In a year full of worrying Orlando headlines, at least there were a few bright spots

2019 In Review

The end of 2019 marks the end of Year Three of the Trump Era. Three whole years. And after this particular year of the current administration, we deserve all the Baby Yoda-type diversions we can get our hands on (see page 19 if that's you too). There have been bright spots in Year Three. But it has been pretty shadowy, to say the least. This year the House finally impeached Trump, but the Republican-held Senate surely will not remove him. Years of the endless barrage of White House scandals have made this utterly unremarkable, each revelation relentlessly pushing the nation deeper into new levels of cynical darkness.

Many local government officials also did their best to darken things: Michael Ertel resigned as Florida Secretary of State because people found his blackface photos. Photos of Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini in blackface and brownface surfaced, but he refused to resign. Former Gov., now Sen. Rick Scott defeated Bill Nelson, and remained his usual scaly, reptilian self, just farther away; Sen. Marco Rubio stayed spineless. And U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz? Just, yeah. 'Nuff said. Back to the bright spots.

And there were bright spots, those unwilling to allow the epoch to dim their fire. Like the unyielding spirit of Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and the climate strike march that took over downtown Orlando on Sept. 20, the same day Thunberg led strikes around the world. Or the pudgy Baby Trump balloon that bobbed above hundreds of protesters on the day of President Trump's Amway Center re-election campaign rally.

Or Orange County teachers' historic rejection of their 2019-2020 contract, which seems to have finally caught the attention that their situation demands. Florida is No. 46 in the National Education Association's 2019 pay rankings, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has made some steps in the right direction. As Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, told us in August, "That's not acceptable. We have to rise up. And we're hoping that Orlando will be the epicenter for the revolution in Florida."

Amen to that.

Our local surveillance state grows

Our pages were full in 2018 of exclusive reporting on the city of Orlando's unprecedented usage of Amazon's Rekognition facial surveillance system. Though the city let the pilot program lapse, the thin end of the wedge had been inserted as far as creepy surveillance goes in Orlando, and we continued reporting this year on its local effects.

We learned in January that the University of Central Florida had also developed a mass surveillance system, an artificial intelligence-powered software that can recognize facial characteristics and body movements to detect assaults, robberies and even explosions in real time. In early 2016, students and professors from UCF's Center for Research in Computer Vision were already using a $1.3 million federal grant to start testing software for the city's surveillance network that would instantly flag suspicious activities. With surveillance technology, the ultimate goal for police is predicting escalating threats to public safety so that "an assault on the street doesn't turn into a murder on the street," Raymond Surette, a criminal justice professor at UCF and one of the project's researchers says. Civil liberties organizations including the ACLU and the Project on Government Oversight expressed concern that real-time facial recognition surveillance could help the government track undocumented immigrants simply because of their legal status and scare them away from public places where cameras are located. The risk of misidentification is prevalent in facial recognition systems, particularly among dark-skinned women, and advocates fear a mistake could lead to a wrongful arrest or a deadly encounter.

Then in October, we learned that local law enforcement including the Winter Park Police Department, Orlando Police Department, Ocoee Police Department, Davenport Police Department and the Osceola County Sheriff's Office had struck deals with Amazon to promote the Ring doorbell – and that in return, those police departments got access to the accompanying "Neighbors" app, a Nextdoor-like forum where residents can (and do) post video from their security monitors. Civil liberties advocates worry the streaming cameras and chat-room app might turn citizens into informants, and that police access to large swatches of video surveillance could lead to trampling of privacy rights.

Not only is the Ring program "turning police into de facto salesman for a company," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst from the ACLU's D.C. office and editor of their Free Future Blog, but the storage and handling of that video is something to worry about. Once allowed by the Ring user, video is stored and accessed on the cloud. But video is really out of the Ring user's control once it's in the cloud to begin with.

While most lawmakers lack understanding of machine-learning surveillance systems, even experts are blindsided by the growth of "real-time" facial recognition. The real-time integration means every person who passes in front of a public surveillance camera running the software is scanned, regardless of prior suspicion of a crime. Currently, there are no state or federal laws governing facial recognition surveillance.

