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Monday September 24th 2018

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From Pensacola, With Love


The Birth of the New Civil Rights Movement
By Scott Satterwhite and Steven Poulin

“No More! No Mas!”

That is what a diverse and multiracial crowd chanted at the Dec. 7 protest to express their feelings about the recent deaths of black youths killed by police. The gathering took place around the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the plaza that bears his name and drew a diverse section of Pensacola society.

Connected with the nationwide Black Lives Matter Movement, the local movement shares numerous qualities with the national movement—broad goals and a passionate desire to change the conversation surrounding police violence into larger social discussion. Originally organized in solidarity with the anti-police brutality demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, the local Pensacola movement insists this movement is as local as it is national.

The name of the local movement, “From Pensacola with Love” (“From Pensacola” for short) reflects that connection, as well as the passion, within this group of young activists.

The Origins of a Movement
From Pensacola with Love held its first event hours after the now-infamous grand jury ruling that vindicated Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown after weeks of intense protests.

“The night of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, I put out on social media a quick post: Hey, Pensacola. We should come together,” Keyontay Humphries said. Humphries is one of the main organizers for the local movement, but she is reluctant to call herself a leader in the movement or claim to speak for the movement. This move away from public figures in leadership roles is a marked distinction between the Black Lives Matter movement and the older civil rights movement of previous generations.

Another difference is the means by which protests are organized. Instead of posters and leaflets, most of the organizing takes place via social media through smart phones. Humphries, who reached out to various people from Pensacola’s concerned activist communities, wrote a Facebook post widely shared that asked for a peaceful gathering at MLK Plaza on the night of the Michael Brown grand jury. Around two dozen people, largely activists from various community organizations, showed up that night to share their grief and frustration over the lack of an indictment in the Brown case.

Activists from the LGBTQ community and local homeless advocates joined other social justice activists for this solidarity event at MLK Plaza. With a relatively small gathering, a local movement began.
The movement, though initially small, drew connections between local issues while offering a unity of purpose with citizens protesting in Ferguson over the perception of police unaccountability, especially concerning the shooting of Brown.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back
For the Black Lives Matter Movement, Michael Brown’s death was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

After a brief altercation with the 18-year-old Brown, Officer Wilson shot and killed Brown, who was unarmed, on Aug. 9 of last year. The circumstances surrounding his death are at the center of the controversy, but for many in the movement against excessive violence by law enforcement, Brown’s death was simply the last straw.

Days before Brown’s death, a young African-American man named John Crawford III was shot and killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart by security guards while carrying a toy rifle sold in the very same store. Months before Brown’s and Crawford’s deaths, an African-American father named Eric Garner was placed in a choke hold and asphyxiated at the hands of New York City police—a death captured by a bystander on a now-famous video that went viral.

To many, the deaths of these African-American men seemed to fit a pattern.

On Feb. 26, 2012, a 17-year-old unarmed African-American named Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman. This act launched nation-wide protests.

Then on Nov. 23, 2012, Jordan Davis, another unarmed 17-year-old African-American was shot to death in a parking lot of Jacksonville convenience store by a 40-year-old white male named Michael Dunn. Davis’ only offense was not heeding Dunn’s request to turn down the music coming from Davis’ car.

Closer to home, another 17-year-old African-American youth named Victor Steen was killed by Pensacola police officer Jerald Ard. Officer Ard fired his Taser from his moving patrol car at
Steen, who was riding a bicycle, causing him to swerve. Ard turned his car around and ran over Steen, killing him. Like the other violent deaths, Steen’s death launched several protests and gained national attention.

Even since Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the shooting of 12-year-old African-American Tamir Rice—killed by police while playing with a toy gun in a park in Ohio—further underscores the issues the movement hopes to address: the need for accountability and the respect for black lives.

Vigils and Unrest
The Pensacola movement decided early that if it were to be effective, From Pensacola would have to hold continuous events to keep public attention focused on the issues. From Pensacola held its next vigil on Thanksgiving night, 2014. Half of a dozen people came out for a candlelight vigil that evening.

Trina Ramos, an activist with From Pensacola, wrote the original post: “I know y’all are full, and I know you’re all eating, but [tonight] Mike Brown will not be having Thanksgiving.”

Although the Thanksgiving vigil had an understandably small turnout, From Pensacola decided to try again.

