Lydale Richardson learned about the Civil Rights Movement from his grandparents. When protesters in Georgia and Mississippi had to go into hiding because the Klan was trying to kill them, some came to Leonard and Eliza Atwater’s Northwest Jacksonville home. The Atwaters also gave money to the NAACP to bond demonstrators out of jail. And they became prominent figures on the local Civil Rights scene. Asked if he remembered the Atwaters, Jacksonville Civil Rights pioneer Alton Yates says, “I will never forget them as long as I live.”
So there was plenty that Richardson, 29, and his cousin Joey Atwater, 28, learned while growing up about the importance — and cost — of standing up for your rights.
Leroy Mobley, 65, grew up inside the gilded prison of Jim Crow, the son of a man who owned his own gas station, worked in a paper mill and invested in real estate to make sure his family never wanted for anything. While a student at Raines High School, Mobley got a job as a busboy at the Sea Turtle Restaurant in Atlantic Beach. He was allowed to work there, but he couldn’t eat there, or even take a walk on the beach when his shift ended. When he was 15, Mobley joined other teens on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, marching in downtown Jacksonville and daring to sit at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Fifty-four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, on a warm July night in 2010, Mobley pulled his van into the Shell gas station at Atlantic Boulevard and Penman Road. He’d been at the beach with Richardson and Atwater, and three other friends, Robby Cohen, 33, Michael Evans, 47, and Evans’ disabled brother, Greg, 58. They’d watched the full moon rise, shared a pineapple and talked about politics — how Obama was being blamed for the economic mess when he hadn’t been in office long enough to cause so much mayhem. A couple of them discussed applying for jobs to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Although a generation separated Mobley from some of the others, all six are spiritual adherents of the Rastafari movement and share a common view of the world. They listened to Mobley’s take on things as an elder. “He was talking spiritual and wisdom-like life stuff,” recalls Richardson.
Michael Evans remembers a similarly sublime night. “We walked on the beach and enjoyed each other’s company and the beauty of the moment,” he says. “It’s like a baptism. When things are clouding your mind, if you come out and look at the water or look at the stars and the moon, it helps to regroup.”
So when the men pulled into to the Shell station to buy gas and drinks and snacks, they were feeling inspired and at peace. They were greeted by the face of racial prejudice, as familiar and ugly as ever.
According to police reports and testimony in a subsequent federal civil rights lawsuit, Mobley pulled up to the east side of the tiny stucco convenience store at around 11:45 p.m., and tried the door. It was locked, and though he saw white customers inside, he just figured the store had closed for the night. There were a couple of white guys outside who couldn’t get in, either.
So Mobley walked back to the van, revved it up and prepared to pull back onto Atlantic Boulevard. While he sat there waiting to merge into traffic, one of the white guys hollered to him that the clerk had reopened. So Mobley pulled back around to the pump, and he and four of the others headed to the door on the western side of the building, where the clerk had just let the two white guys in. (Greg Evans, who is disabled, waited in the van.) As the men rounded the corner, the station’s clerk, Said Bouassria, suddenly rushed out from behind the counter and locked the door. He made gestures at Mobley and the others to shoo them away. After the white men completed their transactions, Bouassria unlocked the door, let them out and then quickly locked it again.
The men couldn’t believe what they’d seen. “It stunned me,” says Michael Evans. “It was like a void came down. Everything was standing still. It was unbelievable.”
Truly incredulous, Evans says his first thought was, “ ‘Wait a minute. This can’t be happening in America. This can’t be real. These things don’t happen.’ ”
How often these things happen is a matter of perspective, and that perspective is usually based on race. Most whites will tell you the vestiges of Jim Crow have been erased. For young blacks accustomed to being trailed by clerks in clothing stores or stopped by police while driving, reality is somewhat different.
The first law to make discrimination illegal, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, outlawed discrimination in contracts — including implied contracts, like retail transactions, and the sale of real or personal property. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put the purpose of the laws in plain language when he wrote an opinion on challenges to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law meant “that a dollar in the hands of a Negro will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.”
