The chants were the same: “Say his name–George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe,” “No justice, no peace,” “Hands up–don’t shoot.”
The signs were the same: “What if it was your son?” “Skin color no crime.” “Peace and justice.” “Black Lives Fucking Matter.” “White Silence = Violence.” “Comply Still Die.” “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”
The passion to be heard, the exhortations to not just march but vote, the fury over a Minneapolis cop’s killing of George Floyd was the same as that blared across the nation for the past eight days and nights when upwards of 200 people gathered in Kohl’s parking lot in Palm Coast at 1 p.m. today and marched in a 3-mile loop through the heart of town, circling to the area of Walmart and bypassing Bealls–incidentally, the three box stores that decided to shutter their doors as a precaution, worried that the march in Palm Coast might replicate some of the more violent demonstrations elsewhere in the country.
Palm Coast has had its share of demonstrations–in tea party days, for teachers, for health care, for Trayvon Martin, against gun violence, by liberals, by Trump supporters. It’s never known a violent demonstration. It wasn’t about to start today.
The scene on the surface at Kohl’s may at first have suggested the same sort of presumed standoff, with demonstrators on one side and cops on the other. But it wasn’t. The cops weren’t in riot gear. They weren’t armed or postured any differently than they would be on traffic detail for a highly attended funeral. They were on foot or on bicycles. If heavier gear was at the ready, it was out of sight. And there really was no dividing line between cops and protesters: cops bowed heads and prayed with the protesters before the march, they were in constant contact with them, they literally carried their water and distributed it for them, and when the march was ready to set off, one of the cops on a bike told the marchers: “You lead the way, we’ll follow you.” Patrol cars stopped traffic at successive intersections so the long line of marchers could cross safely, and along the way drivers honked, marchers waved, sang and chanted, and the staff at Palm Coast Ford had set up a watering station, dispensing water bottles to everyone as if it were a holiday 5K.
But there was also no mistaking the marchers’ intentions. This was no kumbaya moment. There is anger, there is disbelief, there is frustration, there is a sense of dread that the nation is “backsliding” into racism, as one of the oldest marchers put it. John Young is almost 70. He took part in his first civil rights march in Baltimore in 1969. And here he was at it again. “I do live in Palm Coast. I’m not an outside agitator,” he said, wryly reflecting the fear that this, like some other demonstration, would be invaded by “agitators.”
The marchers, with John Young, a 69-year-old veteran who’s been marching since 1969, bringing up the rear.
Three years ago he was in Charlottesville “to see those very fine people in nazi uniforms and white hoods,” he said. “That’s the sad part. It seems to be getting worse. Charlottesville was like a watershed that said this country is in a backslide in being led by the folks in D.C., and it’s just pathetic.” He told the demonstrators: “Our streets. We’re not going to take them over, but this is what democracy looks like.”
Phillip King of Palm Coast addressed the growing crowd before the march set off. “I’m not an organizer,” he said, “but I am excited to see our city standing up with solidarity. There is an old, old good boys’ system in Palm Coast which we are all aware of, and they deem this community to be a place that you come and die. But we’re standing up to say that this is a place you can come to live, and not just to live, but live together and live in peace.
“And one of the things I’m always conscious and thankful for is that Palm Coast has not made national news. Which is an indication that we’ve not had the fatalities, the trauma, and the tragedies that we see nationally. But I am so grateful that we can still respond collectively to what’s going on. In the words of Martin Luther King, if there’s an injustice anywhere, it is everywhere.” He did not march: he’d just had a knee replacement. But he’d brought water for marchers.
Then he had advice that would be heard repeatedly: Marching is fine. But it’s not enough. “What is the answer? The answer is that we get down to the voting polls so that we can correct or reform legislation and law so that we can make illegal the act of killing unarmed citizens in our country. We want to make sure that while we’re marching, we’re marching with the intent of simply becoming one with each other and our community.” He continued: “I believe we have a good sheriff here. I was on the fence with him. But I can say that I’ve not experienced these national tragedies here, which means that our local law officers are doing something that perhaps the other cities ought to come and watch and see how they’re doing here. But in any result, we’ve got to get to the polls. Marching, chanting and coming together does not matter if we don’t go in and put it down on the polls and make sure we change things in legislation. We’ve got to get laws changed. We’ve got to get laws changed. And you guys can do it.”
It was never quite clear who organized the march. On Tuesday, Staly met with some 30 pastors and talked about it, at one point empathizing with the cause. But no single organizer was identified, nor was one identified for a similar march organized for late afternoon today in Flagler Beach, perhaps intentionally: organizers have been skittish to telegraph their intentions too far in advance, too openly, for fear of attracting bigots and fanatics intent on breaking heads.
Pastor Sims Jones, a veteran of these marches, ridiculed those who’d cast aspersions on demonstrators. “That’s why they’d rather talk about oh–there’s going to be a riot. You know, they want to break up stuff or whatever. We ain’t here to riot. We’re here to bring something out to the people so that they can understand,” Jones told the marchers. “There’s nothing wrong with doing something decently and in order. As long as we do it decently and in order, they can’t say nothing else and they’ve got to listen to the issues we’re talking about. But if we give them a reason, then they’re going to turn it the other way.”
The marchers also heard from another veteran of the civil rights movement, Linda Sharpe-Matthews, the long-time president of the Flagler branch of the NAACP. “Young people, I ask you to pay attention to what you have heard today, and what you’re going to hear later on,” she told them. “I am part of an organization that’s been on the front end of civil rights since 1909, started in Niagara, N.Y. I have been marching and holding petitions since I was 8 years old. I’m giving my age away, but that’s how far back: I was born before the civil rights bills were passed. Please, if we are where we were in 1963 and 64 and 65 in 2020, we are in for a long, painful struggle. We can cut the struggle short now by using your power to vote. That is the most powerful weapon we have. Weapons that break out windows are not constructive. Weapons that beat on people’s heads are not constructive. Knees to the neck are not constructive.” By then the crowd was joining Matthews every time she’d say “not constructive.” “What we need is a systematic way to destroy this systematic racism that has been going on since 1619. And I can’t say this better than I’ve said it, and you’ve heard it here, get out and vote in November. Your life depends on it.”
They set off, their chants and signs coloring their way along Palm Coast Parkway, the words of grief and lament punctuating the humid atmosphere with the week’s anthem to George Floyd: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Floyd had spoken those words eight times as then-officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground, Chauvin’s knee locked on Floyd’s neck.
Around Palm Coast Ford, Staly, the sheriff, who was driving by, briefly stopped and spoke with a reporter. “So far it’s an outstanding protest of our community exercising their first amendment right,” he said, “I’m very proud of our community. They’re peacefully working with the businesses, as you can see, and our agency. We want to ensure the safety of everyone so they have a safe opportunity to exercise their constitutional rights.”
Of the chants, he said: “All of us are saddened by the death of Mr. Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, and no one condones it. Certainly not me as sheriff and not this agency.” Told of Phillips’s comments about him earlier, Staly said: “I do think we are a model agency, that other agencies should look at how we do our training, our deescalation, how we do our hiring and selection process, and how we hold our employees accountable, which I think was a failure in Minneapolis.”
No civilian has died at the hands of a sheriff’s deputy or any police force in Flagler County in eight years–since December 2012.