Summer 2020 (Protests, Pandemics, Politics) : Confessions, Consciousness, Change

by Tim Gilmore, 6/9/2020

See also Summer 2020 (Protests, Pandemics, Politics)

The banners on the steps of the Duval County Courthouse beneath the phony plaster columns and the giant American flag said, “Police Do Not Solve Crime! Community Investment Does!” and “Black Lives Matter! No Martial Law!” and “Silence is Violence! Rise Up!” To their signs, I bear in my heart stories of Southern racist violence in my own family from before I was born. They haunt me.

The rain hindered no one. Every day now, for a week and a half, protesters have filled downtown streets. The first protests reacted to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25th, but as Michael Sampson of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee told the sea of people on the sixth of June, “We know there are George Floyds in every city and we know there are George Floyds in Jacksonville.”

In decades past, protests responding to police brutality against black citizens drew largely if not entirely black crowds. Today’s crowds are black and Asian and Latin and white. And they’re young. Young white people hold signs saying, “White Silence is Compliance” and “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Your Fight is My Fight #Black Lives Matter.”

Three minutes northeast, a woman who scrubs viciously at a vandalized Confederate monument is furious about “the young people today.” The 1915 statue, called “In Memory of Our Women of the Southland, depicts a mother reading to her children. The dedicatory plaque says, “Let this mute but eloquent structure speak” of “our women of the ’60s, those noble women who sacrificed their all upon their country’s altar.”

“Their country,” of course, was the Confederate States of America, not the United States. Today, this 105 year old mother’s dress drips blood. The red paint used to inscribe her plinth with “Black Lives Matter” also branded her with “KKK” and drenched her in crimson. The woman scrubbing the paint says she’s furious.

“What kind of world would we live in,” she says, “if we cain’t say nothing that might hurt somebody’s feelings?” Then, contradicting herself, she says, “Well this,” motioning to the graffiti, “offends me!” She says, “It’s all because of the way young people are today. I been all over the country and these young people everywhere now is just ignorant.”

Back at the courthouse, a blond teenage girl holds a sign saying, “Stop Simping For Killer KKKOPS!” and a young woman wearing a “Love Thy Neighborhood” shirt holds a sign that says, “We Want Justice! #Jamee Johnson #Reginald Boston #Kwame Jones #Release the Footage!”

Jacksonville police officer Josue Garriga shot and killed Tallahassee resident and college student Jamee Johnson, 22 years old, at a traffic stop, December 2019. Johnson was a student at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, visiting Jacksonville over Christmas break, when Garriga shot him four times in the chest. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has refused to release body camera footage.

Jacksonville police killed Reginald Boston in late January at Hampton Ridge Apartments on the Northside. Police said they responded to a robbery at an i-phone sale, that someone pulled a handgun, that police shot at three young men and killed Boston. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has refused to release body camera footage.

Kwame Jones was 17 years old. Officer Nicholas Lawson sped after a car he said was heading the wrong way on Moncrief Road, approached the car after it crashed, then shot the teenager who emerged from the vehicle. Kwame died that night in the hospital. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has refused to release body camera footage.

I can’t help but think about Tom Gilmore, my not-so-great grandfather, who, so said stories from the late 1800s, whipped a black man in Central Georgia woods for an unknown vengeance, or my murderous “Great Uncle” Phil, #NoMoreRacistCops.

Donal Godfrey, age 6, courtesy Donal Godfrey

And I can’t help but think about Donal Godfrey. When Donal started first grade, the Ku Klux Klan bombed his house. It was 1964 and Donal was the first black child to attend Lackawanna Elementary School on Jacksonville’s westside. “It blew the refrigerator through the roof,” Donal told me in 2017. “Not too many people have survived a Klan bombing. It’s an exclusive club.”

One Klansman was arrested on March 1st, the other five on the 12th. One pleaded guilty and the others were acquitted. Their attorney, J.B. Stoner, had exhorted the jury, “What about these white people in the Ku Klux Klan? Don’t they have as many civil rights as the NAACP? Let the whole country know we white people have some rights.” He called the outcome “a victory for the white race.”

Having worked for the United States Foreign Service in Norway, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, Donal plans to spend the rest of his life in Ghana. He has no desire to return to the States. As he expresses in his 2019 book Leaving Freedom to Find Peace, he truly loves America, but it’s broken his heart too deeply and too many times and he’ll never again trust it.

As thousands of people chant, “No Justice / No Peace / No Racist / Police!” I feel proud of this moment. I’m proud of the people here, their relative youth, their diversity. I often tell my students at Florida State College at Jacksonville they give me hope because they’re the most diverse generation America’s produced.

