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Pensacola Protests Remain Peaceful

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the country to protest police brutality against African Americans. While demonstrations in some cities have turned violent and destructive, Pensacola's protests have remained peaceful, no matter the size of the gatherings that started late last week.

On Monday morning, one week after Floyd’s death, just a few people are standing vigil in front of a large mural and memorial in his honor at Pensacola’s Graffiti Bridge. Christina Sutton of Pensacola is one of them.

“I’ve been at the memorial since they repainted the mural from the first defacing and that’s what brought me out,” said Sutton.

“We were out here Friday and it was great unity and energy and my spirit keeps bringing me right back here.”

Standing close to the narrow roadway, Sutton waves to motorists as they slow to drive under the 17th Avenue trestle. Many are waving back and honking their horns in solidarity.

“My brothers and sisters all around the country and the world are out here standing up together in unity,” Sutton proclaimed. “And, we all have a mission and purpose. My mission and my purpose right now is to give a message. We’re out here, for one of the main reasons is to end police brutality.”

In fact, Sutton is holding a sign that calls for an end to police brutality by investigating and rooting out the white supremacists and institutional racism that exists in police and judicial systems across the nation.

“There are laws and investigations that could happen right now. I don’t think the government really cares about that, but this is why we’re out here and this is why people are at unrest,” she said. “Do what the people want. The people want peace. The people want to stop killing unjustly and senseless murders of black men.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Aleighsha and Swaine Tatum, from Katy, Texas, pose for a photo with their children, after placing their own protest sign at George Floyd's Graffiti Bridge memorial in Pensacola. The family was headed home after a short vacation in Destin.

“It’s just really overwhelming,” said Texas resident Aleighsha Tatum, who became emotional as she began to talk about taking a moment to visit the memorial with her husband Swaine and their three kids, including an eight-year-old and 4-year-old twins.

“We just wanted to support....the unjust killing you know that happens so often. And, since we were on our way back home to Texas, we just wanted to stop and share our support,” Tatum said through her tears.

While visiting Northwest Florida for a short vacation, Tatum says the family from Katy, Texas, near Houston, has been watching the developments unfold over the past week.

“So, this happened on Tuesday/Wednesday. We left home on Wednesday night and we’ve been in Destin and we’ve just been seeing so much eruption of protests and things like that on the news and social media and when we saw that there was this bridge in Pensacola, we just wanted to stop and show our appreciation.”

“What draws me to this spot is I feel the anger that everybody else feels,” said 24-year-old Pensacola Killian Murphy, reflecting on her first visit to the Graffiti Bridge memorial.

“I’m tired of seeing people in my community getting knelt down and getting shot at when they are innocent and when they are not resisting arrest. And, I just don’t think it’s fair. It’s my community, too, and I’m tired of seeing people unjustly acted towards against.”

Murphy arrived early to straighten the many signs, flowers, and candles that have been left behind. Also, she supported the effort by bringing water and other supplies. She feels fortunate that the Pensacola community has been able to make their stand for justice, without incident.

The peaceful tone to the protests hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Pensacola Police Department, according to Public Information Officer Mike Wood.

First of all, we’re proud of them,” Wood said of the protesters.

“Pensacola hasn’t seen the violence that many other cities have seen. They’ve been very respectful of each other, of citizens, and certainly of the police.

In turn, PPD plans to ensure the right of the protesters to have their voices heard, by giving them the time and space for their peaceful cries for justice, as was the case less than a year ago in response to the shooting death of a black man by one of their own.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
A mural portrait of Tymar Crawford, fatally shot last summer by former Pensacola Police Officer Daniel Siemen, faces southbound drivers approaching the 17th Avenue trestle.

“You know, right after the Tymar Crawford incident, people came together. They weren’t violent there either,” Wood recalled of the difficult time for the community.

“They came to the table, we met at city hall and we discussed some things and one of those things was they wanted officers to receive training and we brought in Dr. Cedric Alexander, an expert at this, known nationally for this and just so happens he lives in Pensacola and was able to give the officers that training.”

In the case of George Floyd, the protests have erupted after the release of a video that showed a Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Wood says there has been no need to pause their local officer training for a specific review of what happened there.

“No, and I’ll tell you why. What we saw on that video sickened us,” Wood proclaimed. “No officer liked what we saw. We are all against what we saw there, that is not how police officers are trained. So, I don’t think training would have helped that situation. I think different hiring practices. You want to go after people who can remain calm in situations like that.”

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
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On Monday morning, a small protest presence remains at Pensacola's Graffiti Bridge.

Back at the Graffiti Bridge and the mural memorials to George Floyd and Tymar Crawford, Christina Sutton remained on site, continuing to wave her sign and share the call for justice to whomever will listen.

“I just want the message to be out and I really don’t care how it gets out,” she said. “This is what I can do, having interviews, speaking on Facebook, I just promised myself that I wasn’t okay and I’m not going to be okay until I do something about it. This is my action, this is what I can do. Black Lives Matter.”

A “Black Lives Matter” banner hangs overhead on the trestle. And, on the walls below, where new murals often pop up on a nightly basis, the portraits may be painted over. But, Sutton says protest organizers plan to come right back with paint to ensure their message of justice, unity, and peace remains on display.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.