Hemming Park: Race and Brutality in the Genius Loci

by Tim Gilmore, 4/15/2017

Let us establish the facts.

1. Friday night, April 7, 2017. Several Jacksonville police officers hold 155 lb Connell Crooms, an unarmed black man, down on the ground in Hemming Park, while Officer B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan crouches over Crooms and punches him repeatedly. One of the officers tases Crooms. McEwan and another officer then drag Crooms unconscious across Monroe Street to a police car.

2. Crooms stands with a megaphone in Hemming Park, in the center of this sprawling city, addressing a rally protesting Donald Trump’s missile attacks on Syria. In comes Gary Snow, a Trump supporter with multiple names, helps himself to the stage beside Crooms. Snow starts waving a large Trump flag. A number of questions surround Snow, including whether he absconded with money he’d raised for a police officer in Chicago and his particular connections

Snow at a January rally, courtesy Folio Weekly

with White Supremacist groups. Snow’s primarily known as a protest crasher. The police, implicitly if not explicitly, offer him protection. On April 7th, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office serves as Snow’s impromptu bodyguard. He stands outside their beatings and films them with this phone. He thrusts forth his chin, so important. It’s true Crooms quotes the hiphop group N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police.” Snow puts his middle finger in Crooms’s face, Crooms runs at him, but with his hands out, never touches him, as Snow puts a forearm to Crooms’s chest. Cops take Crooms down. He’s been trying to sign to the police, because Crooms is deaf. He can’t hear them. Several other protesters are telling the police that Crooms is deaf. McEwan beats Crooms repeatedly. It seems probable McEwan’s the cop who beats him unconscious.

Snow forearming Crooms

3. Apparently McEwan comes from Callahan, a poor white town north of Jacksonville with a population under a thousand, where his hunting permit is registered and where his sister’s wake took place after she died in a car accident. He turns 26 years old two weeks before he beats Crooms unconscious. McEwan’s a Trump supporter, an advocate of Blue Lives Matter, and a fan of the conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos who was forced to resign from his editorial position at the far-right Breitbart News in February after making comments condoning sex with children. McEwan’s a CrossFit athlete who posts to Facebook photos of himself hoisting enormous weights.

B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan

4. Crooms lies on the ground. McEwan crouches over him, lifts his fist, punches him. Other cops punch protesters, choke them. Officer Tim Haire punches protester Willie Wilder, 74 years old, in the face and chest repeatedly in order to “gain compliance.” Screams resound from the small crowd assembled around the cops that cover Crooms. McEwan punches him again. Punches him again. At some point Crooms lies unconscious. Punches him again. It’s hard to tell how many times. In youtube videos, it looks like Ben McEwan punches Crooms at least four or five times while Crooms lies on the ground. McEwan may also have punched Crooms before he went down. With another officer, Ben McEwan drags Connell Crooms, unconscious and bleeding profusely from his face, across Monroe Street. McEwan waves the crowd back. Crooms is loaded into a police car unconscious. Four other protesters have been thrown to the ground and arrested.

McEwan and fellow officers dragging Crooms, unconscious, across Monroe Street

5. Labor activist Mike Stovall follows the police car into which Crooms has been dumped unconscious. The police car stops two blocks away. No crowd there. An ambulance is waiting. Crooms is dragged unconscious from the police car to the ambulance. Stovall leaves the scene and arrives within minutes at the emergency room for UF (University of Florida) Shands Hospital on Eighth Street. It’s another 45 minutes before the ambulance arrives. Crooms’s mother is not allowed to see him. His friends aren’t sure if Connell Crooms is dead or alive.

6. 1857. Isaiah David Hart, founder of Jacksonville, bequeaths to the city its central property. In 1866, five years after Hart’s death, the space becomes “City Park.” The founder of Jacksonville had begun his career and founded his wealth

and reputation by kidnapping slaves and reselling them for profit. In historian Canter Brown’s book about Florida’s Governor Ossian Hart, Isaiah’s son, he lists slaveowners’ complaints of Hart’s raids. One plaintiff records in April of 1816, “They did take away two Negroes of my property namely Pompey and Peggey [and] they have carried the said Negroes into the State of Georgia.” The next summer, Isaiah Hart leads a raid on “a Negro man & his family (named Charles), all free people, who lived 8 miles from St. Augustine,” kidnapping the entire family and taking them to Georgia to sell. Later reports claim that about 50 kidnapped slaves are concentrated in the particular Georgia camp to which Hart’s raiders delivered the Charles family.

7. In 1899, City Park, which had become St. James Park, becomes Hemming Park, memorializing the Confederate soldier Charles Hemming, who had, the previous year, donated the Confederate soldier statue that stands tall on a central column.

