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PRIDE: purpose + possibility often deliver what hope cannot
A a powerful case study in what can happen when a public official sincerely engages her conscience and the good people of a community organize to share and protect public spaces.
Last Tuesday night, long-time Polk County School Board Member Kay Fields read a Polk PRIDE proclamation to an overflow, standing-room-only crowd at the Polk County School Board meeting.
Her beautiful, emotional reading of the proclamation, which focused on the challenges LGBTQ children face and the efforts of groups that help them, ended in a deafening standing ovation.
It was the most genuinely heartwarmingly, surprising moment I have ever witnessed in 23 years of participating in and observing public life in my fascinating county.
You can see it starting at 26:30 of this School Board meeting video:
A public official and her conscience
Kay Fields herself made for half of the drama.
She is two months away from an election against a candidate aligned with angry, antagonistic forces. Whipped up by Gov. Ron DeSantis and others, these forces of “right wing” disorder tormented children during last year’s PRIDE proclamation. They have generally sought to dominate the public spaces and function of public schools and local government in the last year and infuse them with cruelty.
Kay Fields is black, which makes her a natural focal point for these forces of disorder, who lean so heavily on the ugly energy of social and racial and cultural rage.
But other than her race, Kay Fields makes an ironic target for a supposedly “conservative movement.” In my observation, Kay is a fundamentally conservative person, both in temperament and approach to public policy.
She is very publicly religious in a very traditional way, as anyone who has ever served with or observed her will know. I think she has a very conservative, limited approach to the function of a school board member, which prizes tradition and custom. Sometimes, Kay and I would clash over the nature of the school board role when we served together on the board. We were not political allies, as anyone paying attention knows.
Thus, I would not have predicted that she would choose to read the PRIDE proclamation two months from Election Day in a very fraught civic moment. And yet she did, beautifully and sincerely.
She read it with the emotion of a public official wrestling, as a human being, with her conscience and her role in the advancement and protection of the public good. As I’ve said before, that is all one can really ask of a public official — to engage hard things at the risk of their own comfort and position.
A harder path
Kay Fields’ decision to read the proclamation — and then deliver it with such conviction — was much harder for her than my effort to establish a PRIDE proclamation in the first place. And frankly, it carries much more meaning.
If my memory serves correctly, in my first year as a Polk school board member (2017), I worked with Polk PRIDE organizers to convince the School Board to embrace an annual proclamation as a statement of support for our LGBTQ students, faculty, and community. This was easy for me to do, given my background and temperament.
But it made some of my fellow board members, including Kay Fields, uncomfortable as I recall. And we had some debate about it before settling on an approach that did not involve voting on it. In that first year, I believe I was the only board member willing to read the proclamation. And one year former School Board Member Tim Harris said some terrible things from the dais.
I can also remember an actual heated exchange between Kay Fields and a leader of the Lakeland Youth Alliance, a group that support LGBTQ students, over an LGBTQ-protection issue unrelated to PRIDE.
I mention this background only as context — a way to express my admiration for the hard path Kay Fields allowed herself to walk in getting to that brave moment last Tuesday.
The forces of book banning and “anus” obsessions and Capitol Lynch Mob support are trying to unseat Kay Fields. So both personally and politically, I do not think Tuesday night came easily to her; and that’s what makes it so powerful.
A feedback loop of conscience: beating the CCDF at its own game
The other half of the drama comes from the organized show of civic power from the forces of a shared, collaborative, vibrant public school system and civil society.
The so-called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF) have successfully called a lot of attention to themselves with their outlandish behavior and menacing civic disorder.
But they have never organized a crowd like the one Tuesday night.
The CCDF’s anti-mask food truck rally last year — the one that launched them as a thing — was the closest; and it’s been downhill for them ever since.
Tuesday night, they were nowhere to be seen other than some grumpy stragglers. And unlike their crowds, the PRIDE crowd didn’t berate anybody. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t need to shut the PRIDE crowd down and clear the room because shared PRIDE — not cruel assholery — was the point of that crowd.
It was a happy crowd. The CCDF is never a happy crowd. It runs on fake rage and disorder, not assertive citizenship.
I suspect that the overwhelming energy and support of the room provided a positive feedback loop for Kay Fields’ courage. If the CCDFers had filled the room angry catcalls, would it have been different? Only Kay Fields knows; but that’s the point of organizing public space, to help individuals do brave, hard things. And it does not diminish what Kay did — at all — to imagine that a friendly crowd helped her along.
The battle for public space is not symbolic
PRIDE organizers then flexed even more civic muscle with Saturday’s massive, joyful Polk PRIDE event in Lakeland’s Munn Park. It was the biggest PRIDE event I’ve ever seen here, with a single lone heckler making an ass out of himself from a distance under watchful eyes of police while everyone else enjoyed themselves. Here are a couple pictures:
It will take massive violence — including violent support from armed police — to chase these happy people from public spaces and beat these happy people into even the temporary “anti-woke” submission that CCDFers and DeSantis say they are trying to impose.
But the people of Tuesday night and Saturday are non-violent, deeply constructive and patriotic citizens. Their existence and behavior in public space force stark choices on even the most political of police.
When happy orderly behavior is attacked by raging, potentially violent menace, it’s very hard for flesh and blood armed agents of the state to choose disorder — even if they share cultural sympathy with the forces of disorder, which most of them seem to.
That’s why the proclamation, the organizing, and the PRIDE event are far more than just symbolic gestures. They are meaningful fortifications that turn attackers into forces of disorder that armed official power has to reckon with.
The DeSantis Republican Party welcomes the violent, vicious, police-attacking Proud Boys as part of its political coalition. That’s just a fact. See here. So these questions of space and fortification are not abstract at all. And building the broadest local community protections possible is crucial if decency is going to survive and win this moment.
In “red” Polk county, the forces of decency and PRIDE are not surrendering public space to the Steve Maxwells and the Proud Boys of the world. And they’re forcing powerful people like Sheriff Grady Judd to make choices in who they defend or attack.
Hope won’t beat back the Proud Boys; only purpose and possibility
I know who organized that Tuesday night crowd — and how that person did it and how it’s a template for the future. I’m not going to talk about it here because we’re in a battle for public space and the existence of a shared country; and I’m not tipping off the party of the Proud Boys and Michael Flynn and Hannah Book Bannah to anything.
In this fight, nothing is guaranteed. Love does not always win. In fact, it often loses, drenching those who love in blood and sorrow and pain. The children of Uvalde were loved. It did not protect them from big guns and cowardly police.
But love can win at any given moment. That possibility always exists.
Kay Fields showed us an example Tuesday — born of years of purpose and work and even temporary defeat from a lot of people.
I would not have hoped, back in 2017, to have ever seen what I saw Tuesday night in Polk County. That’s because, hope, like its bitter cousin cynicism, is impotent. Empty hopes, like empty slogans, deliver nothing real.
Purpose and action and the willingness to accept the possibility of consequences — of casualties — is what makes “hope” live. So does the unwillingness to accept permanent defeat in the war for decent humanity.
Kay Fields announced to Polk County on Tuesday night, “I’m willing to accept whatever consequences come my way to express my support and protection for all the people of my community and school system.”
That is no small thing.