By Jared Olson (Photos: Joseph McCann)
Amidst the raging storm of controversy that’s enveloped the movement to remove and recontextualize St. Augustine’s Confederate monuments, protesters both black and white- followed closely on their heels by Tea Party counterprotesters bearing bright red rebel flags- amassed for their latest demonstration in the cool evening twilight of Monday, January 22nd.
The protesters, led by black minister Rev. Ron Rawls, amassed along the Granada street sidewalk next to the Lightner Museum, where city officials inside discussed mounting pressures over recent months calling for a community-wide reconsideration of the monuments. Deploying the booming echo of their voices, the protesters had gathered outside the building to project their presence to the deliberating local politicians, who were hidden by tightly curtained windows within the museums forebidding stone walls. As the evening light failed and gave way to darkness, the anti-Confederate protesters swung into a chorus of chants deploring the monuments and the racism behind them, while on a corner down the street, the counterprotesters echoed back with periodic volleys of insults, their bright-red rebel flags luffing like soft sails in the breeze.
The protest was originally planned to have taken place in the public square fronting the Lightner Museum, though at the last second, law enforcement officials inexplicably cordoned off the public space with a wide-ranging perimeter of police tape. City officials maintained that doing so was a preventative measure against possible disturbances. But Rev. Ron Rawls, a religious firebrand who’s galvanized the movement against the monuments, believed otherwise.
“It’s just shenanigans,” Rev. Rawls told me as the protest was getting under way. “Shenanigans. I’ve been here for eleven years. Always involved. Attend all the meetings. They (the city officials) have had serious issues in the past. But they’ve never in my eleven years cut off the courtyard. Our plan was to let them run their meeting, and just stand outside in the courtyard and protest. Well, what they did was cut off the courtyard so we couldn’t come in. What they did was also to block off the sidewalk. Now, people will actually have to stand in the roadway. All so we can be ‘safe.””
Even in more agitated moments, Rawls- dressed in a brown business blazer- speaks with an astonishingly calm aura. For his work spearheading the movement against the Confederate monuments, he’s been demonized in the St. Augustine community and received numerous death threats. “They’ve threatened my life and everything,” he says with a disarming matter-of-factness. “But they’re just dogs yapping, nothing more. I don’t care about that kind of stuff.”
Though not the official spokesman for the local movement (which, after all, is but one small part of a broader nationwide push), Rawls seems to articulate many of the yearnings of the local black community, especially those of the older generations, who vividly remember the era of state-sanctioned segregation.
“These soldiers,” he tells me, gesturing towards the monument a few streets over, “were traitors to the United States. They fought against the United States. They killed United States citizens so they could maintain slavery. And then, at the height of Jim Crow, the United States decided to glorify this whole thing. They just need to be honest about who these people were and what they did. As long as they don’t glorify it, I’m fine.”
I ask him if he believes that, given their track record, city officials are more sympathetic to the pro-Confederate counterprotesters.
“Definitely,” he says. “I call them Confederate sympathizers. They literally glorify people who were traitors. To do something like that really speaks clearly about their mentality.”
“(But) the plantation days are over,” he continued. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re gonna stand here, and we’re gonna be loud. All those little signs, and the Confederates: we’re not afraid of that anymore.”
In the group of counterprotesters stationed several cars-lengths down the street, perceptions about the issue of the monuments were so far removed that they may as well have been from another planet.
“It was the north that invaded the south, I think,” Lance Fate, the chairman of the St. Augustine Tea Party- and one of the most visibly prominent counterprotesters- told me. (“The War of Northern Aggression!” a nearby bystander chimed in as I began talking to Fate). Garbed in a tan, Revolutionary War-era minuteman outfit, the graying fifty-something proceeded to explain why his camp had come out to, in his words, “show support for retaining the monuments.”
The majority of the conservative counterprotesters who’d come out that day were anchored along an ideological bandwidth that centered on the belief that removal of the monuments was tantamount to desiring an overthrow of the government.
“From our perspective,” he told me, “history is not being taught at schools or at universities. What you wanna do if you wanna take over a country is you erase history and you take the symbols of that history away. And that monument over there is one of the symbols of that history. And we’re going to defend that.”
“What is your opinion of Revered Rawls?” I asked him.
“He doesn’t care one bit about that monument. What his agenda is is taking down the United States of America, with an agenda that’s basically Marxist.”
“So you’d consider Revered Rawls a Marxist?”
His face sobered and became suddenly dark.
“I’d call him a communist.”
Many veterans as well as aging whites on the other side of the road had gathered in support of the cause to remove and recontextualize the monuments.
“I would not ask the descendants of Anne Frank to walk underneath the banner of (the Nazis),” Lanelle Phillman told me. An immensely articulate, erudite woman, the 27-year veteran of the Navy- as the snow-white Caucasian descendant of seven Confederate soldiers- seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely candidate for having enlisted herself in such a seemingly liberal cause. “I wouldn’t want to see that done here. I’m a descendant of the Confederacy, but not a defendant. Descendant but not defendant.”
I ask her what she makes of what should be done for the memory of Confederate soldiers such as her ancestors (one of whom died in a Union prison camp in Chicago, Illinois):
“I believe that we honor our dead, in this particular case, in our cemeteries. But not in our public spaces.”
“It’s like a curse, it’s like a dark cloud sitting over our city.” Byron Cohen, a graying black member of the AME church and former member of the military, told me of the monuments. “I think something needs to be done about it… It’s a curse that’s gotta be broken.”
Amongst those within the crowd of counterprotesters- or, in many cases, nearby onlookers who gazed upon the spectacle- were those who believed that protesting drew unwanted negative attention that hurt the city’s tourism revenues.
“All Rev. Rawls is doing is being disruptive to the city.” Ken Griffin, a soft-spoken member of the counterprotesters and St. John’s county resident, told me. “The city council will not change their mind. It hurts the city in many ways. They (the tourists) come down here and see a march on Nights of Lights, and it hurts us. All those things are being detrimental to the city.”
Early in the night, I spoke to Ben Frasier, the saturnine black organizer of the Jacksonville Northside Coalition, a progressive group, who had arrived with several compatriots in a demonstration of solidarity with Rev. Rawls.
“A great deal of symbolism (is vested in these monuments),” he begins, speaking with the deep, almost evangelical clarity of his powerful, baritone voice. “Why? Because these monuments represent racism. These monuments represent hatred and white supremacy. These monuments represent black suppression. It’s an ugly, ugly thing. They are simply examples of man’s inhumanity to man. They should be removed and relocated.”
I ask him if he believes the movement to reconsider the monuments, on both the local and nationwide levels, are going to continue to gain steam.
“It’s going to be a protracted battle,” he concedes. “It’s going to be around for a minute. Why? Because racism has been around for a minute. Racism erected the monuments. It’s going to take somebody who stands up for justice to remove them.”