accidental.”
Who was the barbaric, inhuman company behind such suffering? Who were the human paraquats who deserved to be lined up against a wall and reduced to a bullet-ridden stain?
Millennia Housing is not a Florida company but it sure as hell acts like one, crooked as a water moccasin’s spine and as rotten as a buzzard’s lunch. It’s no wonder they’ve come to Palm Beach County. They fit right in. The company is a nation-wide slumlord, abusing people and raking in profits in twenty-two states. They are an “F” rated company by the Better Business Bureau and it’s easy to see why:
“Earlier this month, a new management company, Millennia Housing from Ohio, took over and one its first orders of business was to introduce many new rules to residents…One of them is no more colorful curtains in apartment windows. Another is no more decorations allowed on doors.”
“Troy Darnell Fleming, 55, claims he contracted legionnaires disease last year from living at the Memphis Towers Apartments on Court Avenue(a Millennia Housing development)…Another former resident told FOX13 she had mold and water damage in her apartment, and had to be rushed to the hospital because of breathing problems.”
“Tenants at Renwyck Place Apartments on 4th avenue in Rensselaer have been complaining about living conditions…Millennia Housing Management was appointed as the exclusive management and leasing agent for the building last March…’There’s elevators out of service, there’s walls that got cracks and holes in them,’ said Rensselaer County Legislature Chairman Michael Stammel. ‘There’s smell of mold throughout the building and it’s unacceptable…”
“A viewer sent in pictures from inside the Serenity Towers at Highland facility….She claims the building has an issue with bed bugs.”
Millennia Housing is currently run by Frank Sinito, an ugly son of a bitch who definitely looks like he fucks horses and who currently lives in a $5 million dollar mansion. He is the son of Thomas Sinito, a caporegime in the Cleveland Crime Family who tried to hire an undercover cop to assassinate Dennis Kucinich while he was mayor of Cleveland.
(Look at that horse-fucking face. Tell me that’s not a poster child for guillotines and the death penalty.
Feel free to print this image out and use it in hexes.)
Frank is clearly a chip off his dad’s syphilitic block. On June 2, 2006, Matteo Gutter Systems entered into a contract with Millennia Housing Management to the tune of $168,000 for gutter and siding construction services. Charles Sinito, a cousin of Frank’s, never paid the gutter company after the work was completed. Michael Antonelli, a friend of Frank’s, tells the gutter people he heard that they had not been paid and offered a loan of $150,000 in cash that just so happened to be contained in Antonelli’s suitcase. Antonelli quickly revealed the $150,000 was obtained from an illegal gambling operation and was not “useful in cash form.” The gutter folks declined.
On February 9, 2008, Delmo Orlandi asked the same company for a meeting concerning an ongoing construction job. During the meeting Orlandi, who knew that Sinito owed MGS $168,000, offered the gutter company “protection and collection services” against Sinito in exchange for money.
The gutter company knew something was up and went to court. It was soon revealed Sinito, Antonelli, and Orlandi were working together to carry out a scheme to force the gutter company to accept extortionate credit while laundering the illegal gambling proceeds. Sinito, who was working for Millennia Housing Management at the time and is a blood relative of its CEO, purposefully withheld the payment of $168,000 in order to weaken the gutter company so that it would be forced to accept the loan of $150,000 from Antonelli. The “protection” was just another way to squeeze out more money.
They were charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Like any criminal organization Millennia Housing relies on enforcers. We would learn of the one maintaining prison discipline in Stonybrook in the morning. For now we trudged off to bed, eager to start fighting, the sound of fireworks hidden by a tropical rain.
Papa Duck was born and raised in the streets of Belle Glade, one of the poorest cities in Palm Beach County. At the age of 15 he took money that his mother gave him to purchase school clothes and headed straight for the pawn shop to buy his first keyboard. From that moment on he’s written, produced, and engineered all his own raps.
He unabashedly sings about the reality of the working class in Palm Beach County while the wealthy throw birthday parties for dogs and buy islands.
“They’re Trying To Kill Us.”
