This story has been updated since it's original publication on April 9, including with Folio Weekly's April 10 interview of William "Gary" Snow Jr..
After interviewing Florida AFL-CIO official Mike Stovall and Jacksonville Progressive Coalition Spokesman Richard Blake, Folio Weekly sat down with two additional co-organizers.
Dustin Ponder is a 29-year-old union activist who works for UPS. He also organizes protests regarding workers' rights, racial justice, and other progressive causes. Ponder told Folio that he has been involved with organizing or assisting the organization of 20-30 protests in Jacksonville.
He met Dave Schneider, (the protest emcee who was arrested Friday night for inciting a riot) while attending the University of Florida, and the two have become best friends. They are also roommates. Ponder says that he and other friends had been planning a birthday party for Schneider after the Hemming Park event. Connell Crooms (the deaf African-American activist who was hospitalized following his arrest Friday night), Schneider, and Ponder, all friends, also work together, Ponder says.
Twenty-six-year-old Kendra Calvin was also present Friday night at the Hemming Park protest of President Trump's military strikes in Syria. Calvin and Ponder are in a relationship.
"They only do peaceful protests," Calvin said of Ponder and Schneider. "That's their image out there. Their names. Why would they want to cause a riot?"
During his nine years of involvement with hundreds of protests here and in other cities, Ponder says he has had ample opportunity to observe police practices regarding public safety at politically charged rallies.
"Police always, almost, separate protesters and counter protesters," Ponder said. "They set up barriers to separate people."
But that didn't happen Friday night. Ponder said that counter protester Gary Snow, who some witnesses say is an alias of a man named William Garrett Nix, was getting too close to protesters.
Snow confirmed to Folio that his real name is William Snow Jr., and that he is called Gary, as was his father. “Nix,” he says, means “snow” in Latin, and he used the name as a Facebook avatar in order to protect his real name from being smeared. “I’ve been doxxed before,” he says. [To dox, according to Google, is to “search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.”]
Calvin says that Snow repeatedly shoved his camera very close to people's faces, intentionally trying to pick fights with them. Snow can be observed on videos wearing a black vest with the number 45 and Trump on his front right shoulder.
Snow does not deny pushing to the edge of what the law allows without actually crossing the line.
"I'm not breaking the law," he said. "I get up close and personal. If somebody reacts based on what I've done and breaks the law, then it's that person's fault." He also told Folio that he's not responsible for the actions of others.
Numerous speakers at Saturday’s protest and press conference referred to Snow as “the provocateur.” One protester on the courthouse steps, behind the speaker, held a sign asking why the JSO had not arrested Snow. Another’s sign featured Snow’s alias.
Folio Weekly is working to compile the numerous social media posts regarding Snow, who previously engaged in agitating protesters before relocating to Jacksonville from Chicago. In a story dated July 8, 2016 about a prayer service for the five officers gunned down at a protest in Dallas last summer, News4Jax quotes one Gary Snow who recently moved “to the Jacksonville area from Chicago.”
"I just moved here to Jacksonville and I'm amazed by the amount of citizens that actually support their police officers here in Jacksonville," Snow is reported as saying. "They took an oath to serve and protect. And I believe it's our obligation, as citizens, to return the favor and say, 'Thank you. Thank you for going out there and putting their lives on the line for us.'"
In one photograph that looks to be screenshot from Snow’s Instagram account, he is seen posing with two white Chicago police officers. The caption of the post reads, “Spoke to these fine officers! They had a LOT of #whitepride! Glad to meet fellow #proudracists in Chicago! #AmeriKKKa #truepatriot #whitepower #americentric #patriotism #patriot #nocturnuslibertus #palmettostar.” The last two hashtags appear to be baiting African American activists. Snow claims that this screenshot is from a social media account a black nationalist fraudulently created in his name in order to defame him.
"These are black supremacists, black nationalists. We tried to do an online campaign to expose them for burning flags and threatening police officers," Snow said.
In a video posted to Snow's Facebook account Sunday afternoon, he repeatedly denies being racist and blames Crooms for escalating the events that occurred in Hemming Park on Friday night. In a phone interview today, he reiterated that he is not racist or affiliated with white supremacists.
“I’ve been accused of being a KKK member, a racist, you know, for the last year and a half … I’ve been called everything from a misogynist to a homophobe to a xenophobe. But, you know, my biggest problem is actually being called a racist,” he says, going on to say that he was raised in a black and Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago, one of the most diverse cities in the nation. (Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that Chicago is the third most segregated city in the U.S.)
Snow says that people misconstrue his social media posts, videos and other actions as racist when in reality he is actually pushing back against the racism of black nationalists and separatists and that members of such groups angered him roughly two years ago by defacing the American flag; he also says that he and his family have been threatened due to his activities, which has also inspired him to make videos and take other actions.
His feelings about people defacing and disrespecting the American flag led him to become an ardent supporter of Donald Trump beginning in the summer of 2015, he says.
“What I did in Hemming Park does not deem me as a racist… I’ve told the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition that if you hold a protest in a public place. I’m going to show up. You protest, I support. I support my president. He got elected. You lost.”