From Pensacola set a date for Dec. 7 for their next vigil at MLK Plaza. Between vigils, another grand jury returned with an officer’s vindication in the death of an unarmed black man: this time in New York. From Pensacola’s first vigil attracted approximately 30 people. The second vigil on Thanksgiving brought six. The third vigil, held only four days after the Eric Garner ruling, “pulled roughly 200 people,” Humphries said.

“We left that meeting thinking, ‘we might have started something. Let’s see if we could do this again.’”

With people from all walks of life, notably many from Pensacola’s various LGBTQ communities, all had presence. Humphries said that these rallies are important to keep the issues in the public eye and in showing the world that Pensacola is a diverse community.

“But we could be Ferguson in just a split second,” Humphries said referring to racial tensions in Pensacola. Humphries said she has seen racial and class tension working with local youth through the ACLU and the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition.

“There are children who grow up [in Pensacola] who have never been downtown because they don’t think they’re welcome,” Humphries said. “There are black families and poor families who have been two or three generations now in housing projects.”

According to Humphries, “there is tension in this community.”

Another activist in the local Black Lives Matter movement is Michael Hansell. A local activist, Hansell plans on starting a Pensacola chapter of Dream Defenders. Dream Defenders is a civil rights group founded in reaction to shooting of Trayvon Martin and made famous for holding sit-ins at Governor Rick Scott’s office to protest Florida’s “Stand Your Ground laws.”

Hansell said people were understandably upset when they heard the verdict of the Ferguson case. He said he believes that police violence is part of a systemic problem of policing in America.

“If you look at the numbers, not even looking at [it] through my biased racial lens because I’m black, you can see there is a problem with police using overwhelming force for things you probably could accomplish with a lot less force or nonlethal force,” Hansell said.

The Pensacola activist said the issue of police brutality effects everyone regardless of race, although profiling effects people of color the most. He said that people, regardless of race, should be ready to inconvenience themselves to support such movements.

“Being black in America is an inconvenience to black people and we are tired of it,” Hansell said. “[Americans] should be tired of it if we are tired of it, because it is not even happening to you. If we are telling you it is happening to us, you should be upset because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Haley Morrissette agreed. “Pensacola has been kind of a divided city in the past as far as police brutality and racial profiling. It is an issue that’s here also.”

Both Hansell and Morrissette said they have been the victims of racial profiling and police harassment at different times in their lives, an experience common among African-Americans.

“A lot of people want to overlook it, but I felt that the community needed to come together at this time so we could say, ‘This needs to end,’” Morrissette said. “We’ve got to start saying something.”

While there are stark differences between the historic civil rights movement and this new generation of civil rights activists, many civil rights veterans see the Black Lives Matter movement as an obvious continuation.

Reverend H.K. Matthews, one such veteran of the civil rights movement, shared memories of being beaten and tear-gassed while marching in Selma, yet feels many of the original problems have not changed. Despite desegregation and the election of an African-American president, racial profiling and unequal treatment by law enforcement continues unabated.

“We have gone backwards because they still think black lives don’t matter,” Matthews said.

Matthews was one of several clergy members who attended the Dec. 21 vigil held by From Pensacola. “Lives to some of [the police] don’t matter, so I think there’s a need [for this demonstration],” he said. “This is not just a moment, this is a movement, so we need to re-energize ourselves, revitalize ourselves, and let the world know we just aren’t going to take it anymore.”

A well-respected icon of the civil rights movement, Reverend Matthews offered his strong support for this new civil rights movement.

“We are going to do it peacefully within the law,” Matthews said. “We have always advocated being peaceful, we do not advocate violence and those that do advocate violence have no place in this movement.”

Matthews said that he felt proud to be part of a group he saw as not just “a black thing” but a “life thing” as people of all races come together to show support for the growing movement.
From Pensacola draws its support largely from a young demographic, but is quick to draw connections between the current struggle and historic fights for equality, including one historic battle which goes back well over 150 years.

The Battle over the Battle Flag
After the first gathering of people, the activists from within From Pensacola decided they needed to continue these events, this time with more planning to maintain their newfound momentum.

The other issue showed the difference between the nationwide movements and how From Pensacola’s focus is uniquely localized: the removal of the Confederate battle flag that flew in front of the county-owned Pensacola Bay Center.

The Confederate battle flag has long been a source of controversy in the South and in particular Pensacola. Besides its use immediately following the Civil War, the flag became a symbol of white resistance to integration during the 20th century. In 1976, race riots erupted at Escambia High School after students lost a vote to keep the rebel flag and the song “Dixie” as symbols of the school. Riots ensued the school when angry white students hoisted a Confederate battle flag up Escambia High’s flagpole.