“It’s pretty fucking wild that a bunch of radicals are giving a literal mobster shit.” I said. I was anointing myself with Law Keep Away Oil and tearing an energy drink open with my teeth. A call-in campaign had been organized with the help of Its Going Down, and as we prepared to roll out it was firmly underway. Workers across the country, with little more infrastucture than a website and a call to action, had organized a nation-wide event in suport of Stonybrook.
Could Marco Rubio say that?
I counted the fifteen energy drinks and coffee cups on the table, unsure how many belonged to each of us. My vision became blurry and I was worried I was too wired to drive. Four mini bottles of Sailor Jerry’s eased me out, washed down with fresh squeezed orange juice and bites from a mango stolen from the neighbors. Pure caffeine, rum, and sugar had turned me into a jittering cannonball ready to destroy anything in my path. I felt like I could rip a gator’s throat out with my bare hands and was eager to do so.
Our job was to get inside. Not quite as easy as it looked.
EGB warned us we’d need to be on our toes, his teeth chattering as he filled a small cooler with coffee. You can’t simply tour Stonybrook. Management would be waiting for us. They were armed. If spotted the cops would be immediately called and my car would be towed.
Palm Beach cops are kinda shooty. Whenever they go into Stonybrook they do so with guns drawn.
How bad was bad to make Stonybrook folks risk this? To take on a literal mobster? To risk being sent to a godforsaken sugar cane field where the only careers were working under the sun barefoot or serving lunch to inmates?
We collectively downed a can of Monster and headed to the front lines.
We would see history in the making.
The ride into Riviera Beach was strange. It once was a city, so they say, but now it’s merely a node in Palm Beach’s grand plantation system. This is where the janitors, the cleaners, and the cashiers live. People talk about the poor being forced into ghettos, being denied the basics most people take for granted, but coming off I-95 was like flipping a switch. All of a sudden the spanish revival buildings, the fucking trees, all of it disappeared; what was left was industrial water treatment and dilapidated strip malls. Everything looked like it had been left to rot. Desperation practically came through the AC and hit us in the face.
The only sin in Palm Beach County is being poor. Stonybrook Apartments was where the poor of the poor resided, the human beings who displeased the plantation class so much their mere existence was a nuisance.
We pulled in past a dilapidated and seemingly non-functional security gate. Beside it two elderly black men sat on the curb, staring at the road in a daze. The air was still, like the place was asleep. The tropical sun cooked our skin. Where was everybody?
EGB motioned us to follow him to a “recreation center” that looked like it had been closed since the 80’s. We turned a corner, moving quickly so as not to be seen. From out of nowhere a women with scars on her face appeared from behind another corner. With her were several residents and children.
They were hiding. In their own development, in their own neighborhood, they were hiding.
Leading the crowd was Crystal Lewis, a co-chair of the Residents Council and the steadfast soul who’d continued to organize while her means of getting to work had been vandalized by management. We shook hands and immediately my wizard sense tingled.
Crystal felt like radiant orange light, the kind of energy that picks a room up and can make dead men feel like breathing once more. She was solid like coquina stone, tough as a snapping turtle, yet projected a feeling as gentle as a manatee. She exuded pure confidence; her eyes never once flinched. Pain and wisdom flowed across her body like water.
She began giving us instructions and we fell in line. She just had that way about her, that unspoken charisma. Fatigues and army boots popped out of nowhere and I was ready to march.
Crystal’s instructions were to follow the first resident to her apartment. She’d show us the damage, the living conditions, and then move us to another. We did as we were told.
It was far worse than we could have imagined.
“Sometimes the tub will get back up with sewage water. Feces will be all in here. It’ll back up on the floor and get into the bedrooms.” The first tenant takes us to a bedroom where a mattress sits on the floor. “That water got all the way to this mattress and soaked it. They refuse to replace it.” The tenant guides us through the apartment, pointing to the corners of the walls. “You see all those little black specks. Those are wear the roaches are coming through. Eatin through the holes!”
She’d been in this apartment for five years. Management has sprayed for insects but the roaches never go away, “but me and my kids get sick. We get to coughin’ and gaggin’ real bad.”
