by Tim Gilmore, 6/2/2020
1. 2020, 1964
In 2020, the protesters numbered about 3,500. It was 2,000 back in 1964. Back then, nearly every single protester was black. A half century later, the crowds were black, white, Asian, Latinx. In 1964, the mayor threatened black protesters and said Jacksonville would never desegregate.
In 2020, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police singled out a young multiracial female organizer on social media, demanding that others share her name and information and that she lose her job as a teacher. In 1964, white vigilantes murdered a young black woman.
In 1964, someone filled a door for the Jacksonville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with bullet holes. Mayor Haydon Burns condemned the peaceful black protesters who demanded an end to desegregation in Jacksonville. This city, he said on live radio and television, would remain segregated at all costs. He refused to meet with a group of pastors called the Ministerial Alliance who wanted a biracial committee to focus on the city’s racial tensions. That committee itself would be racially integrated, Burns said, and he’d have nothing to do with it.
Four years earlier, on August 27, 1960, now called Ax Handle Saturday, a mob of white men, some wearing Confederate uniforms, assaulted black people around Hemming Park with baseball bats and ax handles in response to black student sit-ins protesting lunch counter segregation.
In late March, 1964, in defiance of Mayor Burns, more than 2,000 black students and activists rushed toward the middle of downtown with chants of “Freedom” and promises to defy any authorities who denied their rights. The mayor deputized firefighters and policemen on motorcycles billy-club’d black kids.
“In retaliation at the police measures,” Jet Magazine said, “the Negro community exploded […] The Negro neighborhoods were barricaded and put off limits to all whites. The Negroes warned that if ‘one white officer fired a bullet at a child,’ there would be blood running in every street of the town.”
On Saturday, May 30, 2020, about 3,500 people filled the streets outside the Police Administration Building. They covered the tall terraced front steps of the building and moved peacefully but with the inexorability of an ocean down Bay Street. They were white and black and Asian and Latinx. They held signs that said, “Black Lives Matter, “No Justice, No Peace,” “Prosecute Police Brutality” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
Those three dying words of George Floyd, the black man murdered by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, echo the last words of Eric Garner, murdered by police on Staten Island on June 17, 2014. The image of Officer Derek Chauvin murdering Floyd by asphyxiation, his knee on Floyd’s neck, seared itself into the American psyche.
Other protesters carried signs with the name of Ahmaud Arbery, murdered in nearby Brunswick, Georgia on February 23rd while jogging in the neighborhood of white vigilantes Gregory and Travis McMichael, father and son, one of whom was a former police officer. Brunswick police and prosecutors ignored Arbery’s death for two months. When someone leaked a video of the murder, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested the killers within 36 hours.
Other signs named Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by police in Louisville on March 13th. She was an emergency room technician. They broke down her door, stormed her apartment and shot her eight times. A judge had signed a “no knock” warrant after police said they believed a man was receiving suspicious packages at Taylor’s home. They were wrong.
On March 24, 1964, The New York Times focused on an anonymous bomb threat at the New Stanton School, still segregated black, on West 13th Street. As police searched the school, a crowd coalesced. A black policeman made an arrest, though on what charge is now unclear, and neighbors pulled the arrested man from the patrol car and set him free. The officer called for backup.
Police moved into the segregated black school with riot guns, neighbors became incensed, and cops fired over the heads of neighbors and students. When the police moved from the school property into the street, “a volley of stones, bricks and bottles began raining down on them.” Finally understanding their presence was making things worse, the police packed into their cars and left.
Rioters flipped a car owned by The Florida Times-Union and The Jacksonville Journal and set it on fire. Three reporters fled the car but rioters cornered and assaulted a Life Magazine reporter named Mike Durham. As Jet said, the anger and violence in Jacksonville had “reached pepper heat.”
On May 30th, other protesters held signs demanding police body camera footage be released and noted the 10 suspects Jacksonville police have shot, killing six of them, the first five months of this year.
A video recorded on May 13th shows a black woman named Brittany Chrishawn asking a police officer to move his car from her driveway where he’d parked for a nearby disturbance. The officer broke several of Brittany’s top teeth.
Another video widely shared on May 27th shows a white police officer chasing a black man on the Northside and shouting, “I’m going to shoot you, motherfucker!”
