Protesters oppose city’s racism in second Light Up! Night demonstration

Rev. Ron Rawls leads a protest around the Plaza de la Constitucion on Nov. 17, 2018, at the Nights of Lights opening ceremony. Photo: Katie Garwood

By Katie Garwood |

The Rev. Ron Rawls marched to the Plaza de la Constitucion with a stern expression on his face, fist raised high in the air. Nearly 50 protesters followed behind him, walking around the Plaza and chanting to a crowd of hundreds who were awaiting the start of Nights of Lights.

Light Up! Night in St. Augustine isn’t a joyous occasion for Rawls or his fellow protesters. It’s an opportunity to create awareness about racism in St. Augustine and disrupt tourism in the city he feels doesn’t listen to the voices of people of color.

“I don’t smile, I don’t laugh when I do this,” Rawls said. “This is life to me.”

This is the second year in a row Rawls has led a protest on Light Up! Night. Last year, it was a call to remove the Confederate monuments in town. This year, it was to “oppose white supremacy,” with a goal to “become equal partners in the life and opportunities of this community” at one of the biggest tourism events of the year.

While the protest had fewer marching than last year, Rawls deemed it to be a success.

“The whole idea was to disrupt, and we disrupted,” he said.

Belinda Burgess, 64, was one of those who protested. She moved to St. Augustine last year and said while she’s new to the city, she’s no stranger to racism. Her mother marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60s, and to honor her, Burgess felt compelled to speak out against the racial disparities she’s already noticed in her community.

“A lot of the injustice, the racial inequality needs to end,” Burgess said. “If it doesn’t end, at least treat us fairly. You shouldn’t hate someone because of the color of their skin. That’s just an idiotic way to be.”

For Peter Ackerman disrupting the Light Up! Night, he said, is the most effective way to create awareness of racism in the city.

“There’s not a lot of avenues for voting and changing things,” Ackerman said. “So we really need to get out in the streets and voice our opinion.”

On Tuesday, the St. Augustine City Commission passed an ordinance that keeps protesters from entering the Plaza de la Constitucion, requiring them to remain on the perimeter sidewalks. Aside from not being able to enter the Plaza, protesters said the ordinance had little effect. But overall, it remained peaceful. Jimmy Midyette, an ACLU legal observer and staff attorney, said there weren’t any issues he saw during the protest, but the ordinance itself may not be constitutionally sound.

“I don’t like any ordinance that infringes on First Amendment rights, and I do believe it has some First Amendment problems,” Midyette said. “After seeing it at work tonight, maybe it’s OK, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone was prevented from expressing their rights.”

For some attendees in the plaza, the reason for the protest was unclear. Others opposed either the protest itself or the timing of it. 

As the line of protesters circled the plaza, some in the crowd shouted out to them. Some applauded their efforts, with a fist bump or cheer, but others weren’t as welcoming.

“Morons,” one man called out from the crowd.

“You’re racist,” another man repeated at the protesters as they passed by.

Others shouted out “Merry Christmas,” in an effort to refocus the event.

Jeff Lay, who attended the lighting ceremony, said he wasn’t happy the protest took place on Light Up! Night.

“I think they have a right to do it but this is the wrong venue,” he said. “I haven’t been able to enjoy the show because they’re in the way. I agree with them, but this is not the place to do it. Racism is an issue, but I came here to enjoy it, and I haven’t gotten to enjoy it.”

In addition to the timing of the protest, Jonna Browning said the chants were scaring her children. Browning respected their right to protest, but thought it was “going overboard.”

“What are they proving really? I do believe in ending racism, but at the same time they’re protesting statues that have been here for years,” Browning said. “Obviously no one in St. Augustine is racist anymore. There might be a couple, but they’re everywhere. It’s not just here.”

While Rawls said he understands people might be confused about the purpose of his continual protests, he hopes to open people’s eyes to issues of racism in St. Augustine.

“If you’re not being affected, it’s easy to not pay attention to somebody else’s pain and discomfort,” Rawls said. “Some people are in a position where the systemic racism and harmful culture isn’t impacting them negatively, so they don’t have to pay attention to that kind of stuff. So when we raise it and throw it in their faces, that’s uncomfortable.

“They come out there to have a good time. Our purpose is to disrupt it so maybe they can ask questions and ask why. Once they see why, they might be more willing to say, even though I’m uncomfortable and these things don’t affect me, it’s still the right moral, thing to do.”

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