“For how long?” I ask.
“About a week. You smell that?” My wife nods. “That’s the mold. We keep gettin’ headaches and all night my kids be coughin’. My fourteen year old constantly be sneezing and hackin’ all the time.” My wife was right behind the tenant, taking pictures. She asks the tenant if she can tell us about Ms. Lee.
Ms. Lee, it is said, is the bastard child of a crocodile from hell and a rotten turnip. Every time she speaks roaches pour out of her mouth. Mosquitoes refuse to touch her. Toads and rats emerge from the ground wherever she walks and sunlight never seems to fall on her head. She is the class traitor on the Millennia payroll and is commonly referred to as “The Warden.”
She is the one everyone is hiding from, EGB included.
“Ms. Lee.” The tenant sighs. “She go around calling the police, harassing the residents, telling the residents to go inside, if that’s your guest go inside. One day I was coming home from work and my son was outside with his friends. She said ‘is this your company?’ I said yeah this is my son. She said well you need to tell him to go inside. I told her that was against the law.”
Ms. Lee apparently called the police.
“She had the police behind her and I asked them if this was against the law for her to tell residents they had to go inside they house. They said if those are the rules that we had to follow them. They treat this like a prison camp. They towing our cars, our guest’s cars. I don’t have the money to get them out. She says ‘oh well,’ that this is what her boss tell her to do.”
That boss is Frank Sinito.
Her younger son, who couldn’t be more than 12, told us about the dust that pours out of the vents whenever the air conditioning comes on and how it makes him cough. The tenant said the apartment had so many holes to the outside she once found a snake in her room.
Management told her she must have put the snake there.
A couple of weeks ago while her family was inside the door wouldn’t open. The family called management to alert them they were trapped inside.
Management said they’d have someone out to take a look at it the next morning.
She moves a couch, and a swarm of roaches were revealed, pouring out of the walls. They were unphased by daylight or our presence.
“They spray and they don’t kill no roaches.”
My wife can barely conceal her rage. “That’s because they’re trying to kill y’all!”
“That’s exactly it. They trying to kill us.”
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
We thanked our guide and went outside, visibly shaken. I had never seen human beings live like this, nor be treated so callously. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the billionaires a mere twenty minutes away. Donald Trump lived in this county, the richest people in the whole state just a short drive east.
Palm Beach County, with all its vast wealth, should have the best schools, the best infrastructure, and its poor should be better off than anywhere else.
Instead we were walking through an American favela.
As the sun beat down we passed the “playground” for kids now testing positive for lead: the swings were cobbled together with scrap wood; the pull up bars had exposed nails which constantly tore open the hands and arms of those that used them.
“C’mon y’all!” Crystal was calling us over from another building. “Check this one out! She been livin’ in here for two years!”
The door was open. We were standing outside and it was almost impossible to breathe.
“Y’all smell that?” Crystal asks. My wife and I are gagging. “Two years! There’s a one year old baby that has to breathe this everyday! I…I gotta go outside.” She’s coughing. “I’ll leave the door open so y’all can step out”
It was easy to see where the mold was coming from, impossible for management not to notice. Water could be seen on the floor and coming out the walls. The resident was a young single mother. All she could do was try to spend as much time outside with her baby, a task that risked white men pointing pistols at her everyday.
We were unable to stay very long inside because we literally couldn’t breathe. When we stepped back out shouts could be heard all along the neighborhood. People were becoming aware of our presence.
How long until the police shut us down?
“Cmon sir! This is important!” Crystal moved us along, brought residents out, even convinced a few who had been on the fence. She was a one-woman powerhouse of energy and inspiration. She made it clear to residents that they didn’t have to settle and that they deserved better.
We went into several other apartments and saw mold literally coming out of the walls. It had been simply painted over, the same as water leaks and literal holes that roaches were pouring out of. Children started following us, asking us questions. Quite a few who lived in these conditions were still in diapers. Most residents had been living like this for three or four years.
(A water leak in the ceiling that’s been painted over. These were everywhere.)
