Angela Brown posing in front of Mercy Keepers Food Pantry, located at 2021 9th Ave. S. They are a non-profit organization providing food and clothing to the needy in St. Pete.
BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – What was supposed to be an uneventful Saturday afternoon on June 9, 2007, turned out to be a day Angela Brown would relive over and over again in her mind.
While living in Ithaca, N.Y., she went to pick up her then 15-year-old daughter, Akira, from the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. Once she noticed that her daughter was not on the flight, she asked a customer service representative from the U.S. Airways for help.
The customer service representative gave her a 1-800 number on a sticky note. Needing more help, Brown elected to speak to the next representative, who offered her the same number.
According to Brown, after a three or four-minute exchange, a sheriff’s officer who was working in the capacity of airport security arrived. Brown assumes the first representative alerted the officer.
Officer Gerald Hoffman walked around the counter and asked if he could help. She said the only help she needed was finding her daughter. The second customer representative, Melissa Abbott, then stated that Brown threw a piece of paper at her.
Hoffman then demanded that she leave the airport. After she refused to leave without knowing the whereabouts of her daughter, Hoffman, approximately six feet tall and 200 pounds, then walked around the customer service counter, grabbed Brown’s right arm, twisted it behind her back, put a handcuff on her and pinned her against a planter while attempting to gain control over her left arm.
Brown explained that because of the way her body was positioned against the planter with his weight behind her, she was unable to free her left arm immediately. After arresting her, he then marched her to his police car and brought her to the sheriff’s department.
She was chained to a chair for three hours, not knowing the whereabouts of her daughter or even why she was being arrested. She later learned that she had been charged with disorderly conduct.
Brown’s daughter’s flight had been rerouted, and she was able to collect her from the airport as soon as her plane landed hours later.
Later that year, a criminal court judge dismissed all charges pertaining to her arrest, which created an opportunity for Brown to hold Hoffman accountable.
Brown entered a civil action lawsuit pursuant to 42 USC 1983, seeking damages as result of the allegations that Hoffman, among other things, made an unlawful arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, used excessive force, also in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and arrested her in retaliation for her use of protected speech, in violation of the First Amendment.
42 USC 1983 is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This provision was formally enacted as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and was initially designed to combat post-Civil War racial violence in southern states. It states that an officer is generally immune from these types of lawsuits except in the absence of probable cause.
She was able to use this code because Hoffman had no arguable or probable cause to arrest Brown.
The civil case went to the New York State Supreme Court of Appeals. In 2013, a superior court justice asked the court to render a summary judgment and appeal aspects of her case. In 2014, the highest federal court ruled in Brown’s favor and stated that she was falsely arrested and that her amendment rights were violated.
In 2016, Brown appeared before the same superior court justice and an all-white jury seeking legal remedy pertaining to her civil case. The outcome was not in her favor.
“No self-respecting judge wants his decisions overturned,” said Brown, quoting the movie “A Time to Kill.” “He came straight after me.”
“It was really difficult to listen to people outwardly just lie,” Brown said about the so-called witnesses they dug up. She said the witnesses could not identify her outside of the courtroom, and their testimonies contradicted each other.
She was financially and emotionally exhausted and wasn’t able to appeal the decision. She eventually moved to St. Pete with husband and children in 2008, and now works for Family Resources as a facilitator.
Brown is planning to write a book and produce a documentary about her experiences with the justice system. She’s also looking to appeal the 2016 decision; but in the meantime, she’s working tirelessly on food justice issues.
Besides volunteering at the Mercy Keepers Food Pantry, she’s putting the final touches on her curriculums to teach a class at Pinellas Technical College on proper nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Her course will focus on eating for your color and culture, what she calls “melanated people’s food.”
Whether it’s in the courtroom or tackling food insecurity, Brown is always willing to fight for what she thinks is right.
This story is part of a 50-article series honoring black women in the Tampa Bay area.