THE JACKSONVILLE 19 SPEAK OUT ABOUT THE HART BRIDGE PROTEST

Built in 1967, the Isaiah D. Hart Bridge spans 3,844 feet from end to end, and
 stands 141 feet above the St. Johns River — a lethal drop, as the past well attests. When a loose collective of activists walked out of their stopped cars on that bridge during rush hour last Monday, Dec. 8, to protest police violence, they were most assuredly putting their lives at risk, and most certainly inconveniencing the hell out of the poor drivers behind them. (One told Folio Weekly that he missed a chemotherapy appointment because of the protest.) For the protesters, however, the cause was worth the risk, worth the roadway enmity, worth the arrests.

Nineteen people were arrested on the bridge that day — 11 men and eight women, 12 black and seven white, ages ranging from 21 to 54. Most were given misdemeanor citations for obstructing a highway; one woman was hit with two felony charges for resisting arrest.

Multiple protesters say Jacksonville Sheriff’s officers confiscated all of their cell phones and recording equipment, after what some describe as possible incidents of police brutality, which they say their recordings may have captured.

The JSO refused to comment on the activists’ allegations of impropriety, instead referring Folio Weekly to YouTube, where two brief press conferences from Dec. 8 had been archived. In those remarks, spokespersons reiterate the department’s commitment to working with peaceful protesters, balancing their rights against those of the general public. There was no discussion of why the protesters were held incommunicado, handcuffed for hours in the backs of patrol cars before being processed, or why civilian journalists had their equipment taken.

“All 19 of us had our cameras and phones taken and not returned as evidence in a misdemeanor traffic violation,” says Autrelle Holland, who was there documenting the scene. “When they arrested me, I had my knife and my cellphone. But they gave me my knife back when I was released.”

Holland posted on Facebook Monday that, a week later, he’d finally gotten his phone back, albeit with the SD card removed. He still hasn’t gotten his camera back. (Editor’s note: After the original version of this story went to press, a protest organizer told Folio Weekly that the JSO had obtained a warrant to examine the recordings for evidence for the felony resisting arrest charges.)

Almost immediately after the arrests, fellow activists began to rally around their colleagues, now branded as the “Jacksonville 19” or “Jax19.” Indeed, there were more protesters at the jail than there had been on the bridge and earlier that morning on I-95 combined. All those arrested were released within 24 hours, with bond amounts ranging from less than $100 to as much as $12,500. Several bonded out with the help of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while others relied on relatives or friends.

Since then, most of the protesters have kept a low profile, not taking an active role in subsequent actions. As one put it, “The frontlines isn’t the place for me right now.” Most of those who spoke with Folio Weekly would only do so off the record, and many were naturally skeptical of the media. But Diallo Sekou, one of the principal organizers, is among those taking the exact opposite approach, using the hype to draw attention to the issues that have motivated him for years, while continuing to organize actions centered in Northwest Jacksonville.

“We’ve always been activists,” he says. “We’ve just taken it up a notch.” He situates these protests firmly in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders of the Civil Rights era. For him, the individual cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island are just chapters in a much broader narrative that encompasses all the nation’s major sociopolitical institutions, in which police brutality is not an aberration, but an expression of society’s underlying values.

“I’m not hiding my face,” he says. “Our sons need to see us doing this. Our fathers need to see us doing this.”

“When they arrested me, I had my knife and my cellphone. But they gave me my knife back when I was released.”

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