(Mold coming through the ceiling. In many parts this had simply been painted over)
Residents told us the tricks management played to keep them poor and on the edge of eviction: if the sprinklers in the front of the building were damaged in anyway the residents of that building had to pay for it. If they didn’t they would refuse their rent, which after one month would allow them to start the eviction process. You risked eviction simply calling Ms. Lee by her first name. Another resident told us how Ms. Lee showed residents police reports she’d filed against them, seemingly to keep them quiet or get them to move.
When they went to the police station they found the papers to be faked.
Some residents had rooms without power. Management had the security guards, not electricians, in the apartments attempting to fix them. Crystal’s own apartment had no fridge and no air conditioning. The temperature outside was in the high 90’s.
It was clear to me this wasn’t a neighborhood. It was a cage, a place of punishment. The crime? Being poor in a place that worshipped wealth.
The health problems and fear instilled in these people were no doubt shortening their life expectancy. Palm Beach County shipped its poor out west to work in cane fields. It sent them to Stonybrook to die.
At some point while we were inside an apartment the tv news crew had showed up, oblivious to the reality of the situation. Did they think freedom of the press existed out here?
Ms. Lee had emerged from a hole in the ground, flames pouring up all around her. There was an argument. Ms. Lee called the police. The journalists were told they were trespassing and were forced out.
It wasn’t long before Palm Beach police started circling the neighborhood.
It was eerily similar to the Klan riding around black villages, or cowboys about to unload on an indigenous settlement. They never talked to anybody, never got out of the car, just seemed to make it clear the County had a way about things. Go back inside or risk violence. Any further and we might come back after those cameras go away.
Afterall, we know where you live.
Anything could happen. Normally the mere sight of a squad car is enough to chill tongues and bury words. The people here have buried folks lost in suspicious ways.
Tension and fear hung in the air like condemned men.
Crystal, without hesitation, refused.
She lead the residents across a busy street, past Palm Beach police, over to where the news van was now parked. She made it clear they were going to give interviews. To the side, never seizing the spotlight and always acting in a support role, were other members of the Palm Beach Tenants Union. One was pulling up court documents on Frank Sinito, ready to pass it along to the reporter.
The cops, in the distance, seemed unsure of what to do. They knew everything hinged on things remaining as they always had. To grab these people, to make arrests, in broad daylight and on camera was way too much exposure.
Their masters would be unhappy. They leered but did nothing, circling like sharks watching dinner run out of the water. Crystal and the Palm Beach Tenants Union had used the county’s desire for secrecy against it.
It was some straight up Art of War shit, an absolute wonder to see in person.
At some point the young reporter talking to the residents wished she could get inside to see for herself how bad things were. She seemed worried about the police.
Crystal literally got the woman in her car after residents had been interviewed, drove her in while somehow dodging the police, snuck past Ms. Lee, and gave her an even more involved tour than we had. Those images would be broadcast as they had before, but unlike every other time it was the residents leading the charge. Local government could be paid off. Stonybrook had taken its fate into its own hands.
Later that night a lawyer would tour Stonybrook and start a twitter storm all over again. Ms. Lee called the cops but never showed her face.
Now she was the one hiding. The prison was no longer under the warden’s control.
The End Is Just The Beginning
I drank and sipped coffee to stay awake as the highway carried us north, back to my own section of Florida slowly mimicking the Flagler system. I had a lot of time to think on what I’d seen.
For one I’d seen, smelled, and felt the kind of terrible destitution we call “third world” right here in the US. Pictures don’t do it justice. Everywhere was the kind of suffering you’d expect in the worst refugee camps.
Recall that these people are given no other choice. That everything I’d witnessed had been public knowledge for years. This wasn’t a mistake, or a slip up, this was the system running exactly as planned: everything for the moneied. Don’t like it? Too bad. Behave or we’ll ship you west.
I have two cursing jars currently working on Ms. Lee. Somewhere out in West Palm her name mixes with devil’s dung, cayenne pepper, and soon the powerded remains of snakeheads. I hope to get some hair from the head of Frank Sinito and, if I do, I will smite that motherfucker down into the most putrid pits of hell. That man’s brains could be splashed against pavement with a lead pipe and the world would instantly become a better place.
