JACKSONVILLE — Aug. 27 was already starred on the Jacksonville calendar. Then the city learned President Donald Trump was coming to town.
Trump is scheduled to accept the Republican presidential nomination in Jacksonville on the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, a notorious race riot in the city. On that day in 1960, hundreds of angry white people chased and beat demonstrators from the local NAACP Youth Council who sat at white-only lunch counters in an act of resistance. About 50 people were injured, and more than 60 were arrested, most of them black, according to a Swarthmore College database.
“Jacksonville’s history complicates Republican convention,” an Associated Press headline declared earlier this month.
Against the backdrop of what could be a summer of protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and other black people, Jacksonville and Ax Handle Saturday will be thrust into the middle of a national discourse on race. And there’s only two months to prepare.
The Republican National Convention abruptly moved events to Florida because Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, would not guarantee the GOP that it could legally host a packed indoor event amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ben Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, an advocacy organization for social, racial, and economic justice, says he’s worried his city is being put in danger.
“Clearly the president and the mayor (of Jacksonville) are willing to count the people as collateral damage,” Frazier said, noting the possibility of violent clashes between anti-racism protesters and counter-protesters as well as the pandemic.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who aggressively campaigned for his city to host the president, is confident the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office can keep the peace when Trump gives his acceptance speech on one of Jacksonville’s darkest anniversaries.
“Ax Handle Saturday is something we observe every single year in the city of Jacksonville,” said Jordan Elsbury, Curry’s chief of staff. “The idea that the two coexisting together can’t be done in a safe way is one that we fundamentally reject.”
Rodney Hurst, the teenage president of the Jacksonville NAACP Youth Council, knew what he was doing was dangerous. It was the deep south in 1960, where segregated lunch counters were jealously protected status symbols for the governing white majority.
And yet, for two weeks, Hurst and fellow members of the council took up space at segregated lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville — their actions in unison with other non-violent demonstrations across the South.
On Aug. 27, 1960, hundreds of angry white people, including avowed Klansmen, confronted Hurst and his group near where they had sat downtown. The attackers used ax handles and other blunt objects to beat the demonstrators. As the violence spread into the streets, the mob began chasing and attacking any black people in sight, including bystanders.
The police largely stood by while this happened, Hurst recalled.
Among the arrested was one white demonstrator, Richard Parker, who joined the NAACP sit-ins a few days before the outbreak. He was accused by authorities of inciting the mayhem. The 25-year-old university student was later viciously attacked in jail by another white prisoner.
By the end of the weekend, the Orlando Sentinel reported that up to 150 people had been arrested, 70 were injured and one died.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t remember what happened 60 years ago,” said Hurst, 76, who still lives in Jacksonville.
The civil rights activist and author said he and a group of local organizations had long been planning a commemoration of Ax Handle Saturday for Aug. 27, the 60th anniversary. The event will be held in Hemming Park, site of the beatings.
Less than a mile away, at the Vystar Memorial Arena, President Trump is now scheduled to accept the Republican presidential nomination.
To Hurst, the timing and location of the speech amount to more of the same from a city that has never, in his view, properly grappled with racism. “I’m not surprised that Jacksonville asked to bring America’s racist president here,” Hurst said. “Jacksonville has historically and traditionally had its head in the sand.”
Paris Dennard, the convention’s senior communications adviser for black media affairs, defended the timing in a statement.
“While we cannot erase some of the darkest moments of our nation’s past, we can denounce them, learn from them, fight for justice and a more perfect union for every American,” Dennard said. “We are excited to showcase the best of Jacksonville and provide a multi-million-dollar boost to their local diverse economy as we nominate Donald J. Trump for the next four years.”
Although activists like Hurst forced the city to integrate decades ago, tensions linger between local police and some in the community. In recent years, some have been fighting to get the local sheriff’s office to release body camera footage of officer-involved shootings within 48 hours of the incidents. Those calls have become more urgent amid the protests of recent weeks.
“These instances of brutality and excessive use of force and racially disproportionate shootings don’t just happen in faraway places,” said Frazier, the local activist. “There are problems, serious problems, between law enforcement and the black community right here.”
In some ways, Jacksonville’s elected leaders appear to be acknowledging how racism of the past is felt today. The same week the GOP announced it would move convention events to Jacksonville, Curry ordered several Confederate monuments in the city, including a prominent one at Hemming Park, to be taken down. (His chief of staff said the move was unrelated to the convention.)
And last week, the Duval County school district voted unanimously to begin the process of renaming six schools that are currently named after Confederate leaders.
Some local leaders worry the convention could distract from some of that progress.
“There’s a momentum of change going on, and I’d hate for that convention to somehow interfere with that,” said Matt Carlucci, a Republican City Council member.
Carlucci added he would prefer Jacksonville not host the convention given the possibility that outside protesters could come to town and wreak havoc.
A poll from the University of North Florida conducted June 17-22 found that 58 percent of Jacksonville residents somewhat or strongly oppose the convention coming to town.
Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, said he’s more worried that the convention will exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus in Jacksonville.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a large, indoor gathering in which people from different parts of the country are together for an extended period of time poses the “highest risk” for transmission of the virus. (Convention officials said the event will be conducted with safety protocols such as temperature checks and extra sanitizing.)
The pandemic combined with the potentially chaotic protest environment could make for a logistical nightmare for local law enforcement.
The Times/Herald sent a list of questions to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office about preparations the office has made. Reporters asked about coordination with outside agencies, ordering equipment and the general plan for the convention.
“As this has only been in motion for five days, we are not at a point where we are able to answer these questions,” Public Information Officer Cheyenne Miller said last week.
Those with experience say Jacksonville has a lot of work to do in just two months.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Brian Dugan, Tampa’s police chief, who was instrumental in crowd management planning ahead of the 2012 Republican Convention. “It might take a miracle to get it done.”