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The Jacksonville 5 speak out after beating police repression in the Deep South

By staff |
June 9, 2017
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Connell Crooms speaking out at a press conference
Connell Crooms speaking out at a press conference with three other members of the Jax5 - Dave Schneider, Christina Kittle and Willie Wilder - standing behind. (Photo by Mike Todd)

Jacksonville, FL - Four of the five activists beaten and arrested by police at an April anti-war protest spoke out at a press conference, June 5, held outside the Duval County Courthouse. Dubbed the 'Jax5' by supporters, the activists discussed the favorable outcome of their cases and announced a campaign for community control of the police in Jacksonville. It marked the first public statement by the Jax5 since their arrest nearly two months earlier.

The Jax5 all faced felony charges carrying prison sentences if found guilty. But on June 1, State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced her office was dropping the charges on two of the Jax5 – Dave Schneider and Connell Crooms. The next day, June 2, the remaining three activists – Christina Kittle, William Wilder and Toma Beckham – accepted plea deals resulting in no convictions and 25 hours of community service each.

The outcome was a stunning rebuke to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). JSO officers and officials tried to privately exert pressure on Nelson to move forward on the charges. Similarly, the FOP publicly attacked supporters of the Jax5, including Leslie Scott Jean-Bart, a well-known Black attorney who criticized JSO’s handling of the April 7 protest.

The Jax5 speak out

With a group of 25 supporters standing behind them, four of the Jax5 spoke about their case, highlighted the central role of mass activism in their victory, and vocally supported the demand for community control of the police.

“Community activism kept us free,” said Christina Kittle in an interview with Fight Back! after the event. Kittle is no stranger to activism, of course, and has organized countless events supporting the victims of police crimes and sexual assault. During the press conference, she added, “We wouldn’t have even had our charges dropped down to misdemeanors if it wasn’t for Jacksonville community organizing. Everybody felt that something was wrong, everybody came together and told the city this is unacceptable.”

Connell Crooms, a deaf Black union worker active in the Teamsters and a lifelong advocate for the disabled community, echoed this sentiment. “The most important lesson here is that this win wasn't fought for by the politicos in either the Democratic or Republican parties, despite constitutional rights being under attack. This was a win organized by the people whom it impacts the most. Direct action by the masses still works!”

Willie Wilder, a 74-year-old veteran and leader of the local Veterans for Peace chapter, said at the press conference, “I want to thank our community. Our community rose up just like that. And it’s carried us to this day where we can all stand here with felonious charges all dropped and all of us ready to return to our activism and take care of business.” Speaking about the April 7 police crackdown, Wilder added, “It was an act of intimidation in order to cause people to not step out and speak the truth. Well, I guess I have this to say: They messed up because now we’re even more inclined to do so.”

At the press conference, Dave Schneider said in a prepared statement, “Let me be very clear: The reason we beat this act of political repression was because of the mass movement springing to life in Jacksonville.” The 27-year-old Teamster union steward and community organizer continued, “Our arrests were acts of political repression, pure and simple. The JSO has had activists - including at least three of the Jax5, including me - under surveillance for over a year before April 7. That’s not us being paranoid, either. That’s straight out of the Florida Times Union.”

Schneider was referencing a series of stories written by Ben Conarck of the Florida Times Union, Jacksonville’s largest newspaper, which exposed JSO surveillance programs on local activists. In a front-page article from March 24, 2017, entitled “Monitoring Dissent: How the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office spied on protesters,” Schneider, Crooms and Kittle were all pictured in screenshots of the video footage taken by undercover JSO officers at events. In an interview with News4Jax less than two weeks before his arrest, Schneider condemned the JSO’s surveillance of himself and other activists and called it a sign that “the powers that be look at that [the growth of activism in Jacksonville] as very dangerous to them.”