But we’d be remiss to think Stonybrook is the result of individuals. Palm Beach County, above all, is raw naked Capitalism. It is the breathing, distilled essence of an entire system that spans the globe.
How many more Stonybrooks lurk behind walls of police intimidation, crumbling buildings, and neighborhoods flown over by private jets? Who else can’t see the beach, breathe clean air, or even dream of a better tomorrow? How many more prisons parading as neighborhoods are slowly filling up?
It is up to each of us to fight where we are, to do what we can. Crystal Lewis is fighting with almost no resources and the constant threat of eviction against a government in the hands of literal billionaires. The entire time I was there she never once seemed to doubt in her eventual victory.
That woman walks with a cloud in both hands. A table has truly been prepared for her in the presence of her enemies and she fears no evil.
Around her are a group of amazing individuals committed to real revolutionary action, made up of everything from Maoists to Greens. Though their political opinions varied there was no friction. There was too much to do. They took their lead from the desires of the oppressed and a sincere thirst to enact change. Nobody tried to convert the residents, nobody tried to “lead” them or sign them up for party newspapers.
While some radicals spent their July 5th praising the prisons in North Korea, pissing on one another, or polishing the image of Joseph Stalin for a western audience, the motherfuckers in Palm Beach County had real enemies who were trying to kill them. People were dying, breathing poisonous air. Naked poverty, the kind once thought impossible for the United States, shared the same roads as billionaires and the president of the United States.
Together the Stonybrook Residents Council and the Palm Beach Tenants Union did what so many couldn’t. While Marco Rubio brayed on like a goat with rabies, while liberals marched and held signs, while “intellectuals” argued the finer points of Holy Marxist Texts, these people were busy getting free and winning.
A few days later Bingo would message me. “Three women at the next meeting walked in and one was wearing a city shirt, when we asked if any of them worked for the city they said no. Afterwards they went right over to Crystal’s and introduced themselves as being from the city.” The vultures were trying to co-opt the rebellion. Millenia even sent down its own “tenant advocate,” a slimy little toad who went door-to-door trying to convince the residents they had paid off the Palm Beach Tenants Union.
The residents saw right through it.
A crew of fifty people went in shortly after, fixing the apartments and moving people from one unit to the other. Code enforcement quickly followed, and the city made sure to look like they were responsible. They refused to talk about how they were alerted.
We know better.
Both the Stonybrook Residents Council and the Palm Beach Tenants Union have the mobsters, the city, hell the WHOLE of Palm Beach County running scared. They do not want the attention. Residents say they’ve never seen a response like this. Palm Beach County has always depended on lies and shadows and is certainly worried what alot of pissed off people might do.
Shit is getting done because the people, not politicians, decided to demand it.
Is it a revolution? Not quite. The wealthy can still ride down I-95 in their fancy cars. Nobody will stop them. You can go to Palm Beach County today and still see the plantation Flagler built.
But just off the highway new voices have begun to rise. Other neighborhoods are now seeking out the Tenants Union. Plans for direct action, meetings among workers, investigations against landlords, even arcane spells spoken in low tones all mix with the humid tropical air that fills the playground Trump and the ultra-rich call home.
The playground is closing.
The people have suffered enough.
The swamps writhe and growl, eager for a revenge centuries in the making.
The plantation they call Palm Beach County will be overthrown.
And it will all start in a place called Stonybrook.
This Investigation was funded and made possible by
People Who Believe
In the Power
of Gonzo Journalism
and the Retelling of Rebellion
I give all of them my sincere thanks and, with their continued help, plan on more investigations
Dr. Bones is a Hoodoo-slingin’ Florida native and Egoist-Communist spitting pure vitriol and sorcerous wisdom at a world gone mad. He lives with his loving wife, a herd of cats, and a house full of spirits.
His poltergasmic politics and gonzo journalism can be found at Gods & Radicals and The Conjure House. He can be reached by email, twitter, or facebook. Want to do him a favor? Help keep him alive for as little as $4.99 a month.