They began to gather around 2:45 p.m. on Friday, June 5 at Hernando Park on Ft. Dade Ave, just east of the downtown library. Their purpose was to protest the death of George Floyd. The main theme was Black Lives Matter, but there was more to the demonstration. The people gathered there were concerned about the larger issue of inequality and injustice in the United States.
Isaiah Haddon, a member of the Hernando Progressive Caucus, and one of the organizers stated, “This is a coalition of people of all colors and walks of life who will stand in solidarity of what needs to be done.”
On Wednesday, June 3, religious and civic leaders attended a unity meeting to plan for the upcoming demonstration. Many of these leaders were also organizers of the June 5 demonstration. They reassured law enforcement that their intentions were to bring people together and promote peace. “Love, peace and unity … that is our objective,” said Dell Barnes, Director of the Enrichment Centers.
Speaking directly with regard to possible unlawful, violent protests, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said 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.”
While there were counter-protesters to the main rally on June 5, there were also people seeking to support police and protect property if necessary according to posts on social media. With all the uncertainty surrounding who would be coming into the county with possibly ill intentions, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office had a strong presence at the rally.
At 3:30pm the crowd had grown to approximately 250 people. It was a diverse group. People aged thirty and under predominated, but there was also a representation of middle-aged, baby-boomers and the elderly. The ratio of black to white demonstrators was almost equal.
At this time, Haddon and another organizer, Jason Sager, gave instructions to the group on how to conduct themselves at the actual rally on the steps of the old courthouse building. They told the people gathered to not engage counter demonstrators who might try to entice them to violence. The group was also told that the purpose of the protest was to promote peace, justice, unity and equality.
The demonstrators then started walking from the park to the courthouse annex and around the block. They held signs and chanted slogans such as “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” Roads all around the courthouse had been partitioned into a single lane for the safety of the walkers and Main Street in front of the courthouse was completely blocked off to traffic. As cars passed by, some of the drivers honked and shouted out their support. All this time, Hernando County Sheriff’s Deputies and Highway Patrol Officers were stationed all along the parade route, as well as in front of the courthouse.
When the walkers arrived at the front of the courthouse, they were greeted by a group of approximately twenty counter protesters on the other side of the street. One of the counter protesters had a confederate flag draped over his body. They were yelling, but otherwise peaceful. Sheriff’s deputies did a good job of keeping the groups apart so as to avoid violence.
A number of local leaders addressed the crowd and discussed the issues that were of concern to them all. Many of them spoke about the need for education, a living wage and health insurance and the importance of voting.
Paul Douglas, head of the local NAACP and a veteran civil rights activist from the early days of the movement, emphasized the youth of the group and congratulated them for their involvement.
Another speaker, in answer to the counter protesters’ shouts of “All Lives Matter” stated, “We’re not here to say white lives don’t matter. All ya’ll out there, [referring to the counter protesters] ain’t nobody here to protest against ya’ll. We’re just here to say, ‘Black lives matter, too.’”
L’Oreal Davis, who is studying to be a lawyer spoke passionately about growing up in Hernando County and how much she loved the community. She remarked, “I wasn’t raised to see color, but I was raised to speak up when I see something that isn’t right.”
Jason Sager, who ran for county commission in 2012, now a high school government teacher was greeted with jeers and shouts of “Traitor!” by some counter protesters. He cited the Bible in talking about how all people are created in the image of God and quoted the phrase from the Declaration of Independence – “All men are created equal.” In concluding his address, Sager praised the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office for their reputation of fairness and their assistance in keeping the rally peaceful.
Dana Cottrell, who is running for the U.S. Congress, stated, “We are all brothers and sisters. We all stand together regardless of the color of our skin. We get to reach out to those folks across the street, speak to them in peace and harmony and reach out to them and ask them to join us.”
The last person to address the rally was Karen Dove, a motivational speaker, business consultant and community advocate.
Ms. Dove remarked, “Today we stand together, but we do not divide when we make our statement. It is love and unity that we must respond with.”
At the conclusion of the speeches, the demonstrators placed flowers on the courthouse steps, along with the placards they had been carrying, as a memorial to George Floyd. The crowd then quietly dispersed.
The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) issued a statement after the rally that stated in part, “During the event, several individuals became passionate about their feelings; however, cooler heads prevailed. There were no incidents of physical violence or attempts to damage property.”
However, according to the HCSO one arrest was made. The arrest report stated “As the crowd began to disperse, one individual….attempted to incite an altercation. …deputies witnessed the event and proceeded to attempt to make contact with him.
As deputies were still in the process of approaching the suspect, the suspect pulled a machete from his pants. The suspect fled from deputies while brandishing the machete. Deputies ordered the suspect to stop running and drop the machete, to which he failed to comply.
A deputy deployed his Taser in order to bring the situation under control. The suspect was taken into custody before anyone was injured.”
The suspect was identified as David Allen Howell of Zolfo Springs, Florida, one of the counter protesters. He was charged with Resisting Arrest without Violence and Improper Exhibition of a Dangerous Weapon.
One of the main takeaways from the rally was that the work for social justice does not begin and end with one afternoon. Leaders of the rally urged people to get involved in community organizations, sign petitions, as well as make calls and send texts in support of causes in order to keep the ideals of the rally moving forward.