8. After Ben McEwan beats a young unarmed black man named Connell Crooms unconscious in Hemming Park on April 7, 2017, he struts across the park named for a Confederate veteran, the park left to the city by Jacksonville’s founder Isaiah D. Hart, who gained his wealth from stealing and reselling slaves (and sometimes free black citizens). McEwan walks beneath the Confederate soldier statue donated to the City of Jacksonville in 1898. McEwan, his arms covered in sleeves of tattoos, stands on the sidewalk, swinging his arms from far out at his sides to a middle space before him where he repeatedly pops his fist into his palm.

B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan

9. Late 1870s. James and his brother Rosamond spend their childhoods playing music on the streets of LaVilla and central Jacksonville. They walk to the city’s central park to see their father, headwaiter at the magnificent Victorian St. James Hotel. James, he’s just a little boy, sees his father giving the wait staff orders and thinks him “the most important man” in this majestic establishment. So James Weldon Johnson writes in his 1933 autobiography Along This Way, after he’s become one of the most famous of Southern-born black novelists, poets, diplomats, and composers. When Johnson hears Frederick Douglass address a diverse crowd at Jacksonville’s regional fair, the Sub-Tropical Exposition, in 1888, he feels he’s hearing a lion speak. Soon, Johnson will never allow himself to call Jacksonville home again.

Frederick Douglass, as photographed by Matthew Brady

10. McEwan crouches over Crooms where James Weldon Johnson steps as a little boy. Crooms lies on the ground where in 1898 Confederate veterans celebrate the new statue in the center of the park bequeathed by the kidnapper-profiteer of slaves who founded Jacksonville. James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson write the song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and Ben McEwan, CrossFit athlete and Callahan hunter, punches Connell Crooms in the face. Crooms says, “Fuck the police!” Crooms lies on the ground unconscious. McEwan beats him. McEwan beats him. Crooms’s nose bursts. Blood smears his face. McEwan beats him. James and Rosamond “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

James Weldon Johnson at work in his study

11. August 27, 1960. Names are easier than dates. So let’s call August 27, 1960 by its name. Ax Handle Saturday.

12. 2017. Ben McEwan comes from a police family. His hunting license is registered in Callahan. He turns 26 just before he beats an unarmed black man unconscious in Hemming Park. 1960. Charlie Griffin stands in the middle of Laura Street, a cop holding his arm, in the shadow of the 1898 statue of the Confederate soldier. His face is covered with blood. His shirt is soaked with blood.

Charlie Griffin, Life Magazine, 1960

13. Charlie has been walking downtown. He isn’t even part of the nonviolent student-led protests and sit-ins at whites-only department stores and lunch counters. It doesn’t matter. They come after him anyway. Some of them wear Confederate uniforms. They bear ax handles and baseball bats. They descend on the nonviolent Civil Rights protesters around Hemming Park and beat bloody any black person they find in the city’s central streets.

courtesy Florida Times-Union

14. Astonishingly. Perhaps impudently. Probably just ignorantly. Which is no excuse. The root of “ignorance” is “ignore.” Sheriff Mike Williams begins his April 10th statement about the Hemming Park beatings and arrests with the word “Historically.”

police officers taking Crooms down

15. Spring of 2017. Sheriff Williams begins his statement with the word “Historically.” Summer of 1960. In the tall Robert Meyer Hotel on Hemming Park, the Ku Klux Klan holds meetings to plan for that August Saturday in 1960 that will come to be called Ax Handle Saturday. Clarence Spears is the FBI informant who’s infiltrated the Jacksonville-area KKK and reports the Klan’s plans to the Sheriff’s Office, which totally ignores Spears’s report, thus allowing the assault to occur and giving it implicit sanction. Civil Rights activist Rodney Hurst is still a boy. He’s present at Ax Handle Saturday. He delineates how things unfold in his 2008 book It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke.

16. “Historically,” Sherriff Mike Williams begins his official April 10th response to the April 7th police beatings, “Protestors in Jacksonville have had their right to peaceably assemble protected by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office without incident.” The statement still stands on the Sheriff’s Office webpage. “Friday night,” Williams writes, “was no different.”

police officers converging on a nonviolent Hemming Park protester

17. “Historically,” Sherriff Mike Williams begins his 2017 response. 1964. Mayor Haydon Burns has promised to crush all efforts to desegregate downtown hotels. Burns is Jacksonville’s “law and order” mayor. Perhaps as many as 2,000 black high school students and protesters assemble downtown chanting “Freedom,” promising to defy authorities who deny their human rights. Burns deputizes 500 white firefighters as police officers with the sole purpose of stamping out black protests. Instant-coffee cops drive motorcycles through crowds of black kids assembled downtown. White cops billy-club black teens. Black activists grow angrier. Kids call in fake bomb scares. Bricks fly through white-owned and “accommodationist” black businesses. After all, the year before, the Ku Klux Klan had killed four little girls and injured 22 people at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of recent Klan bombings, the city had already earned the nickname Bombingham.

