Protesters remain calm as they march in San Marco

Protesters remain calm as they march in San Marco
Between 1,500 and 3,000 protesters gathered in Southside Park in San Marco to participate in the “I Can’t Breathe Reflection Walk” on June 3.

Although rumors on social media tried to fuel fear among residents who didn’t know what to expect, San Marco’s “I Can’t Breathe Solidarity Reflection Walk,” which took place in George Floyd’s honor, turned out to be exactly what it was advertised to be, a peaceful protest.

On June 3, between 1,500 and 3,000 community members gathered in Southside Park to stand in solidarity and reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement.  The walk was a response to more violent events in Jacksonville earlier in the week that came on the heels of protests ignited by the death of Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed African American man who begged for breath as a police officer planted a knee to his neck while pinning him to the ground in Minneapolis, Minnesota May 25. The reflection walk was the only major protest scheduled in Jacksonville June 3, said Joe Carlucci, president of the San Marco Merchants Association (SMMA), although a much smaller vigil was held in Jacksonville Beach the same evening.

“It was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in San Marco at any given time,” said Leah Roesler, a San Marco resident and member of SMMA.

Organized by Michael Anderson and Stefanie Levine, both local community activists, the event opened with a prayer by Pastor Kimberley Pullings of Freedom Hills Chapel, and later consisted of speeches led by Mistress of Ceremonies Monique Sampson, an activist from the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, and several others from the black community who shared stories about racial inequality that they have experienced while living in Jacksonville.

A former San Marco resident, who formally attended Southside Baptist Church, Anderson said he selected the southside neighborhood because it offered an opportunity to bring the issue into a white community. “We chose the San Marco area to engage the community on the south side of the river and get them more involved in the conversation. Our role was to create a time and space so folks could come together, breathe for a second, and reflect on what is going on at the moment in our city and in our country. We wanted to be able to hear from local folks about what they have experienced by JSO or just by living in Jacksonville and being black and all the undertones of that,” he said. 

Prior to the event, false information had been posted on several social media websites, causing Carlucci and SMMA board member Anita Vining to personally visit several San Marco Square merchants so they could spread the word that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office “had no reason to believe the event was going to be a violent protest.” 

Having experienced violence after a Downtown peaceful protest May 30, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was ready to assist if things got out of hand, Carlucci said, noting there was an “intense police presence” skirting the event just outside of San Marco Square. “There were 50 cops lined up at Landon (Middle School) with an armored SWAT vehicle, and at Southside United Methodist Church there were at least 50 undercover cops in the parking lot just hanging out, waiting to go. They did not take it lightly,” Carlucci said.

Protest organizer Michael Anderson (in black shirt and colorful stole) joined Mistress of Ceremonies Monique Sampson (with red shirt and microphone) of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee and Pastor Kimberley Pullings of Freedom Hills Chapel (right with black shirt) during the “I Can’t Breathe Reflection Walk” June 3 in Southside Park in San Marco.
Protest organizer Michael Anderson (in black shirt and colorful stole) joined Mistress of Ceremonies Monique Sampson (with red shirt and microphone) of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee and Pastor Kimberley Pullings of Freedom Hills Chapel (right with black shirt) during the “I Can’t Breathe Reflection Walk” June 3 in Southside Park in San Marco.

“As Sheriff (Mike) Williams has stated, we will continue to assist in these public demonstrations as a matter of public safety,” explained Officer Chris Hancock, a JSO public information spokesman in an email. “Though we have not been given specific numbers, officers were present at this event along the proposed route to assist with traffic in the event the walk spilled over into the streets. And as typical in events such as this, there was a contingency of officers on stand-by in case the peaceful protests turned violent,” he said.

As a business owner on the protester’s route, Kris Barnes, owner of Wick, a Candle Bar on Hendricks Avenue, said she saw neighboring businesses owners boarding up their windows with plywood prior to the event. “I wasn’t going to participate in the march because I was more worried about COVID-19, and I was trying to take every precaution, but as the day wore on, people were getting so agitated, and all the stores across from us were boarded up. I thought, nothing says welcome to the neighborhood like fear. It was making me so sad that my neighborhood was so terrified of this peaceful protest,” she said. “I was completely confident that JSO was prepared and they weren’t going to leave us to be sitting targets. I was amazed at how many people there were, and just about everybody had a mask on.”

Scheduled to take place between 6:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., the march got a late start. It was originally slated to begin at Southside Park alongside the San Marco Library, with protesters marching along the sidewalk south on Hendricks Avenue to Atlantic Boulevard, where they would circle Balis Park, and head back along the sidewalk on Hendricks Avenue. However, when march “peacekeepers” recognized provocateurs might be near the Balis Park, they changed the route, forcing marchers to take a sharp turn at Atlantic Boulevard and head toward San Marco Boulevard to Lasalle Street and back to the park, Anderson said.

The “peacekeepers,” wore white shirts and were tagged by march organizers to position themselves every 30 or 40 feet to remind protesters to stay on the sidewalk and keep moving, even if provoked by bystanders along the way, said Anderson. “Their policing of themselves was really, really good,” said Darren Sides of Southside Baptist Church who attended the march. “They were yelling at the marchers to stay off the grass and to use the crosswalks. Michael did a really good job of keeping everyone in line.”

Members of Southside Baptist Church were welcomed by the marchers as they handed out 500 bottles of water and snacks at the corner of Hendricks Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard, said Sides, who organized the water distribution. “They didn’t leave a lot of trash. Afterwards we only had a bag of trash that we were able to pick up in 15 minutes,” he said.

“Someone who was marching posted on the Next Door website that as they went along people were standing outside of their houses and that they felt the love as they walked through the community,” said Vining. “People in San Marco were being gracious by handing them water and giving them accolades at the side of the road. I think that, in itself, was positive. I felt so good, especially with all those cute cops hanging around the window of my office as they marched down the sidewalk,” she joked.

Roesler agreed. “The crowd itself was very appreciative and the community was absolutely welcoming. Every single person that I was in earshot of was thankful for the water and the snacks. There were a few people who were opposed to the march and had spread out trying to instigate a bit, but the peacekeepers were there saying, ‘Don’t engage. Don’t talk back. They are going to say what they are going to say but keep walking. Keep doing what you are doing.’”

Roesler said she believes in the Black Lives Matter cause and would not have missed the march. “I went because black lives matter, and I wanted to support the cause in my own neighborhood,” she explained. “I’ve been to several other marches around town, but I felt, if there’s one in my own backyard I have to attend. I knew there was a lot of negative information going around claiming it was going to be a dangerous, destructive event, and I thought it was important to go and be someone who was there with the intention of being peaceful and to represent the community. I wanted to show that I was not afraid to go to it and that nothing bad was going to happen. And it turned out to be exactly what the organizers intended, which was a positive, peaceful event.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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