April 7 police crackdown in Jacksonville

On April 7, labor and community activists in Jacksonville Florida held an emergency protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s military attack on Syria and his threats of war on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At the protest, a group of white supremacists led by William ‘Gary’ Snow disrupted the event and attacked several protesters. Snow attacked Connell Crooms, a deaf Black Teamster and well-known community activist.

Rather than arresting the provocateur, five Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) officers tackled Crooms to the ground, punching him repeatedly and knocking his hearing aid out. Video footage appears to show one JSO officer, B.D. McEwan, tasing Crooms, who was later hospitalized.

JSO officers savagely beat and arrested three other protesters, who attempted to intervene in fear for Crooms’ life. JSO officer B.J. Langston slammed Christina Kittle onto her back against a wooden platform and dislocated her shoulder. Video shows another JSO officer repeatedly punching 74-year-old veteran Willie Wilder in the face before arresting him. Police also beat Toma Beckham and threw them to the ground.

After the brutal police attack, JSO also arrested Dave Schneider for organizing the anti-war protest. They charged him with a third-degree felony for “inciting a riot,” which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison.

The people fight back

Jacksonville activists immediately sprang into action. Less than 24 hours after JSO’s brutal crackdown, more than 200 people rallied outside the Duval County Courthouse demanding the release of the Jax5. Prosecutors and Circuit Judge Lester Bass set unusually high bails for all of the Jax5, totaling $157,000. Nevertheless, hundreds of people across the country donated to the Jax5 legal fund, and all five arrested activists were bonded out of jail and back home on April 8.

Video of the incident spread like wildfire on social media and even drew international attention. Over 60,000 people across the U.S. signed a petition circulated by Color of Change, an online racial justice network, calling on State Attorney Melissa Nelson to drop the charges on the Jax5 and investigate the JSO. Hundreds of people around the country called into Nelson’s office on several designated call-in days, and activists in other parts of Florida, like Gainesville, held demonstrations for the Jax5.

In Jacksonville, the fight to get the charges on the Jax5 dropped united people and raised bigger questions about police crimes. Groups like the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition (JPC) and the Northside Coalition held rallies and demonstrations supporting the Jax5 and demanding community control of the police. Student activists at the University of North Florida (UNF) held a forum on ‘Civil Rights in the Era of the Jax5’ and filled the room to capacity during finals week.

On May 1 - International Workers Day - over 200 people rallied outside the Duval County Courthouse calling on Nelson to drop the charges and indict the officers involved in the April 7 brawl, as well as the police killing of Selwyn Hall, an African American man shot by JSO in late April. Hall’s family, along with the families of other victims of police crimes, joined in the May Day protest. The police repression inflicted on the Jax5 brought the city’s activists and organizers together with ordinary working people victimized by JSO and the injustice system.

The Jax5 and the fight for community control of the police

“The police hoped that their brutality on April 7 would crush the people’s movements in Jacksonville,” observed Michael Sampson, one of the leaders of the Justice for the Jax5 campaign and a lead organizer with the newly formed Jacksonville Community Action Committee. “Instead, they united people of all nationalities who are fed up with police crimes and killings into a mass movement. Like never before, people in this city want community control of the JSO and are taking an active role in the fight to make it happen.”

At the press conference, the Jax5 announced their support for a Jacksonville Police Accountability Council (JPAC), modeled after a similar proposal by community activists in Chicago, Illinois. JPAC would consist of a democratically elected body of civilians - no current or former police - with the legal power to hear and investigate allegations of police misconduct, subpoena evidence and witness testimony, rewrite the JSO’s procedures and code of conduct, review and amend hiring practices, and suspend and terminate officers found guilty by the council.

When asked about the impact of the Jax5 victory on the city of Jacksonville, Crooms told Fight Back!, “From this, we can a step towards fighting back against racism. This is a fight long overdue and we all know the issues of police relations with Black communities. We can use this incident as a call for community control of the police and take control over racist cops ourselves. It's long past time.”