Released last month, Making Sense of Marshall Ledbetter: The Dark Side of Political Protest investigates an act of creative crime that has become legend in Florida lore. Early one morning in June 1991, a young man named Marshall Ledbetter broke into the Florida State Capitol building, armed with just an empty whiskey bottle wrapped in a towel. His ensuing eight-hour standoff with the police, which involved a list of some very unusual demands, left an interesting legacy and inspired “The Ballad of Marshall Ledbetter” by the band Lard:
In today’s Q&A, meet author Daniel Harrison and learn why he too was drawn to the story of Marshall Ledbetter.
“Over the years—with the help of Jello Biafra’s song about the incident—Ledbetter has become better known as a sort of a ‘culture jammer,’ someone who tries to use culture and the mass media to make a political statement. Ledbetter is an interesting character to compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement.”
How did you first become intrigued by Marshall Ledbetter’s story?
I first heard about the Ledbetter story at a Florida State University student government party in fall of 1994. It seemed like such a wild, debauched tale at the time, almost like something out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. I was amazed Ledbetter lived through it. Although Marshall was a couple of years older than me, he resembled many of the bright but often seemingly misunderstood students I had gone to school with at New College of the University of South Florida in Sarasota. There was also a raw, political edge to Ledbetter that was fascinating to me. Many young people are filled with a desire to change the world, but don’t know what direction to take. Here was Ledbetter’s answer. It was a peculiar answer, to be sure, but an answer nonetheless.
What’s the most important thing you want readers to take away from your book?
An awareness of the singularity and complexity of experience that is behind a human life.
Do you think that Ledbetter could be considered a hero, especially in light of recent events like the Occupy Wall Street movement?
For a brief period, Marshall was indeed considered a local hero in Tallahassee and on the campus of Florida State University. In certain circles there is still a certain appreciation or admiration for his occupation of the Florida State capitol building. Over the years—with the help of Jello Biafra’s song about the incident—Ledbetter has become better known as a sort of a “culture jammer,” someone who tries to use culture and the mass media to make a political statement.
Ledbetter is an interesting character to compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement since both events involved the temporary takeover of a political space which was then used for purposes in contrary to those intended. In taking such action, and in his later statements, Ledbetter offered a courageous (if at times naïve) voice against oppression and injustice in society. He also demonstrated considerable strength of will. Because of this, some people might view parts of Ledbetter’s life as heroic. On the other hand, there are aspects of Ledbetter’s biography which are decidedly non-heroic, and at times are even pathetic, which adds a sobering element to the story.
How do you think Marshall will be remembered in 10 years?
I think Marshall Ledbetter will be remembered as a singular, tragic figure on the fringes of the “culture jamming” movement, as a casualty of Florida’s mental health system, and as a fierce critic of Florida culture and its institutions.
Do you think the issues Marshall protested against, such as poverty and homelessness, were affected by what he did?
No. His positions on these issues were muted once he was arrested, and the public never got a chance to hear what he had to say about them.
If you could ask Marshall one question today, what would it be?
“What did I leave out?”
Are there other articles or works that you recommend for better understanding Ledbetter and his case?
Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault, A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi, Seductions of Crime by Jack Katz, Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James Scott, and Identity and Control by Harrison White.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished My Struggle (Volume 2) by Karl Ove Knausgård. I am in the midst of reading Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan.
What are you working on next?
A social history of a rural blues club in Hodges, SC called Jackson Station. It was operated by two gay men, Gerald Jackson and Steve Bryant, from 1976 until 1990, when it came to a very tragic end. I am writing the story of the club, how it came into being, the people who frequented the place, and the musicians that played there.
Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?
Be patient and keep chipping away at your work. It will come to fruition!
Daniel M. Harrison is associate professor of sociology at Lander University. His work has appeared in Media, Culture and Society, Sexualities, and Contemporary Perspectives in Social Theory. He lives in Greenwood, South Carolina, with his wife, artist Rebecca Harrison, and their two daughters, Liliana and Mirabel.
Want to learn more about the bizarre and tragic story of Marshall Ledbetter? Listen to Daniel Harrison talk about his book on 90.7 WMFE Intersection. You can also visit our website to read an excerpt from the book.