Residents of Niceville have added their voices to the calls for equal justice for African-Americans.
Sunday afternoon, hundreds of protesters gathered and marched from Niceville City Hall to the city’s skate park in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a “perfect” protest, said Niceville Police Chief David Popwell.
“It was very orderly; there were no issues,” he said.
Except for the calls he received about signs.
After the protest signs hung along the fencing at Niceville High School were ripped off, leaving only the zip ties. Popwell said the department is investigating the incident and the suspect will be “charged accordingly.”
Eighteen-year-old Abby (last name redacted) said protestors were largely met with positive feedback from passersby, but she wasn’t necessarily surprised when the signs were gone.
“We heard positive honks, a lot of people did nothing, one person yelled out ‘You’re not even black,’” she said.
Abby, who is Asian-American, said she’s faced her own racist encounters, but said she stepped out Sunday to speak up for the “people who are dying at the hands of police.” Whoever stole the signs was trying to quiet protestors, she said. But it’s not going to be that easy.
“You can’t silence love,” she said. “You can’t silence a good message. We are willing to fight for change.”
The signs in question were hung to the fencing around Niceville High School with permission from Principal Charlie Marello, Most of the signs were stolen, with the exception of a few “crumpled on the ground.”
Marello said he allowed for signs to be posted on the outside of the fencing seeing that the movement was based on "peace and kindness."
"I whole-heartedly wanted to support them in their cause against racism and social injustice," he said.
It wasn’t the only call the police department received about signs. Friday afternoon, Niceville police received two different calls about signage hanging from the overpass that spans John Sims Parkway near NHS.
Chief Popwell said there was a “Black Lives Matter” sign as well as another one referring to all police as “bastards.” At least one was hanging on the outside of the overpass, which was a liability, the chief said.
The overpass is a popular spot for residents to share messages with friends and loved ones. It’s common to see a birthday message or “congrats” spelled out in plastic cups stuck in the chain link fencing. Since it’s a state overpass, you’d have to get a permit from the Florida Department of Transportation to put up signage.
“Normally, we’d overlook it because (the signs) are gone within the next 24 hours,” said Popwell. “But when we received complaints, we were forced to enforce it.”
Popwell said it wasn’t the message of the sign, but the safety issues that made them enforce the issue.
“There’s no justification for what that officer did to George Floyd,” said Popwell. “And we support the officer’s arrest.”
A few signs were hung up following the enforcement to test the waters. One read “I love Mel,” another one said “Trump.” They both came down.
“A (sign) attached to the outside of the fencing could fall and hit a driver’s window causing a crash,” he said.
Abby said she and other protestors want to “proceed with caution” following the incident. But she’s not done fighting for change — with or without a sign.
“You can’t ignore what’s happening,” she said. “Just because you don’t like what’s going on doesn’t mean you can ignore it. What we’re doing is out of love and love wins in the end.”