Peaceful Protests Turn Into Violence In Downtown Jacksonville

May 31, 2020

Protests resumed Sunday outside the Duval County Courthouse.  

That’s after thousands of protesters took to Jacksonville’s streets on Saturday, demanding justice over the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd, as well as transparency surrounding the police-involved shooting deaths of three black men in Jacksonville over the last six months.

While the protests began peacefully, tension between the police and demonstrators grew as Saturday wore on, leading to violence, damaged property, and arrests. 

The Jacksonville Community Action Committee organized Saturday’s first protest across the street from the Downtown headquarters of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. More than 1,000 protesters marched around the building and the county jail adjacent to it. 

“Trust, transparency and accountability,” said Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition, to the protesters gathering on Bay Street. “Those are the three words your mayor doesn’t know. Those are three words your state attorney does not know. Those are the three words your sheriff doesn’t know.” 

The coalition is calling on the sheriff’s office to release body camera footage of all police shootings, including those that led to the deaths of Jamee Johnson, Kwame Jones and Reginald Boston. 

“Too often we have incidents of police committing crimes disproportionately against black people, and then somebody is hurt or murdered and then police wear body cams, but we never see the footage,” said Neal Jefferson with the University of North Florida’s Students for a Democratic Society. “Too often we never know what happened and justice cannot be carried out or served. It's about time that we really buckle down and put pressure on the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to release body cam footage.”

The protestors were also calling for the creation of a Jacksonville Police Accountability Council to give community members more oversight on police misconduct investigations, including subpoena power, and to help write JSO’s hiring and firing policies.

The protesters peacefully marched on the steps of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and circled the block for a little over an hour. 

Chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” filled Bay Street as the demonstrators marched. 

Afterward, a large portion of the protesters kept marching through Downtown, crowding the outside of the Duval County Courthouse. The protesters eventually made their way up Union Street, blocking traffic. The group then moved down Main Street, with some of them blocking the entrance to the Main Street Bridge. 

Hours into the protest, tensions between the crowd and police rose dramatically on the corner of Bay and Newnan streets, after dozens of police units came to the scene, including SWAT. 

Police deployed tear gas, smoke bombs and pepper spray on the crowd. A SWAT unit formed a line and started slowly making its way west on Bay Street, leading to a standoff as protesters tried to remain in place but were pushed back by the police.

The protesters shattered windows and attempted to light one of the cars on fire near the corner of Newnan and Bay streets. 

Sheriff Mike Williams told WJCT News partner News4Jax that the protestors damaged buildings and police cars. He said an officer’s throat was also slashed in the chaos. 

In a tweet Saturday night, Mayor Lenny Curry condemned the violent protests.

“Causing damage and attacking first responders will not be tolerated,” Curry said.    

Curry also tweeted, “Many today peacefully made their voices clear for justice. We hear you and will work with you.” 

Organizer Ben Frazier said while he understands the pain and frustration people have been going through, “We just happen to feel that rioting and violence is not the proper approach... We've got to respect the dignity of our fellow human beings.”

However, he said he remains optimistic that things can change for the better. "We've seen it happen in the past,” Frazier said. “We’ve got to do something about it. If not now, when? If not us, who?”

WJCT News reached out to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for more information on the injured officer. We will update this story when a response is received. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.