The dark history of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has included extensive corruption, brutality and Ku Klux Klan participation within living memory. J.C. Patrick served as chief homicide investigator during Jacksonville’s two longest sheriff tenures, the 25 years of Sheriff Rex Sweat and nearly three decades of Sheriff Dale Carson. Patrick regularly dosed his interrogations with beatings and took his son to Klan rallies. In 1965, Patrick was placed on leave for tampering with evidence. His son came home and found his father beating his mother, raised a gun, and killed Duval County’s chief homicide investigator.Meanwhile, officers who kill civilians get reprimanded or put on desk duty. Even in national news coverage, such events are called “officer-involved shootings,” rarely “killings” and almost never “murder.”
On Sunday, May 31st, Jacksonville Pastor Delaine Smith, a black woman, was arrested for “unlawful assembly” after calling for peace and justice in front of the Duval County Courthouse. As seen in Smith’s recording of the event, when she asks why this “peaceful protest” constitutes “unlawful assembly,” a police officer says, “This is unlawful assembly, this is your last warning” and handcuffs her.
Some protesters held signs saying, “Show the Footage!” and “Police Accountability Now!” The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office started using body cameras on officers in 2017, but Sheriff Mike Williams has continually refused to release footage on particular cases and has kept all video footage from police body cams hidden from the public.
Newspapers reported what Jet said were “false stories” of young black men attacking whites, including that of 25 year old William Leroy James, “who said he had been bound to a tree by four Negro men and slashed repeatedly with a razor.”
While James was given 129 stitches and treated for superficial wounds, Sheriff Dale Carson admitted James had claimed victimization in the same way in 1958, but that time, though white, “he was supposed to have been tied up and beaten by the Klan.” A later headline announced, “Police Say White ‘Victim’ Actually Cut Self.”
And then the murder. It received minimal coverage. One of the four white vigilantes, J.W. Rich, said, “Let’s go get a nigger.” Elmer Kato drove. It was his car. Eugene Davis and Wayne Chessman sat in back. Rich pulled the trigger. It was Chessman’s gun. Chessman told police, “We was talking about how the mayor said them niggers wasn’t to be going to the cafes and how they was ruining everything.”
So they murdered 35 year old Johnnie Mae Chappell on New Kings Road a block from her home. Rich would serve three years for it. The others served no time. The next day, The Florida Times-Union reported, “Large Area Is Terrorized by Negroes.”
On Sunday, May 31st, Steve Zona, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5-30, posted a call to action against a private citizen, a young multiracial female teacher of Civics, on his Facebook page. “This,” he wrote, “is Christina Kittle. One of the organizers of the so-called peaceful protest today in Jacksonville. An officer was stabbed, several other officers hurt, police cars burned and property damaged. She is a teacher in Jacksonville.”
To see a police union official go after a young woman via social media, implicitly demanding that she lose her job, is shocking enough. It’s more shocking if you know Kit, as those who know Christina Kittle call her. The protest Kit and the Jacksonville Community Action Committee helped plan had nothing to do with violence or property damage. Kit teaches Civics. In fact, it’s her example in teaching the Bill of Rights to her students that led me to do so in my own classes.
In February 2019, I wrote a story for Folio Weekly about Kit’s founding the Coalition for Consent, an anti-sexual-violence group, and how musician Jessica Pounds said Christina Kittle and CfC “saved [her] life.” Kit founded CfC in 2017 after coming to terms with her own sexual assault. CfC offers support through survivor circles and consent workshops and classes Kit has hosted with Sarah Humphreys of the Women’s Center of Jacksonville.
At the time, Kit was perhaps best known as the only woman of the Jax 5, the nonviolent protesters beaten by police and arrested in April 2018 in Hemming Park. All charges against the Jax 5 were dropped or reduced. This was the rally at which police beat deaf activist Connell Crooms unconscious. Officer B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan had punched Crooms repeatedly and placed his knee on Crooms’s neck. It’s the same way Chauvin murdered Floyd.
8. 2020 Distortions
Steve Zona’s social media comments differed greatly from statements Sheriff Mike Williams made in a press conference the same day. Williams drew a distinction between the protests and any violence that came later, calling the latter “a completely different issue…not an offshoot of that.”
At some point, after the organized protests were over, two men jumped atop a police car and broke the windshield. One bystander described the officer in the car then driving forward with the men on top and ramming another bystander. Someone set a police car on fire. Several witnesses said protesters put the fire out. Some protesters thought police accidentally set one of their own cars alight. Behind the Florida Theatre, cell phone footage caught the whirling of tear gas canisters through the air and then back the other direction. It looked like someone had thrown a canister back. Then a police car caught fire. What actually happened differs by dozens of accounts.