"[Amazon spokespeople] say they won't share video without a warrant, and we just have to believe that," Stanley says. Do ya feel lucky, punk?

Lawmakers make asses of themselves

Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned after photos surfaced showing him in blackface, wearing red lipstick, earrings, a New Orleans Saints bandanna and a purple T-shirt with the words "Katrina Victim" written on it. Ertel later admitted that the photos were taken in 2005, roughly eight months after he was appointed as the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections. The photos were taken weeks after Hurricane Katrina killed hundreds in New Orleans. Ertel apologized. And then Ertel was hired as a contractor for the Seminole County elections office a month later.

Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini weathered his own blackface scandal by staying put – no apologies, no explanations. Then a photo of Sabatini was sent to Orlando Weekly by a former classmate showing the Clermont Republican dressed, the source says, "as a Mexican," with darkened skin, a fake mustache, a serape and a straw cowboy hat turned sideways resembling a sombrero. Sabatini refused to resign, and was re-elected in November.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz did a whole lot of runnin' through the house with a pickle in his mouth this year – why would 2019 be any different – but the cake-taker was probably his October storming of the impeachment hearings being held in the secure room of the Capitol building. Deputy assistant secretary of defense Laura Cooper was set to testify on Trump's shady dealings with Ukraine, but Gaetz and more than two dozen other Republican wingnuts decided to protest the closed hearings by breaching the secure room and documenting it all on their phones. As many, many, many experts have already pointed out, this is a clear violation of security protocol that will more than likely lead to multiple ethics citations. Besides Congressman Gaetz, other Florida officials in the gaggle included Rep. Ross Spano of Florida's 15th District and Rep. Michael Waltz of the 16th District.

Men behaving badly.

On the other hand, Val Demings and Aramis Ayala rock

Though Florida is a safe haven for the Donald, one Florida politician isn't helping Trump during his trying times at all. Congresswoman Val Demings, who represents Florida's 10th district that covers parts of Orlando, Winter Garden, Oviedo, Windermere, Ocoee and Eatonville, has been a central figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry. She is on the House Intelligence Committee, which held open impeachment hearings. Her profile was raised by the moments in the hearings when she asked Republican witnesses if Trump's former attorney Rudy Giuliani was "promoting U.S. interests" and both of them said "no." Then, her fiery speech on the day of the impeachment vote – in which she drew on her past as Orlando Police Department Chief and called Trump a "habitual offender" – drew a smattering of applause, despite occurring late in the long day of speechifying.

And then there's State Attorney Ayala, whom we stan for her principled stance on the death penalty. In September, Ayala declined to prosecute two children, ages 6 and 8, following their arrests (yes, arrests) at an Orlando charter school. The 6-year-old, a girl who suffers from sleep apnea, reportedly kicked a school staff member during a temper tantrum. "I can assure you there will be no criminal prosecution for misdemeanor battery for these elementary children in my name or on my watch. Unlike some, I will not presume guilt or dangerousness of a child based on any demographic," said Ayala. The other child, an 8-year-old boy, was arrested the same day and Ayala assured his case, too, would be "immediately dismissed."

Orange County remembered July in June

A historical marker remembering Julius "July" Perry and the victims of the Ocoee Massacre was unveiled June 21 at the Orange County Regional History Center. Perry's gruesome death in 1920 at the hands of the KKK and local authorities set off a wave of racial violence that terrified black residents of Orange County for decades.

Perry and two friends, Mose Norman and Valentine Hightower, were black entrepreneurs and farmers who moved to Ocoee in the 1880s. After twice being violently turned away from the polls when attempting to cast a vote in the 1920 election, Norman retreated to Perry's house, where a shootout with police and Klansman forced them to flee. Perry was shot and arrested. The next day, Perry was shot again and lynched. The Klan and newly deputized white law enforcement burned dozens of homes of black Ocoee residents, killing many and driving away the survivors. So devastating was the attack that no black residents lived in Ocoee until 1981.