Bryan DeMaggio, the attorney who represented the six men in a federal civil rights lawsuit earlier this year, explained the reasoning behind the 146-year-old law when he addressed the all-white, seven-member jury.
“Just because you freed blacks and they were on their own doesn’t mean that white people treated them right,” he told Folio Weekly.
DeMaggio is an attorney with Sheppard, White & Kachergus, a law firm with a reputation for fighting civil rights battles. The firm takes credit for desegregating Jacksonville Beach nightclubs, restaurants and motels in the 1970s and for forcing Domino’s Pizza to deliver pies to the historically black American Beach on Amelia Island in 1998. DeMaggio and attorney William Sheppard say the case against the Neptune Beach Shell station is an example of the kinds of battles that must be fought to kill the vestiges of racial privilege.
“A case like this can reverberate around the community,” Sheppard says. “You’d be surprised what an article about this will do — not so much for the white community — but for the black community.”
He adds, “It shows that the god-darn law works.”
For this case — DeMaggio’s first in federal court — the attorney used his degree in history and the testimony of the six men themselves to persuade the jury that a gross injustice had occurred that night. The jury agreed. On April 3, 2012, jurors found that the men were denied service because of their race, and that their treatment that night was unconstitutional and illegal under U.S. and Florida law. It wasn’t a huge judgment — the jury awarded each man a mere $1,500 in damages and fined the store clerk $500, in addition to requiring the defendants to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees. But it’s not the size of the payout that’s the point, says Sheppard. It’s the message that it sends.
“This is a bigger payout to me, personally, than if we had a million-dollar verdict,” Sheppard says. “We said, ‘By God, you can’t do this,’ and seven white jurors agreed with us.”
The fact that the judgment covered attorneys’ fees helps, but it isn’t the reason the firm took the case. “Everybody who ever worked in this firm over the years would have reacted the same way and done it for the principle of it,” says Sheppard. “If you get paid, Hallelujah! It makes it easer to take the next case that walks in the door. And if we win that one, too, Hallelujah!”
Evans’ first instinct that night was to leave. He tried to persuade his friends to forget about it, to find another convenience store on the way home.
“My inclination is to move away from negativity,” Evans explains. “I saw it. I felt it. I’d say he’s discriminating, but I’d move away.”
The others weren’t similarly inclined. Mobley told the clerk all he wanted was some gas, and that he wasn’t there to steal anything. “I told him that I’m a Vietnam veteran. I fought for this country — for his freedom,” recalls Mobley. “But he didn’t want to hear it.”
Robby Cohen instinctively pulled out his cell phone to visually record the dispute. Richardson says his friend was bluffing because the phone’s battery was dead, but Cohen thought that if the clerk believed he was being taped, he’d let them in. (Bouassria, through his attorney, declined to comment for this story.)
By this point, Mobley was on the phone calling the Neptune Beach Police. That worried Richardson. He plead guilty twice in 2008 to felony drug possession, and although adjudication was withheld in one of the cases and he’d gone back to school and gotten serious about finding a good job, his criminal record hampered job opportunities. He didn’t want to risk trouble with the police.
Mobley was adamant, however. “They were fully aware our rights were being violated,” says Mobley of his companions. “But by us being black, anything might come up. That’s why some of them said, ‘Let’s go.’ They were trying to avoid trouble. But I told them, ‘It’s not trouble. We’re not being treated fair.’ ”
Robby Cohen agreed with Mobley. He runs a convenience store on Main Street, and he knows you can’t deny someone service because of the color of their skin. He told the others, “It’s wrong what’s going on. We’ve being discriminated against. He’s not supposed to be locking us out. We ain’t going anywhere.”
