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Tallahassee protesters jailed after demonstration against grand jury decision that lets killer cops off hook

By Jonce Palmer |
September 6, 2020
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Police in riot gear outnumber peaceful protesters on the sidewalk
Police in riot gear outnumber peaceful protesters on the sidewalk and begin making arrests on Apalachee Parkway. (Photo by Carlo Miguel Gutierrez)

Tallahassee, FL – The Tallahassee Community Action Committee (TCAC) took to the streets, September 5, in response to a grand jury decision, released the day before, that exonerated Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) officers in three murders of Black men thus far in 2020. The grand jury found that TPD’s use of force was ‘justified’ in the shooting deaths of Mychael Johnson in March and Wilbon Woodard and Tony McDade in separate incidents in May.

The protest included a march and car caravan through downtown Tallahassee, ending at the Historic Florida State Capitol, demanding legal action against the officers and community control of the police through the establishment of a Civilian Police Accountability Council.

About 100 masked protesters proceeded on foot to the Capitol, flanked by marshals who provided direction, as well as medics carrying water and medical supplies. Protesters carried signs with demands like “CPAC now!” “Stop killing us” and “Black lives matter.” A car followed the foot march to create physical distance from police cars and to offer overheated protesters air conditioning in the 90-degree heat.

In parallel to the TCAC protest, Trump supporters were gathering on the outskirts of town to participate in a nationwide “MAGA Drag the Interstate” event. The MAGA event was initially planned as a car caravan from Interstate 10 to the Historic Capitol. To protect its own members, TCAC planned to march to the Florida Governor’s Mansion instead of the Historic Capitol. However, the MAGA event organizers changed their plans to circle the beltway surrounding Tallahassee. As a result, TCAC determined it was safe to march to the Historic Capitol, consistent with the typical route for its protests.

Color of Change and More Than A Name organizer Tesia’Jay Lisbon spoke before the march about the body cam videos released by Tallahassee Police Department with commentary from police investigators regarding Tony McDade and Mychael Johnson. “[TPD] literally said the camera was disabled and failed; what about the other cameras that were there? There were so many police officers. And then let’s address the facts in the issue: to then place in [TPD’s] video a white woman describing Mychael Johnson as somebody who could rip the door of her car off! Rip the door of her car off! That is literally how they have been describing Black men for hundreds of years!”

TCAC decided to move to the sidewalk when directed by police. Organizers had already heard several reports of heavier police presence than usual since last week’s infiltration and wanted to minimize clashes with the police. Despite this compliance, TPD and Leon County Sheriff’s Officers came ready to escalate the situation, with TPD officers in full riot gear.

Tallahassee Community Action Committee organizers attempted to live-stream the day’s events across multiple platforms as a way to keep the public informed and to create a record in case of violence or obstruction from the police or counter-protesters. This tactic was especially important in the wake of a TCAC event on August 29 when a counter-protester drew a gun and pointed it at several TCAC members, all of whom were unarmed. The man in question was apprehended but not arrested nor charged, and the Tallahassee government imposed a nightly curfew because of the ‘violent’ protest.

From the beginning of the TCAC march, there was a heavy police presence on bicycles, motorcycles, cars, vans and buses. Some police were circling the protest staging site and route in their vehicles. A line of police cars and a police bus were stationed behind the county courthouse nearby. TPD and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office had blocked off several streets surrounding the Historic Capitol. There were also credible reports that TPD Special Response Vehicles were moving toward the protest. These vehicles commonly carry police gear used to suppress protests, including shields and tear gas. Large unmarked vehicles were also observed circling the meeting point for the march; it was unclear whether these were police vans or counter-protesters. Drones and Leon County Sheriff’s Office helicopter(s) were flying overhead.

Just before 4 p.m., the police began forcibly detaining protesters, including several TCAC leaders such as the president and treasurer. Reports indicate that 15 protesters were detained. Police officers refused to verbalize the causes of these detentions as they pulled protesters into police cars. In at least one case, a protester vomited and fell to the ground while being detained and was forcibly carried to a police car. When protesters asked whether their comrades had been arrested or only detained, TPD officers repeatedly stated they did not have anyone arrested or detained. Further, receptionists at the Leon County Detention Facility - the area’s only jail - said the detained protesters were not there and did not know where they were.

This deliberate denial of information from police impeded the Tallahassee Community Action Committee’s legal team and raised concerns about the treatment of the detained protesters, many of whom are people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and/or working-class folks. In Tallahassee and elsewhere, police brutality towards members of these groups is widespread. TCAC members are working in shifts as jail support to receive any information, post bail, and take anyone released home. A lieutenant informally advised a TCAC member that some of the charges being leveled against those involved in TCAC’s protest include unlawful assembly, resisting without violence, and battery of a law enforcement officer.

As of this writing, thanks to the efforts and funds of the Tallahassee Bail Fund, in coordination with TCAC and organizations like Tallahassee Dream Defenders, all but one (due to a violation of parole) of the non-hospitalized protesters have had their bails posted and were released, including the president and other founding members of TCAC. Three of the detained protesters were taken to a hospital. Their status is currently unknown.

After most of the protesters were released from Leon County Detention Center, TCAC member Anthony Suarez commented, “Today we witnessed the consequences of having highly militarized police who are not held accountable in the slightest and have license to act like what they time and time again demonstrate themselves to be, an occupying force on our streets. They showed up heavily armed, outnumbering us three to one, and proceeded to brutalize and arrest protesters, with a clear and sickening focus on protest organizers and leaders. Now more than ever we see the need for community control of the police in Tallahassee and across the nation if we ever want to end this cycle of state-sanctioned violence.”

Tallahassee Community Action Committee is raising money for a community legal defense fund so the protesters can be freed of the financial burden that comes with arrest, legal battles, physical/mental recovery, and other problems that may arise. You can donate to the GoFundMe here.

Jonce Palmer (they/them) is an activist living in Tallahassee, Florida.