Republican leaders recently announced that Jacksonville would play host to major parts of the Republican National Convention (RNC), falling on the last weekend of August. Jacksonville, known for its relatively large conservative demographic, has been given a fair share of praise for the decision; Republican Mayor Lenny Curry called it “a tremendous opportunity.” Over the weekend, President Trump will come down to accept his re-nomination, with conservatives across the country expected to delegate and mingle.
However, as protests against police brutality and racism continue to surge across the country and Duval County, the announcement has also been met with significant backlash, especially among local activist leaders and protestors. Many have devoted dozens of hours—some, every day—to the protests, despite grueling heat and inclement weather.
On top of the unpredictable climate, Jacksonville police monitoring the protests have been reported using excessive force against peaceful protestors on several occasions.
“We’re out there, even if it’s 95 outside and we’re drenched in sweat and dirt” a Jacksonville protestor who only identified herself as Jenn told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.
“Tentatively, if it’s not disrupted by coronavirus, I might go out and protest the arrival of the RNC, ideally we can get it shutdown before it happens, but I’m cautious of a few outcomes… I won’t be surprised if JSO [Jacksonville Sheriff's Office] uses tear gas or shoots rubber bullets again. In fact, I expect it: having this [convention] come to town will only make things more dangerous for protestors: they want to silence us by any means necessary.”
This imminent risk is echoed through Jacksonville’s contentious history with racial and police issues. The city is known for being home to the shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, murdered for playing “loud music” at a gas pump. The RNC itself falls on the weekend of the 60th anniversary of Axe Handle Saturday, marking a day of horrific violence where Black men were beaten with axe handles and bats—and police joined in. Many protestors believe today’s Jacksonville doesn’t fall too short of its past.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful, Jacksonville has a unique history of segregation and racism,” local activist KeShauna Davis told CL.
Davis, a lifelong resident of Jacksonville, isn’t surprised that Mayor Curry and city government are largely in support of hosting the RNC. In response to the protests, local and national Republican officials have very vocally “backed the blue.” These sentiments also extend to dismissing Black Lives Matter and downplaying police brutality. While protestors march past the steps of city hall, council members have offered relatively impartial statements in response to the protests-- some passive, some personal and emotionally charged, but noone has offered a plan of action.
Davis, who is Black, notes that Black people in Jacksonville aren’t given much of a platform to voice their concerns over the event or representation, even more so in wake of civil rights reform—and the lack of action taken or support from elected officials.
“We live in a city that’s almost half Black but constantly kept out of city council. Jacksonville leadership has always been super fishy,” she said. “It never represents the actual demographics of the city and the decision making isn’t for the city as a whole.”
Even with the adversity, Davis keeps some faith in social progress: “I pray change is soon to come.”
Others feel pessimistic and uncertain, from minor scale to the big picture. Jenn has worried for some time that hosting the RNC was a possibility for Jacksonville. She has relatives in Tampa and recalls some of the gripes the RNC caused when the city hosted the event in 2012.
“My uncle commuted downtown to work. He was about 30 minutes late everyday that week. There were so many streets blocked off. I can’t imagine how Jacksonville, which has a less organized downtown layout, will be able to navigate this.”
Jenn also noted that both settings have some social parallels as well. She believes the same pattern will follow.
“I had friends that were participating in the Occupy protests across the state at the time. The ones in Tampa protested the RNC coming, too,” she said. “Quite a few got arrested for just sitting there. Sound familiar?”
While many major cities ignited with protests have designated protest zones, there haven’t been any formally put in place by local activist groups. Most of the protests in Jacksonville have centered around the city courthouse or around the Jacksonville Beach SeaWalk Pavilion amphitheatre; however, this hasn’t been limited to other demonstrations which have informally gathered in various public parks across the county.
But there are greater, darker concerns from activists and protestors than just commuting, arrests, and political skirmishes. Since the announcement of the RNC, Republicans and JSO have gained momentum from local conservatives, which is very visibly documented on social media and local news articles.
Despite the protests, which saw thousands of people march in certain parts of the city, JSO Sheriff Mike Williams, a Republican, is asking for a whopping $481 million in funding to hire 40 new officers and fund his office. The current 2020 budget for the sheriff sits at $358 million, making up just over 50% of the city’s budget. In addition to the RNC, the request is a significant slap in the face to protestors, who have made calls to defund the police. They argue budget increase is questionable and unnecessary—and that the police should not be rewarded. Along with these thoughts, KeShauna Davis also believes this is no coincidence with the timing of the RNC announcement.
“Why fund the police? The buses are shit, the roads are shit, and the schools are shit. Meanwhile, almost 70% of the murders here are unsolved. Who really needs it? (This is because of) The RNC, of course they are gonna feel bold enough to ask for whatever,” Davis said. “Trump is their king.”
[Editor’s note: Davis is referring to a report that says only 41 arrests have come of 130 homicides in the area.]
As the convention date rapidly approaches, tensions continue to rise. Mayor Curry insists that city officials “will adapt and react accordingly and make sure this convention is a smooth, secure and safe event for everyone,” in partial response to protest and riot related fears. The mayor’s reassurance is also expected to be accompanied by a strong police presence in the city up to a week preceding the convention. But activists aren’t deterred. Davis adds “I know Jacksonville natives aren’t just going to sit down quietly while the RNC is happening. Protesting is our blood.”
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