Around this point, Neptune Beach police office B.A. Waldrep noticed the dispute from his squad car and called dispatch. The operator told him that Bouassria had already called, citing a disturbance with a group of customers. Five cop cars soon descended on the station. The officers talked to Mobley and his friends, and ran their IDs (with “negative results,” one officer noted). One officer noticed a bulge in the front of Michael Evans’ shirt and asked him to raise his shirt to see he had a weapon. Evans did so, and explained that he’d brought the two knives attached to his belt for the pineapple they’d sliced up on the beach. Davis says one of the cops sniffed the knife and said it “smelled like blood,” not pineapple, before arresting him for carrying a concealed weapon. (The State Attorney’s Office subsequently dropped the charges, but Davis spent two weeks in the Duval County jail before got the money together to pay his $2,508 bond.)
At first, Richardson says, the officers told the men they needed to leave. But the police “had a football huddle” with a sergeant and changed their minds. Richardson says the sergeant told the group that the police didn’t want to get sued for forcing them off the property when they were being discriminated against. Mobley says he suggested they hire a lawyer.
The sergeant also asked everyone if they wanted to prepare written statements, and they all did. Bouassria wrote that he was afraid “when I saw those people,” then wrote a word that he changed by adding symbols and lines to an “r,” which looks like it might have originally been written, “nigerrs in crowd.” Bouassria told the police he locked the doors because he was closing and he was afraid because the group of men “rushed both doors pulling on the handles and demanding that he re-open.” In his statement, he said one of the men told him, “We’re not a gang, we’re not going to steal anything.”
In a subsequent deposition, Bouassria said he was merely trying to get them all to use a night window, but they refused — a claim Richardson flatly disputes.
“Trust me, we’re from the Northside,” he says. “At a certain time of night, all of the places have a window. If there was a window open, trust me — I’m using it.”
Though Mobley chose to call the police, he was leery of how that decision would play out. When the sergeant handed him the victim’s statement to read, Mobley told the officer he had to get his eyeglasses out of the van. As he began reach for them, though, he suddenly stopped. “He might have said when I was reaching in the van, I was reaching for a weapon,” Mobley remembers thinking, “So I jumped back.”
Once the supervising sergeant realized he was a Vietnam veteran and understood what had happened, though, he thanked Mobley for his service to the country and agreed that what had happened was wrong. The officer explained that the police had seen them on the beach earlier, and they knew they weren’t doing anything wrong. Instead of questioning why police had been watching them, Mobley says he was reassured.
“You never know what can happen,” he says. “But that night I looked at them as my guardians. They were watching out for us.”
Before Mobley left the station sometime after midnight, the sergeant took $20 from him and paid Bouassria for gas. They never did get their drinks or snacks.
Attorney Bryan DeMaggio wasn’t certain how an all-white jury would view what happened that night — or how its members might be affected by the appearance of his Rastafarian clients. (Mobley, for instance, hasn’t clipped his dreadlocks in more than 40 years.) But he had faith that the claim of discrimination could not be denied. “At the end of the day, you can’t get around the fact that this guy was serving two white people while you got five black people standing outside,” says DeMaggio. “What happened to them was just atrocious.”
Plaintiff Michael Davis is glad they won, but says the case didn’t feel like a victory. He’s discouraged that such blatant prejudice still exists in America, he says, and even more upset that the bias is coming from a recent immigrant, like the Moroccan-born Bouassria. It’s not like he was a white person who raised in the South, he says, and possibly brought up in a racist environment; the store clerk has been in this country only three years.
Civil rights leader Alton Yates agrees that seeing newcomers embrace centuries-old prejudices is upsetting. “That really stings,” he says.
But the case has motivated Lydale Richardson, who feels a certain kinship with his grandparents because of it, and has in turn become a kind of Civil Rights warrior. He’s also changed his view of how one should fight for one’s rights and hold others accountable.
“I’m going to fight fire with water,” says Richardson. “I’m going to extinguish it. I could get hostile and cuss you out, but I’m going to do what white folks do. I’m going to screw you in the ass. I’m going to hurt your pocket. Because when you hurt their pockets, they tighten up [act right] real quick.”
Susan Cooper E