Opponents to Confederate monuments protest on Light Up! Night

Rev. Ron Rawls (middle) leads protesters through the Plaza de la Constitucion as he broadcasts the march on a Facebook live stream. Photo: Katie Garwood

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

As Christmas music filled the air on Light Up! Night in the Plaza de la Constitucion, protesters chanting to “take them down” cut through the noise.

Led by St. Paul AME Church Pastor Rev. Ron Rawls, protesters were out Saturday night in an effort to have the two Confederate monuments in town removed. More than 100 people marched from St. Paul AME Church down to the Plaza de la Constitucion as the Nights of Lights lighting ceremony took place–an event that generally draws into town one of the largest crowds of the year.

“I never want to harm or make St. Augustine look negative,” Rawls said in an Oct. 24 interview. “But if they’re unwilling to have real serious dialogue with us to take the next steps, [the protest is] the next step we’re doing.”

A protester holds her sign out to the crowd at the Nights of Lights lighting ceremony in the plaza. Photo: Katie Garwood

On Oct. 23, St. Augustine city commissioners voted to “contextualize” the monument, to better explain the history surrounding it.

The protesters stood in the plaza as the lighting ceremony went on. Performers on stage made no mention of the protest and continued as usual.

But many in the crowd expressed both disdain and support for the cause. Some said it wasn’t an appropriate time for a protest, but according to protesters, there was no better time to make their point.

“People were like ‘you’re ruining our evening, you’re making us uncomfortable,’” said Christine Hatfield, one of the protesters. “Our attitude is that [the black community] has been uncomfortable always. This is one night, imagine this every day of your life.”

The march drew attention from law enforcement, as police officers followed the group along as they walked. Police officers were also stationed amongst the crowd to protect against any possible violence, which throughout the course of the demonstration, didn’t occur.

Counter-protesters also came out to “defend” the monuments. Many were members of the St. Augustine Tea Party and donned large, yellow flags reading “Don’t tread on me.” Dave Heimbold, a member of the Tea Party, said Rawls is a “rabble rouser,” whose protest will soon be forgotten.

A member of the St. Augustine Tea Party stands in front of the Confederate memorial. Photo: Katie Garwood

“Why shouldn’t [the monuments] stay up? It commemorates the dead Confederate soldiers,” Heimbold said. “It’s a memorial to the dead. It’s a part of history.” 

Those who marched tonight, however, said they feel much differently.

“We wanted to make clear our position that these confederate monuments should be removed from public property and relocated to private property,” said Ben Frazier, a member of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, a social activist organization. “They represent slavery, hatred, black repression. It’s the past. People are still fighting the civil war, we think they need to let it go, they need to march into the sunlight of a brand new day.”

For those who marched, the issue of the confederate monuments fits into a much larger issue: a racist culture in the city, they said. Going forward, Hatfield said the goal is to get people thinking and talking about not only the monuments but racism in the community.

“We got attention,” Hatfield said. “They’re going to have to deal with this, they’re going to have to start a dialogue with us. I know a lot of people are upset because it was Nights of Lights. We hope people will see that this is going to continue if they don’t take it seriously and make this right.”

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