A swan song with a last-minute twist

It was a classic "swan-elorette" love story right off reality TV. In June, the city of Orlando purchased two male black-necked swans to accompany what was until then Lake Eola's lone black-necked swan, Queenie. The inspiration to find Queenie a new mate after she lost her former mate to a popcorn overdose five years ago (note: popcorn is a bad thing to feed swans) came from local resident Shawn Pennington, who said he was inspired by the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation to get involved in local government. But more than a month after the made-for-internet love story began, the courting of Queenie ended after one of her two potential male partners died. City officials were unsure of the cause behind the swan's untimely demise – until they did a necropsy. At that point it was revealed that the deceased swan had actually been a female. There's probably a TERF/turf joke in there, but we're too tired to find it.

Like life, micro-mobility moves fast

In January 2019 dockless Lime bikes, which the Orlando City Council approved in October 2018, were suddenly everywhere. Juice Bike Share, which launched in 2015 as the first public bike share program in Orlando, was squeezed out, with service ending March 24 – the program was relaunched as a "new and improved" dockless bike share program called HOPR. Many urban planners view e-bikes as vital to what's known as the "last mile" or the "missing mile" of public transit – they provide a segue between route's end and the destination for those who regularly use public transit. And then Orlando City Council approved dockless scooters, the other half of Lime's business model, and Lime promptly announced they'd be yanking their bikes in favor of scooters only (which are obviously cheaper to maintain). Ya can't balance a basket full of groceries on a scooter, which sucks for the many people who found Lime bikes an important supplement to Orlando's abysmal public transit options, but you can look really sexy zipping around town on a scooter. Cities all over America have fallen for these things, no matter how many people fall off or hurt themselves while riding. Orlando will soon join the list of U.S. metros that can count on roving groups of scooters made up of tourists, people on tours, people going out, and individuals like the rider who didn't want to walk the last half mile and the rider who missed the bus.

Electric scooters are expected to arrive early next year, along with hijinks and blood on the cobblestones of downtown Orlando.

Florida county elections hacked by Russians

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and other members of Florida's congressional delegation backed Gov. Ron DeSantis' statement in May that election records in two unidentified counties were hacked by Russians during the 2016 campaign, but they and the FBI are still keeping their lips sealed on which counties the Russians hacked. Questions still linger as to which elections were tainted, though one is said to be Washington County, in the Panhandle. Scott, who was governor from 2011 to early this year, said in a statement that he – like DeSantis – is unable to reveal the counties. That inability (or refusal) to identify the counties upset lawmakers from both parties.

"I urged the FBI to publicly release this information as soon as they are able," Scott said. "The FBI said the information is classified due to the risk it poses to national security." DeSantis said he also was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement which precludes him from identifying the counties. That drew criticism from Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who issued a statement saying that signing the agreement "is a violation of the public's trust. The people of Florida have a right to know what happened."

Orlando pastor and radio host falls far from grace

In October, Orlando was rocked by reports that Rev. Bryan Fulwider, a 59-year-old former minister and popular co-host of WMFE radio show "Friends Talking Faith," had been arrested and was facing charges of repeated "sexual battery of a minor by a person in custodial authority." The victim had attended his church, First Congregational Church of Winter Park, where Fulwider was the senior minister. Fulwider was arrested for raping the girl more than 100 times, beginning when she was 14, and prosecutors had said the case against Fulwider was "extremely strong." Fulwider was released on bail Oct. 17, and was facing life in prison if convicted. Then on Oct. 28, Winter Park Police Department announced he had been found in his Altamonte Springs home Sunday night by Altamonte Springs police, dead by apparent suicide.

Orange County's drug death rate skyrockets thanks to fentanyl

"One of the things that makes fentanyl dangerous is its potency," says Thomas Hall, director of Orange County's Drug-Free Coalition. "It's 100 times more potent than meth."

As we reported earlier this month, in 2013 there were less than 500 fentanyl-related deaths in Florida. From 2016 to 2017, the toll went up 25 percent for deaths caused by fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, with an even more staggering 65 percent increase for deaths caused by fentanyl analogs, another more than 600 deaths. As harrowing as the epidemic is, the way out is pretty straightforward: medical treatment – and destigmatizing medical treatment. Hall told us that medicines for treating addiction have proven successful, but that stigma around addiction is getting in the way.

"Some people don't like it, like it's replacing one drug with another," said Hall.

This story appears in the Dec. 25, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.