Last night, what was intended to be a non-violent protest against the bombings on Syria the U.S. carried out the previous night became a violent skirmish involving officers with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and several protesters, one of whom was treated at a local hospital for his injuries.
Video footage showing officers punching, restraining and arresting protesters last night was widely circulated on social media, including by Folio Weekly, which shared footage of the incident captured by a local activist on Facebook and Twitter.
Today's protest, "Free the Hemming Park Five," saw a group of approximately 50 gather at the Duval County Courthouse to call upon police to drop all charges against the six people arrested last night. (Initial reports were of five arrests; it was later learned that six were arrested, though activists later said that one arrestee was unaffiliated with the protest.) Several observers indicated that a handful of counterprotesters were among the crowd today, but those believed to be counterprotesters remained mostly silent, taking pictures and video.
Speakers at the event organized by the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition resoundingly criticized JSO's handling of the incident. (The coalition and Jacksonville Against the War on Syria-JAWS co-organized last night's protest, "No War with Syria.") Many questioned why the counterprotester who they believe responsible for causing last night's protest to turn violent was himself not charged by police. Videos of the incident show that man, a counterprotester who goes by the name Gary Snow and is a familiar face at local protests, pushing 27-year-old deaf African American man, Connell Crooms, immediately before officers intervene. Crooms is subsequently pinned to the ground by officers, one of whom punches him several times in the ribs while he is restrained. Crooms was transported to UF Health Jacksonville for treatment for his injuries before being charged and booked.
Along with several activists, Ellen Schneider, whose brother David Schneider was among those arrested, addressed the crowd today, as did Crooms' mother.
5:15 p.m. UPDATE
Folio Weekly has interviewed two eyewitnesses to the Syria protest in Hemming Park Friday night.
Mike Stovall coordinates the five northeast Florida counties for the Florida AFL-CIO. He says that Trump-agitator Gary Snow has shown up at rallies around the state trying to incite violence, according to his AFL-CIO cohorts around the state.
Stovall told Folio that, while the Syria-bombing protesters were asked by the private security guards in the park to not use their bullhorns, it was the counter-protesters who used bullhorns first to drown out the speakers with loud songs, including "Dixie."
"Bullhorns were no problem until our people had bullhorns," Stovall said.
Stovall said he left the rally when Connell Crooms "quoted an NWA album" saying "Fuck the police."
"I represent them," Stovall said of the police. " I can't be associated with that." The police union is among 53 in the area that the AFL-CIO interacts with. Stovall then drove around the park several times and watched in disbelief as the melee ensued.
When he saw the squad car that held Crooms drive to an ambulance two blocks away, Stovall witnessed a limp Crooms being taken from the squad car and loaded into the ambulance. Stovall then immediately went to UF Shands ER, to wait for the ambulance until family could be notified. He said he waited for 45 minutes at the 8th Street hospital before the ambulance arrived from the Hemming Park location.
Both Stovall and Richard Blake, who helped organize and promote the anti-Syria protest, and who emceed the presser on Saturday, confirm that the police were informed of Snow's history of provoking peaceful protesters, and that they anticipated a problem if police did not act to intervene.
Blake said he was told by police that they would not intervene until Snow committed a crime, despite the well-known practice of separating protesters from counter protesters during countless previous, politically charged events. Blake said that Snow was visibly bumping up against primary organizer David Schneider, who ignored him.
"If I had done that at a Trump rally, I don't think I'd have gotten away with it," Blake said. Blake, like his friend of 9 years who was arrested, Dave Schneider, works at UPS. Both are union stewards there.
Reporting on this story continues. Check back for additional updates.