According to The Florida Times-Union, the officer with the neck injury visited and left the hospital the same evening. The sheriff’s office withheld both his name and the nature and degree of his injury. The story escalated from one person’s telling to the next. Sheriff Mike Williams said the officer was “slashed in the neck,” but not how or by whom. Steve Zona and WOKV, the city’s conservative “talk radio” station, which hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, said the officer was “stabbed in the neck.” A headline for lawenforcementtoday.com told an out-and-out lie: “Florida Deputy Fighting For His Life After Neck Slashed by Rioters.”
Williams said the protest’s organizers worked with the police and streamed through the city’s streets peacefully. Zona, meanwhile, disingenuously conflated the protests with damage that followed, blamed Christina Kittle for burnt police cars, and called for this most conscientious educator to lose her job. Hundreds of supporters demanded Facebook remove the post, which it finally did after almost 24 hours. If the question of potential vigilantism stemming from Zona’s public bullying and shaming of Christina Kittle occurred to him at all, it didn’t bother him.
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, “And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And yesterday, when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do. I called my son and I said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I cannot protect you,’ and ‘Black boys shouldn’t be out today.’ So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care me about where we are in America.”
When rioters took over peaceful protests and set the headquarters for CNN, Cable News Network, on fire, Atlanta’s mayor said, “This is not a protest” and invoked the name of Atlanta’s most famous citizen: “This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose.” She admonished everybody listening, “If you want change in America, go and register to vote!” Voting’s a first step.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, meanwhile, was on a Congressional panel praising Donald Trump’s coronavirus response, telling legislators not to allow cities and states, by receiving Covid-19 relief funding, “an excuse to repair poor choices.” Connell Crooms, the Jax 5 member whom police beat unconscious in April 2017, called out black City Council members for being “too afraid to say what black people in Jacksonville have long been saying: Lenny Curry is a racist bully.” President Trump tweeted the words of racist 1960s’ Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
And then, astonishingly, came the “few bad apples.” You can always count on their arrival, but it’s still a shock. On CNN, Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, used the phrase to refer to homicidal police officers. Since defenders of the status quo have used the “few bad apples” analogy in hundreds of cases of police brutality and instances of pedophile priests abusing children, it’s hard to believe anyone still leans on that phrase. But they do. The “few bad apples” cop-out persists because people empowered by a system of injustice refuse to see problems as systemic: just toss out the “bad apples” and everything’s fine. And “refuse” is an action verb, just as “ignore” is the verb root of “ignorance.” The refusal is intentional, self-protective, disingenuous and cowardly.
In some communities, police expressed solidarity with those protesting police brutality. Protesters claimed when they asked Jacksonville police to take a knee in solidarity, officers scoffed. In Flint Township, Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson put down his weapon and told protesters, “The only reason we’re here is to make sure that you got a voice.” When he told them, “These cops love you,” the crowd started chanting, “Walk with us.” So he did. He said, “Let’s go. Where do you want to walk? We’ll walk all night!”
One lovely story like that won’t fix centuries of systemic racism based in foundational colonialism and white supremacism, but it could be a start. America needs a national police/community Truth and Reconciliation commission to take place in every community. Very few people in black communities feel the police “protect and serve” them and few people in mostly white communities have any understanding of what most black Americans feel. If we imagined how to reinvent the police as more than “a necessary evil,” as engines of community service, perhaps the kind of structural and systemic change that’s necessary could also be possible.
Anyone who becomes a police officer just to fight “the bad guys” has already failed ordinary citizens. A police officer should be the most gracious, the most patient, the most educated, the most empathetic person you could know. And you need to know them, whoever you are, because the police are your servants. When they greet you with arrogance, with combativeness, as though you’re the enemy, they’ve already failed you and they’ve already failed America.
This is the summer of 2020. At the beginning of June, more than 40 million Americans are unemployed, the worst unemployment in America since the Great Depression. More than 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, the worst health crisis in America since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Now American cities have exploded in the worst civil unrest since at least 1968. When President Trump was taken underground this past weekend, one headline said, “‘Law and Order’ President in Hiding as D.C. Burns.” The American president, who calls women “dogs” and “slobs” but brags that he approaches them to “grab ’em by the pussy,” who calls Confederate apologists and neo-Nazis “very fine people,” sneers and mocks his country’s pain. At least Nero fiddled, as the saying goes, while Rome burned. In 2020, before the first official day of summer, America disintegrated. So what are we going to do about it?