At the end of the day, four students were shot and thirty injured over the controversial symbol of the Confederacy. After the vote, the Escambia Rebels became what they are today—the Escambia Gators.

In many communities, especially African-American communities, the flag is often viewed as a symbol of slavery, as well as the legal disenfranchisement of the Jim Crow era and directly connected to the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.

While the City of Pensacola changed one of its “Five Flags,” representing the different national flags that flew over the city, from the Confederate battle flag to the historically accurate “Stars and Bars” Confederate flag, the Pensacola Bay Center continued to fly the Confederate flag.

The Pensacola Bay Center, which hosts large events including graduation ceremonies, is owned by Escambia County.

This past December, the Escambia County Commission discussed the continued presence of the Confederate battle flag flying at the entrance to the Bay Center. From Pensacola asked its supporters to speak to the issue at the County Commission meeting hoping to sway the County Commission’s vote to remove the rebel flag. Several people from the community, including those affiliated with From Pensacola, spoke in opposition to the Confederate flag flying at the county-owned facility.

In Humphries’ words, “The vote went in a way that was favorable to our viewpoint.”

To the surprise of many, the County Commission voted 4-1 to remove the Confederate flag, as well as every other flag except the American flag. This action put the County Commission’s vote, as well as the organizers of From Pensacola, at odds with the Pensacola News Journal’s editorial board who came out in strong opposition to the commission’s decision to remove the flags.

In spite opposition from at least one commissioner and a boisterous online community, the Confederate flag was removed.

From Pensacola took the News Journal’s Confederate flag editorial to heart, though and marched down from MLK plaza to the Pensacola News Journal to protest its editorial. To Humphries, the News Journal’s editorial was an affront to the black community and “rooted more in emotion versus their normal stances.”

“We basically met emotion with emotion.”

At the Dec. 21 protest, From Pensacola started a boycott of the Pensacola News Journal until the daily paper retracted its stance on the flag.

Humphries explained their decision to initiate a boycott in personal terms. “We felt let down.”

Ramos reiterated Humphries’ sentiments. “We’re out here protesting, saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and then to open up the paper and you could care less about the people that are actually buying your newspaper.”

She said, “We’re not just going to boycott your paper, we’re going to march down to the front of your building and stand in front, and say it to your face: we boycott. This is the paper where we live, and [the editorial board] says you don’t matter. That’s why we get emotional.”

To Ramos and Humphries, though the flag is symbolic, the issues are very real.

“We live in a city where [many] black and brown children are not graduating high school,” Ramos said. “But when they do graduate and later go on to further their education, they look up to see a Confederate flag [at the Bay Center graduation ceremonies]. What does that speak to your accomplishments?

“It’s like a ‘ha ha, you might have gotten your degree, but we got one up on you,’” Ramos said. “So that’s where the irritation with that editorial goes into.”

Many supporters of the Confederate battle flag claim that the flag does not symbolize racial hatred but is instead a symbol of their Southern heritage or the constitutional fight for state’s rights. Both Humphries and Ramos take issue with these positions.

“[Supporters] reduce it to state’s rights,” Humphries said. “State’s rights were also the state’s rights that instituted Jim Crow. State’s rights also said blacks couldn’t marry, that they couldn’t vote, were three-fifths of a person…what are we so truly proud of, even in the vein of state’s rights, prior to the 21st century?”

Ramos, who comes from a long line of military veterans, said the Confederate flag does not honor her family’s heritage. “If you’re going to honor history, you have to speak about it completely.

“You can’t just block out the history because we don’t want to talk about it. You can’t separate hate from heritage,” Ramos said. “You can’t, especially when you talk about the Civil War.”

“No justice, no peace. Until you’re able to disrupt someone’s sanctity, they don’t even start to listen to your demands,” Humphries said.

The battle over the flag, which is ongoing despite the nearly unanimous vote by the Escambia County Commission, is but one of the ways From Pensacola keeps the issue of racial disparity and equality out in the public. The other way is more traditional: they take their message to the streets, sometimes literally.

Symbolism and the Goals of the Movement
During the most recent MLK parade, members of From Pensacola gathered near Vinyl Music Hall around 10 a.m. to plan a “die-in” in the middle of the parade. A die-in, which is several people lying still on the ground to symbolize the dead, is a tool used by demonstrators to practice non-violent civil disobedience, while participating in a dramatic reminder of the violent deaths of African-Americans.