Donal Godfrey with his grandson, in Africa, 2013

So I send Donal a message, tell him I wish he could be here, that I wish he could see and hear and feel these people, that at these protests, he wouldn’t recognize the Jacksonville he’d known. I want to believe that and do. I wish I could deliver it to him personally. But of course, the reason these protests are happening at all is the pattern of systemic racism and police criminality around the nation and in Jacksonville. People keep saying something’s different this time. “How long,” Donal asked me cynically in 2017, “do we sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ before we overcome?”

toppled Confederate memorial, Birmingham, Alabama,       June 1, 2020

Tonight’s Washington Post headlines say: “Thousands Throng D.C. Vowing to Be Heard,” “Tens of Thousands Fill the Streets of Philadelphia” and “At North Carolina Memorial Service, Sheriff Says Law Enforcement is ‘Part of the Problem.’” Philadelphia removed its statue of racist Mayor Frank Rizzo, Virginia promised to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Richmond and Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Randall Woodfin removed the statue of Confederate Charles Linn. The United States Marine Corps ordered the removal of all Confederate flags, whether on clothing or bumper stickers or posters, from every space on every base. Robert W. Lee IV wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post called “Robert E. Lee is My Ancestor. Take Down His Statue, and Let His Cause Be Lost.” Meanwhile the movement to reallocate police funding to community services, to create citizen review boards to investigate police misconduct, and to increase charges of murder in cases of police killings of citizens gains traction around the country. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had “Black Lives Matter” painted in bold yellow on the road leading straight to the White House and renamed that section of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

(Khalid Naji-Allah/Executive Office of the Mayor via AP)

Still, though the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office started using body cameras in 2017, Sheriff Mike Williams has kept all footage hidden from the public. Jacksonville police have shot 10 suspects in the first five months of 2020, killing six of them. Citizen video recorded the white police officer who, on May 13th, broke the front teeth of a black woman named Brittany Chrishawn and the white police officer who, on May 27th, chased a black man shouting, “I’m going to shoot you, motherfucker!”

Up at the memorial in Confederate Park, the woman scrubbing the paint says young people today are “ignorant” and “indoctrinated,” says all she wants is “peace and understanding” and promises, unbidden, to pray for the city.

This statue, “In Memory of Our Women of the Southland,” was built at the height of the Lost Cause Movement, a time when racist Southern leaders tried to reinvent history. Though Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had said in 1861 that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery subordination to the superior race” was the “natural and normal condition” of black people, by the time this Confederate memorial was built, racist Southern leaders were pretending the Confederacy was all about valiancy and protecting women and children and defending independence from tyranny. This “Lost Cause” thinking coincided with the increase in Jim Crow laws and the time period that saw the biggest rise in Ku Klux Klan membership.

1914 Confederate Veterans’ Reunion, Jacksonville, courtesy Florida State Archives,

When someone defaced the Confederate monument in Hemming Park in front of City Hall in September 2017, Mayor Lenny Curry called the vandalism “disgusting.” Rather than saying racism and neo-Nazism and Confederate apologism bothered him, Curry said vandalizing memorials to slavery and the Confederacy “goes against everything that I stand for, that the City of Jacksonville stands for.”

I’d like to ask Lenny Curry where he stands, where he thinks the City of Jacksonville stands, between me and my Great Uncle Phil.

All through my childhood, my father praised his Uncle Phil, a police officer in small-town Georgia at the time this Confederate memorial was built. My father died last August of congestive heart failure, 95 years old; he was 50 when I was born. I grew up with the story of how Phil Gilmore killed a black man. (My father stopped using the word “nigger” around me when I accidentally, not yet knowing well enough to do it purposely, shamed him for it as a small child.)

My father was born in 1924. He’d lived more years before I was born than had lapsed between the end of the Civil War and his birth. He remembered stories of family members before him killing black people in the woods in Macon County, Georgia.

In the 1990s, my father and I visited Macon County, looking for the place where the farmhouse he grew up in once stood. Macon, Georgia lies in Bibb County, while Macon County, far less populated, includes the towns of Oglethorpe, where my father grew up, Marshallville, Montezuma and Ideal. We met a cousin named Jimbo Robinson, who’d lived his whole life in Ideal. He showed us his father’s Confederate burial flag. He told us how, when he was a child, his father took him and his brothers to chase down a black man on unpaved clay roads, how Jimbo jumped out of the car, tackled the man, held a knife to his throat and said, “You want me to cut his head off, Daddy?” He laughed so hard telling us that story.

My father’s Uncle Phil had been a policeman in Montezuma, Georgia and nearby Americus. When Phil Gilmore saw black boys walking the whites-only sidewalk, he’d hit them in the legs with his nightstick, order them back down on the street.

from The Atlanta Constitution, June 24, 1944

My father told of such incidents like they were no big deal. “It was just the way it was,” he’d often say, as though that lessened the shame. And yes, my “Great” Uncle Phil killed a black man. Phil Gilmore drew his gun, the man (whose name I wish I knew) grabbed it, the two men fought for it, and Phil fired through his own hand and shot him dead.

When I was a little boy, my father told me that story with pride. The shame has churned in my gut and my heart all my life. It’s called the historical conscience of the South. I hate the fact that I can’t make it right. It eats me up inside.

At the rally before the courthouse, protesters hold signs saying, “There Comes a Time When Silence is Betrayal—MLK #BLM” and “Racism…You Are Under Attack!” and “Tax Payers Paid For Those Body Cameras, Release the Footage!” and “If You Want Change, Register to Vote!”

To my naïve wish that Donal Godfrey could be here and see this crowd and feel from it some sense of hope, he says to me, “The U.S. was built on racism and racism sustains the capitalist ideology.” He says what we see now is a growing “awareness, but a social change will have to break the foundation which the U.S. was built on, racism.” For black people “were brought to the Americas for one reason and that reason is now obsolete. It’s time for us to go home and build Africa.” He’s not convinced “the tears shed and the slogans said” will produce structural change and change that’s not structural is no change at all. “I’ll have to see it to believe it,” he says, and I want us all to show him.