On April 7, a group of people in Jacksonville, Florida gathered in Hemming Park across the street from City Hall for a protest against Trump’s missile strikes on Syria. The emergency rally was organized by the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, an organization with years of peaceful action in the city.
Professional far-right “Blue Lives Matter” provocateur Gary Snow and some companions were in attendance with a megaphone and the passive support of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s officers present. The police refused to separate the agitators from the main body of protesters, with Snow jumping up to where organizers were trying to speak and yelling over them, shouting directly in their faces, and particularly targeting well-known young Black union organizer Cornell Crooms, with personal space invasion and eventually assault.
The police officers responded to the altercation by tasering and tackling Crooms, and assaulting and arresting those who attempted to inform the officers that Crooms is Deaf, while Gary Snow filmed the arrest up-close like an embedded reporter. Crooms and Willie Hager, a 74-year-old Veterans for Peace organizer, were hospitalized due to their injuries.
While Snow relaxed against a police car as a free man, the police arrested the head organizer of JPC and union leader Dave Schneider. All five have been charged with felonies, including “inciting a riot” for Crooms and Schneider. Snow has yet to be charged with anything.
Videos of the events were circulated online, and with national organization Color of Change, Justice for the Jax5 collected and delivered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition to State Attorney Melissa Nelson to drop the charges. Local officials have scrambled to say they are investigating and reviewing procedures on dealing with protests. Sheriff Mike Williams has claimed that he knew nothing about Snow, although Williams was listed as one of Snow’s “Top Friends” on Facebook until April 7 and they were photographed together at a Donald Trump campaign rally in August of last year.
May Day rally for the Jax5
On May Day afternoon in Jacksonville, activists and community supporters of the Jax5 gathered in front of the Duval County Courthouse to call for dropping the charges and a transparent investigation into the events and connections between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and far-right groups. Those arrested in April had been scheduled for arraignment that day, but the court moved the date up to May 10.
In the final weeks of April, organizers from the Jacksonville Women’s March conducted peacekeeper trainings to help prevent agitators from provoking the crowd. Activists and supporters at the rally expressed their belief that police forces across the country right now and in Jacksonville would like to see violence.
On this occasion with community and media visibility, police repeatedly read from a statement that they would respect the right for protesters “to express their views in a lawful manner,” and kept Snow and his tiny group separated by a walkway from the main rally. Snow was undeterred from shouting as loudly as possible into his megaphone for hours, amounting to little more than mild annoyance and amusement for the people listening to rally speakers. Meanwhile, officers conducted surveillance on the rally itself from the top floor of a parking garage across the street.
Since the beatings and arrests, organizers and their supporters have expressed deep concern about how the April 7 events were allowed to unfold. “It was like everything was planned,” offered Erika Alvarez of the Jacksonville Green Party. “We have always been peaceful and never had a problem until these guys showed up.”
Alvarez believes there is an intimidation and silencing tactic at work against the JPC. She pointed out that with Jax5 bail costs alone totaling over $150,000, “Going to jail hurts our pockets. That’s what they are trying to do, so that we don’t [protest] anymore.”
Speakers and activists in the crowd repeatedly emphasized these points, and expressed a collective desire for an independent investigation into the events leading to the violence and arrests, and of the connections between Snow and the Sheriff’s Office.
Aitana Arguedas of Students for a Democratic Society at UNF declared, “We have copious amounts of evidence. We have information about him over there,” gesturing toward Gary Snow. “They don’t want to talk about it,” she added. “They don’t want to talk about the connections between agitators and police. They don’t want to talk about surveillance. They don’t want to talk about how this was a direct attack on community leaders.”
Local activist Denise Hunt put it bluntly. “I refuse to continue to beg and plead with these folks who we know are part of a white supremacist Klan organization. They have infiltrated the JSO – we know – let’s stop asking the questions when we already know the answers.”
Fight against racism and state repression continues
Snow was particularly excited about the arrival of representatives of the New Black Panther Party, and spent much of his air for the rest of the rally trying to warn the main body of protesters about their “racism” against whites. NBPP national Minister of Education James Muhammad however spoke to encourage unity among “all those fighting injustice” and “to offer unilateral solidarity in any way we can.” After the rally, he told Liberation News that “the New Black Panther Party stands with all people on principles of equality.”
On the Wednesday prior to the rally, JSO killed an unarmed Black man named Selwyn Hall in his front yard. Many of those in attendance, including his wife who witnessed the killing, held a vigil in honor of him the night before. The connection between imperialist violence in countries like Syria and racist violence against people of color in the United States was repeatedly drawn and recognized by the crowd.
As the rally was drawing to a close, Snow and his companion received a 5-cop escort off the premises, while Jax5 supporters were encouraged to leave in pairs and to not speak to agitators.
Jacksonville activists are keenly aware of the difficulties they will continue to face, but appear undeterred. “I didn’t expect to leave here and not go to jail,” offered Denise Hunt, igniting the crowd. “I came prepared with my bond money, I came prepared with my lawyer, and I came prepared to give my life tonight. They can’t stand me. I won’t run. I’m not going to hide. We’re not cowards around here.”