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Pensacola Protests for George Floyd to Continue

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Rachael Pongetti/Courtesy Photo
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Pensacola residents protesting the death of George Floyd spent the weekend making their voices heard at the iconic 17th Street Trestle were joined by two special visitors on Saturday.

Civil rights icon Rev. H.K. Matthews says that after years of African-Americans dying at the hands of law enforcement, Floyd’s death — when a Minneapolis cop crushed his windpipe with his knee — appears to be the long-awaited tipping point. Matthews, 92, compares it to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, which he attended.

“Because we haven’t seen anything of this magnitude as it relates to pushing for human and civil rights,” said Matthews. In the Selma-to-Montgomery march, we were marching to get the right to vote; in this movement we’re fighting to get the right, really, to exist as human beings.”

Matthews, who spoke to protesters at the trestle, praises them for keeping it non-violent. He’s happy about that, but “real disturbed” about the looting, burning and violence elsewhere in the country.

“That does not show anything but ignorance and stupidity on the part of those doing it; it doesn’t help solve anything,” Matthews said. “But I think peaceful protest — even though it is put down by a lot of the racist elements in our country — is what’s going to bring change.”

“I enjoyed my time there seeing H.K. Matthews [and] several other individuals there that spoke; and I thought it was a fairly good meeting while we were there at the trestle,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

Some protesters, led by the local group Dream Defenders, blocked traffic on the Three Mile Bridge while confronting the mayor. During his virtual news conference Monday, Robinson said he asked the organizers to come out of the road and meet with him in the construction area.

“It wouldn’t change my position one way or the other; I do not mind necessarily and always thought somehow in having the group involved — we want to have as many different voices involved — from my prospective, I should have communicated the issue better that the issue is not about what we did or didn’t do there, but what we were going to allow to happen and what would have happened outside the road or inside the road.”

Robinson told the protesters they’re welcome to stay at the trestle through the time of George Floyd’s funeral in Houston on Tuesday. After that, the mayor is offering use of a park near City Hall for future protests, saying it’s in the interest of public safety.

“I would like to look at all of this from the point of forgiveness of what happened over the weekend,” said the mayor. “Those things are gone and forgotten and forgiven. But going forward, the only way we can keep track of this process for this committee is us all working together. We don’t need to block any bridges, we don’t need to do any destruction. We can continue to have this discussion.”

That citizens’ advisory committee has not yet been formed. An Escambia County Grand Jury called for the panel after a 28-year-old black man, Tymar Crawford, was shot and killed by a Pensacola police officer last July. Saying the process is underway locally, the mayor referred back to his meeting with Dream Defenders last August.

“They came forward with a number of demands; some of which the city does not have a mechanism that allows,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to change something that you don’t have the opportunity to vote on. I did make the protesters there aware of opportunities that they could look at the state – or even the city level if they wanted to bring forward change, it would be voted on by all of us.”

The local protesters, says Rev. H.K. Matthews, are helping send out the word across America that, when it comes to bringing about change and ending police brutality — enough is enough. 

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Credit Dave Dunwoody/WUWF Public Media
Rev. H.K. Matthews

“Because we are not less than human; even though some people try to treat us that way,” said Matthews. “We are as human as anybody else. So I really felt good about that situation on Saturday.”

And as he looked across the crowd, Matthews says he was heartened by the hundreds of people of all ages and stripes.

“Black, white, and whatever other race[s] that might have been represented,” Matthews said. “I really thought that it was a heartfelt experience for me to be there and to witness that firsthand.”

Many cities are looking at different ways to reform their police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Matthews would like to see some such changes locally.

“I think the Mayor is making an attempt to do that, by establishing an advisory committee, to monitor some of the things that might be done by the police department,” said Matthews. “That’s a good step — a step in the right direction.”

Part of the movement, in places such as Louisville, has been the toppling of Confederate statues and memorials. Mayor Grover Robinson says for now, the Confederate monument at Lee Square is another issue for another time.