He goes on to say that those affiliated with Indivisible groups, the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders supporters, etc., have been trying to delegitimize President Trump since his election.
After learning that there was to be a protest of the bombing of Syria on Friday night, Snow says he resolved to attend.
“I couldn’t take it. That’s ludicrous. It’s insane. It’s just another attempt by these radical progressive socialists in Jacksonville to come out and try to get some news coverage… It’s the same shit they’ve been saying since November 8.”
In the video, Snow says he arrived at the protest early and that some there “thought it was funny” to take his things, throwing them in the garbage and over the fence. He also holds that it was Crooms who escalated the incident.
“Connell attacked a police officer. He attacked me.” Then, when given instructions by the police, Crooms didn’t comply, which led to his arrest, Snow says.
From Peace to Disorder
Videos of the protest on Friday night show Snow initially threading through the crowd in front of the protest staging area, (a raised landscape area with a concrete border), then making his way back around the rectangular concrete border and coming up from behind the speakers to join them on their platform, positioning himself next to Crooms.
Ponder says that as Snow was making his way around the back of the stage, Ponder inserted himself between Snow and the raised, concrete retaining walls that were serving as a makeshift stage to create space between Snow, Schneider and Crooms. The latter were on the stage as speakers.
Ponder says that Snow "rammed" him with his shoulder in order to get past him and up onto the stage. When asked who was responsible for the first act of physical aggression at the rally, Ponder replied, "Definitely Snow."
Calvin observed Snow at Friday night's rally, spinning to catch people on his camera while a giant Trump flag rested on his shoulder. As he did so, she says, the top of his flagpole hit at least one protester.
"He had no concern for anyone around him," Calvin said.
Prior to Snow's movement to the back of the staging area, videos depict him interacting with 74-year-old Veterans for Peace member William Wilder. Wilder asks Snow why he is wearing an Army t-shirt, and Snow replies that he respects the military but later concedes that he did not serve. Wilder says that he, by contrast, was in the war, and indicates that it's upsetting to him to see Snow dressed as he was. The interaction ends with Snow saying "fuck you" and walking away.
Video and Still Photo Corroboration
Live video footage posted by Kelly Pope, who goes by Kelly Florida on social media, corroborates Ponder's account of Snow's end run around the stage area.
The anti-war protesters had taken up a bullhorn to be heard, with Schneider stating on film they had no option because of Snow's and others’ disruption. Protesters estimate that Snow was leading a total of about seven counter-protesters.
Previous coverage quotes AFL-CIO official Mike Stovall as saying that there was a group playing loud music, trying to drown out the anti-war activists, when he arrived at the start of the rally. That group arrived before the anti-war activists. Snow denies that his people were playing music and says he asked his people not to use the loudspeaker once private park security officers admonished the anti-war protesters for doing so.
About three minutes into Pope's video, Snow makes his way around the back of the raised landscape area, coming up behind Crooms and Schneider on the raised concrete border.
Once Snow is on the platform, organizer and emcee Schneider can be seen inserting himself between Snow and Crooms, as Crooms continues speaking. One of Snow’s assumed associates can be seen and heard standing off behind the speakers on the wooden platform, blaring the siren feature on his bullhorn in an apparent attempt to drown out speakers. The associate steps up and hands the bullhorn to Snow seconds later. Snow then uses it to say that he and his group will be there in 2018 and 2020. This prompts chants from the crowd led by Schneider. Snow continues saying something unintelligible, but is drowned out by the chants of , “No Justice, No Peace, U.S. out of the Middle East,” which he joins for a few seconds.
With about three and a half minutes left in the video, a man walks up behind Snow, Schneider, and Crooms. As he approaches Crooms' back, an observer at the rally can be heard objecting and can be seen moving toward the man, who is now directly behind Crooms. The Trump flag enters the frame, then the camera shifts to the right where a scuffle has ensued between Crooms and Snow.
Several witnesses say that this is the point where the peaceful rally became a disorderly clash between protesters and provocateur. Seconds later, Snow can be seen running across the wooden platform away from Crooms, with Crooms following. Snow's associate hands him his flag as he leaves the platform.
Ponder and Calvin declined to speak about the specifics of Crooms’ and Snow's interaction on the wooden platform after both men left the stage, and Folio has reached out to another eyewitness to help fill in the blanks on this still-developing story.
After the original publication of this article, a source from the activist camp conceded to Folio Weekly that one of their participants appeared to have walked into the speaker cord of Snow’s bullhorn. Snow was holding the handset with the bullhorn speaker behind him, held by an associate. In light of that information, it appears in another video, Catherine Corby’s, that the cord and the flag got tangled, angering Snow, in a lead-up to Snow pushing Crooms. Snow pushing Crooms is depicted in still shots throughout social media.
“He purposefully got tangled up,” Snow said of the activist who walked into the cord. The activist is seen throughout the video in a bandanna mask.
“They disrespected my rights and freedom of speech. They grabbed my property,” Snow said.
He conceded that he did act to go after his property.
“I unwound my cord from that gentleman’s hand,” Snow said. “I tried the least aggressive way to get my speaker back from that gentleman.”
Snow also concedes that Crooms did not assault him. “Connell Crooms has not touched me in an aggressive manner.”