Birmingham bombing, courtesy New York Daily News

18. “Historically,” Sheriff Mike Williams says.

19. Historically. B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan crouches over Crooms and punches him repeatedly.

20. Dictionary.com gives two primary definitions for the phrase “Genius Loci.” 1. noun. Latin. “the guardian spirit of a place.”

21. Its second meaning, its psychogeographic meaning: “the distinctive character or atmosphere of a place with reference to the impression that it makes on the mind.”

22. Historically. Donald Trump’s elected president in 2016. Nazi apologist groups meet in Washington, D.C. Trump refuses to disavow Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacist support for his presidency. In February, 2016, Trump tells his supporters at a rally that in “the old days,” protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” Trump tells his supporters at a rally that he’d like “to punch” protesters “in the face.” When a Trump supporter punches a black protester in the face at a March political rally, Trump promises to pay the attacker’s legal fees. In October, 2005 tapes surface in which Trump says that when he sees women he finds attractive, he approaches them to “grab them by the pussy.” A month later, the United States of America elects Donald Trump its 45th president.

Trump protester beaten, then arrested, March 2016, courtesy cnn.com

23. “Historically,” Williams writes. Historically. Isaiah Hart becomes wealthy by stealing slaves and selling them for a profit. Then he founds the city of Jacksonville.

24. Historically. (Parenthetically this 24th point mentions that it won’t even mention that Andrew Jackson, after whom Jacksonville’s named, owns slaves, murders at least one man in a duel, signs the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830 which leads to the Trail of Tears, on which an estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians die when they’re forced from their homes at various points east of the Mississippi to reservations in Oklahoma.)

25. Historically. 1960. Whites dress in Confederate uniforms. They wield baseball bats and ax handles upon any black person they find on streets surrounding Hemming Park in response to black nonviolent sit-ins.

26. Historically. March 21, 1861. The vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, offers his “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Georgia, in which he defines the rationale for the radical Southern anti-American vision of Secession.

Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens

The “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, Stephens says, is slavery. “Our new government,” he declaims, rests upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The Confederate vice president announces, “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

the scarred back of an escaped slave, Louisiana, 1863

27. A century ago, Jacksonville residents and tourists speak of “Old Joe” and “Big Joe” living at Hemming Park. If you separate the newspaper articles, you find partisans in favor of each alligator. An alligator / alligator egg / alligator product store called Osky’s survives down on Bay Street for half a century. Between certain conversations, both Joes seem the same beast, but other reports angrily differentiate between them.

In 1919, two alligators fight a vicious battle to the death beneath the statue of a Confederate soldier and between Jacksonville’s grandest tourist hotels at Hemming Park. Only Old Joe survives the fight. Still, no one knows which Old Joe this particular embodiment of the mythical beast might be.

28. And so. Another Hemming Park story resurfaces. Those white voters who so staunchly proclaim “I mean everything’s not about race” are right after all. Some things are about alligators.

29. 2017 and 1960. 1857 and 1898. The German word zeitgeist means the spirit of a particular time. The Latin phrase genius loci means the spirit of a particular place as it persists, in echoes and patterns, across time. It’s so easy to believe in ghosts. History, however, is ghostlier than ghosts. Time is the strangest element on the Periodic Table. Atheists too speak, even if dialectically, of the spirits of time and place. Place is palimpsest. Everyone loses the past.

30. Officer B.D. (Benjamin Daniel) McEwan throws punches. Other cops chokehold protesters. Isaiah Hart steals slaves, resells them, founds Jacksonville. In 1960, the police ignore an FBI informant’s report that the Ku Klux Klan plans a large assault on nonviolent black protesters at Hemming Park.

31. Mike Stovall leaves the rally early because as regional coordinator for the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the most important American labor organization, he represents the police union, and Connell Crooms is quoting N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” on a slightly raised platform before a pool of cops. Stovall disapproves, cannot be associated with that language. Stovall circles Hemming Park in his car and is stunned when the police descend on protesters, choking them and punching them, then centering on Crooms lying bleeding on the ground.

Crooms, courtesy Folio Weekly

32. 1988. N.W.A. releases “Fuck the Police,” saying, “Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one / For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun.”

33. 1861. Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens defines the Confederacy as standing on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

34. Sheriff Williams begins his statement about the 2017 Hemming Park beatings with the word “Historically.”

35. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes in 1963, “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.