As the moment for action was about to arise, there was atmosphere of nervous anticipation during the parade as organizers waited for an opportune moment.

Hansell hoped that the die-in would show people what Martin Luther King was really about: “nonviolent direct action.”

“He would have never organized a parade, and I think he would be appalled if he’d seen a parade organized in his name,” Hansell said. According to Hansell, MLK stood for equality for all, an end to racial animosity, and “a love for all of humanity, not just the straight ones, not just the white ones, not just the women or the children.”

While admitting he felt concerned about the possibility of arrest following actions such as die-ins, “anytime the police get involved with anything you should be concerned as there is a monopoly on violence when the police get involved.” Nonetheless, Hansell reminded participants that King himself was arrested multiple times. In fact, Hansell saw the possibility of arrest for such an action as a “badge of honor.”

Clarissa Farrar, 29, said she felt MLK stood for peace and nonviolence, but not coming together to throw parades when we are still fighting for the dream itself. “We are still trying to get to that dream, we are still trying to live that dream, it has not come to pass as of yet…there are a lot of people who don’t know what is going on in the world today or are just brushing it under the rug when it is building and building, and there should be more and more awareness out there.”

Maria Paoli went to show “Latino solidarity and queer solidarity” for the struggles of black and brown communities against injustices they face. She said she does not think there is anything wrong with honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a parade, but feels right now is a time for solemnness and not festivity.

“I think there has been a lot of death and injustice, and I think that what we are trying to do [with their intended action was] about calling attention to injustice,” Paoli said, who hoped the die-in would inspire people to join their cause and see it as just. “It is a moment of quiet and solidarity.”

Halfway into the march, about eight members went through the barricades into the street to do the non-violent die-in. Police quickly gathered around the protesters lying on the streets. One protester held a sign that represented the group’s statement. The sign read: “The dream has not been fulfilled, so why are we celebrating?”

For about four and a half minutes—symbolic of the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after being shot by Ferguson police—a group of multi-racial protesters braved arrest to make their point. There were no arrests, and the demonstration was successful. Onlookers were reminded that at the heart of the civil rights movement was non-violent direct action.

Although prepared for arrest, the activists were relieved that no arrests happened. In fact, they were jubilant. As symbols become increasingly important in the local Black Lives Matter movement, the symbolic protest at the MLK Parade was universally viewed as a success. Viewed along with their growing size, higher visibility, and surprising political—even historic—victory, the direct action was one of several successes for this young Pensacola movement as it focuses and refocuses its short and long-term goals with each new situation that arises.

Like the larger Black Lives Matter Movement, From Pensacola’s goals in many ways are very broad. In other ways, however, the goals of this movement are simple: accountability and equality.

“In plain English,” Ramos said, “When people ask, ‘so what is your goal?’ Our goal is to make everyone equal under the law.”

The next From Pensacola event is a Candlelight Vigil for Tamir Rice, scheduled for Feb. 22 at 5 p.m. at Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza.

For more on From Pensacola with Love, visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/HashtagFromPensacola?fref=ts

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Q&A w/ Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons

IN: Do you feel like racial profiling is an issue within the Pensacola Police Department (PPD)?
Simmons: The PPD takes racial profiling serious[ly]. I also feel like with the safeguards we have in place, we are able to identify any potential profiling issues.

IN: Is there anything your department is doing to prevent racial profiling by members of the police force? If so, do you think such programs have been effective?
Simmons: We monitor the actions of our officers. This is done by the review of in-car cameras, as well as investigating any complaints against our officers. Officers also document all traffic stops to detail the race, gender and age on every traffic stop. This information is reviewed by our professional standards unit. Any alerts are brought to the attention of the particular division captain, as well as senior staff.

IN: How would you verify if a program to prevent racial profiling by police has been effective?
Simmons: I don’t know which program you are referring to. I would guess that you could use statistical data as a comparison. Anecdotally speaking, you could also conduct periodic checks.

IN: Do you feel like your department has learned anything from what happened last year in Ferguson or from the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement that has been going on since then?
Simmons: I would not say that we learned anything new, but it caused us to critique our own procedures. We discuss events local and national to determine if there are meaningful takeaways for us. When we discussed the Ferguson and New York events, we concentrated on the need to get accurate information out as soon as practical. A community needs to know what its police department is doing and being transparent is a big part of that. While it is important not to compromise the integrity of an active investigation, releasing pertinent information that is accurate can go a long ways toward understanding what took place. We may make mistakes, but we will always be forthright and it is important for the community to know that.