by LISA MACNEIL
The ongoing turmoil and social unrest related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of their local police has spread throughout the nation this week. Social media posts have community leaders and law enforcement concerned that protests may turn violent in Hernando County.
On Wednesday, June 3, 2020, two days before the rumored demonstrations, religious and civic leaders of the county convened at the iconic domed Grace Outreach Church on Cortez Blvd. Members of the County Commission, City Council, Sheriff Al Nienhuis and his Chief Deputy, and many other community leaders packed a meeting hall.
Overheard was one of the pastors instructing a staff member to ready extra place settings, as the turnout was better than expected.
Dell Barnes, Director of the Enrichment Centers, was the first of the many leaders to address the crowd. He said the meeting was to strategize. To minimize and contain any possible unrest rumored to take place on Friday, June 5, 2020 was the foremost conversation. The complementing conversation involved the topic of unity among people of all races — beginning in our community. “Love, peace and unity … that is our objective.”
Following a prayer by Pastor Daniel Norris, Paul Douglas, President of the Hernando NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) spoke at length about his several experiences in the 50s and 60s with racial violence. Douglas recalled with great detail how he met his wife on the campus of Tuskegee University when a bombing had just taken place, and she had been injured in the blast. Douglas, who has witnessed several events in which race was the driving factor, also called for understanding, peace and the community coming together.
Speaking directly with regard to possible unlawful, violent protests, Sheriff Al Nienhuis reminded the room that as the top law enforcement officer of the county, his job is to “mitigate risk, and solve problems.” Nienhuis praised the first amendment with caution, reminding anyone with plans for a counter-protest, or even a peaceful protest — that it could invite unwanted attention from a less-than-peaceful group, and may impede the Sheriff’s department from doing their job.
“Those people who want trouble regardless of where they stand on this issue… I’m concerned that we may be giving them a forum to carry out that call. Although I think generally speaking, you can overcome evil with love. I don’t know if that’s the case in every situation.”
Nienhuis stressed that his agency, community leaders and most anyone he’s been in contact with is “heartbroken by what happened in Minnesota. They certainly don’t represent anything we stand for.”
An audience member named Veronica asked Nienhuis, as well as the participating speakers how peace and unity going forward is not only achieved, but maintained.This is not the first time a racially charged incident has resulted in ripples of violence across the country.
“It seems to me… we don’t come together until it’s times like this, then you’ve got all of these different emotions that cloud good, righteous, sound judgment — even for Christians.”