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NEWS

Highway 50 Revisited

Exploring one of the busiest, yet most overlooked, roadways in our region

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400 County Road 431 (near the corner of West Colonial Drive)

Jeff Gore

On a recent November evening, in one of the few glowing storefronts in an otherwise dim strip mall on Pine Hills Road, Reggie Trammell, Jermario Anderson and Brian Berry are buzzing, clipping and trimming. Four other males, including an adolescent, are waiting for the same treatment; the barbershop, called Strictly Skillz, closes at 9 p.m. on most weekdays. The owner is Berry, a 38-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, who bought the shop formerly known as Sport Cuttz in February of 2007.

Berry, his two barbers, the seven customers in the shop and the amorphous handful of men chatting outside all have something in common: they’re black. Berry’s barbershop is barely a minute’s drive from State Road 50, which forms the southern boundary of Pine Hills, an area with a population that is 68 percent black (Orange County, taken as a whole, is 21 percent black). Because Strictly Skillz falls just south of West Colonial Drive, it’s technically considered part of Orlovista, but that’s a majority-black area as well. In African-American communities, Berry says, “The barber shop is a social spot. We get people to hang out, congregate with their friends.” Perhaps not coincidentally, there is not a single Great Clips, Hair Cuttery or Supercuts in Pine Hills, though with a population over 60,000, the area is large enough to be considered its own designated place separate from Orlando, according to the U.S. Census,

Despite the apparent bustle inside Strictly Skillz on this evening, however, Berry guesses that he’s lost about 50 percent of his clientele during the last fifteen months. This is not due to the creeping decay of a recession, but according to Berry, a very distinct “black eye” inflicted on August 21, 2010.

It was the last Saturday before the beginning of the school year, and, according to Trammell, “It was nothing but kids in here. [The] boy I was cutting was about 10 years old.” Suddenly, five Orange County deputies – including a narcotics agent – entered Strictly Skillz, ordered the customers out of the store, and cuffed Berry, Trammell and Anderson without any questions asked. This “sweep operation” would soon move next door to Jazzyt Hair Designs and Accessories, where owner Jackay Patterson was detained and arrested while a state investigator broke into a locked room with a pry bar, though a subsequent state investigation of the raid found that he had no authority to do so. “They just came in tearing through everything,” Patterson says.

Judging by the military nature of the pre-planned operation – all in all, nine barbershops in and around Pine Hills were visited in a similar fashion that day – it’s perplexing that its stated goal, formulated in conjunction with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, was merely to “enforce statutes and regulations concerning barbers and cosmetologists operating without being properly licensed.” Strangely, the cops didn’t bother to ask Berry, Trammell or Nelson for their licenses before putting them in handcuffs, which is how they remained for nearly a half hour – until their licenses were retrieved and verified as current. Nobody at Strictly Skillz recalls an apology. Even more bizarre is the fact that a DBPR inspector had visited Strictly Skillz two days earlier; she could have easily found that the shop and its barbers were operating legally. But instead, she was busy gathering “intelligence information such as number of exits, number of people inside the establishment and number of stations,” according to an administrative review by the DBPR.

Three state employees were fired in the raid’s aftermath, but that’s not nearly enough to appease Berry, who calls the event “racial profiling, plain and simple.” Indeed, judging by the state’s and county’s own reports, the hunt for those committing the crime of “barbering without a license” was most likely an excuse to invade minority-owned barbershops with the hope of seizing guns and drugs (which, in a few cases, is exactly what happened). It’s for that reason Berry announced on Oct. 24 he would be suing both the county and the state for monetary damages, though he won’t disclose a dollar amount. “We want to make a stance for the black communities, for the African-American barbershops, for all the barbershops across America,” he says.

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