Hundreds attend peaceful rally and march in Fernandina Beach

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  • Participants in a march in Fernandina Beach hold up a sign that says Come Together - Stand Together.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    Participants in a march in Fernandina Beach hold up a sign that says Come Together - Stand Together. Julia Roberts/News-Leader
  • A peaceful rally and march were held Saturday in Fernandina Beach.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    A peaceful rally and march were held Saturday in Fernandina Beach. Julia Roberts/News-Leader
  • Participants in the rally heard speakers on Centre Street in Fernandina Beach.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    Participants in the rally heard speakers on Centre Street in Fernandina Beach. Julia Roberts/News-Leader
  • The peaceful march in Fernandina Beach.  Julia Roberts/News-Leader
    The peaceful march in Fernandina Beach. Julia Roberts/News-Leader
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“I have come to chew bubble gum and kick you-know-what, and I’m all out of bubble gum,” Rev. Anthony Daniel told a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators Saturday as part of rallies and marches held nationwide in the wake of the recent deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., Ahmaud Abery in Brunswick, Ga.

The local events were organized by Racial Equality Now, a local group made up of mostly young people who want to help eliminate racism and homophobia in Nassau County.

The events drew people of all ages and ethnicities to Fernandina Beach. The participants chanted Floyd’s name along with other mottos of the movement such as “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.” The Black Lives Matter organization was not involved in the march, according to Wendall McGahee, one of the organizers.

Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley and Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper attended the event, along with city and county commissioners and candidates for local and state offices.

McGahee, a fifth-generation resident of Fernandina Beach and a member of REC, said it was important that he participate in the rally.

“What we are doing is not just for us and our country now but our children, our children’s children,” McGahee said. “We are at a pinnacle in history, a defining moment. One day, my children will go to school and have history books, and just in case the history books are written like they were written when I was in school, and they leave out black people, and they leave out the foundation that we helped lay for this country, I want to be able to say I was there (and) this is what we did.”

Daniel said he believes the time for action is now and he is taking up the mantle for protection for those who face discrimination.

“I feel the gut punch of systems, symbols that represent intolerance, racism, sexism, environmental crimes, xenophobia, homophobia, immeasurable cruelty and ignorance, that makes it hard to breathe,” he told the crowd from the steps of the Nassau County Historic Courthouse on Centre Street.

“Yes, I am a preacher, but I’m all out of bubble gum,” he said, referring to a quote from the movie They Live. “My people are being shot, tazed, beaten, choked to death, emasculated, and it won’t stop until we start acknowledging and organizing and beginning to fight back. I’m a man of God, but it’s time to take it to the streets.”

McGahee told the News-Leaderhe was “overjoyed” by the number of people who came to the rally. “It was exceptional,” he said. “To look out and see people, they just kept coming and kept coming. It exceeded my expectations. Although we know we are sometimes stuck in our ways, it is good to know that people are open to change.”

Hurley said he is also frustrated and appalled by the behavior of some officers. He cited issues with the death of Floyd, and how police departments can prevent them.

“Like you, I have a lot of questions,” he said. “I’ve heard them asked in the media and at our own gatherings. What were they thinking in Minnesota? How did they justify that behavior? There’s no department in the world that I’m aware of that teaches that kind of restraint. I suggest we mandate all police departments in this country to remove chokeholds. It’s not hard. We did it more than 20 years ago. Why did the officers at the scene not actively monitor Mr. Floyd’s medical condition? It’s amazing to me. I suggest we mandate that every police department require systematic monitoring of those in custody to quickly determine if there is mental or physical distress. We have that language in our policy. If Mr. Floyd was suffering (a) fentanyl-induced heart attack as the medical examiner said, why wasn’t NARCAN administered? Our agency has brought people back from being unconscious numerous time by administering NARCAN.”

Hurley suggested requiring that all police departments be accredited, have longer probationary periods for officers, and correct problems that make it difficult for them to fire officers. He noted that the FBPD has been accredited since 2004 and has an 18-month probationary period for its officers.

Hurley said he wants to look deeper at the issues that cause crime and what can be done to prevent it.

“My message is that, yes, we need police reform, certainly, in this country. We also need community reform. We need to work on a national strategy to reduce criminal violence and we need to improve systemic issues that lead to poverty and racism.”

Hurley told the News-Leaderthat he is glad there have been events in the community to bring attention to the issues of racism and violence but that there is work to be done.

“I hope we can move toward legitimate reform in the ways that do matter,” he said. “I want to work with this community to make these things happen.”

Another speaker, Jeanette Wilson Baker, reminded the crowd that, while passion is important, the practical matter of voting is critical.

“We can chant, we can say black lives matter, we can say we’re not going to resist this any more, but you must vote. You must vote,” Baker said. “Change doesn’t come without voting. This is our microphone, the loudest microphone you’ve got. If you are marching and chanting and saying ‘black lives matter’ and you’re not registered to vote, nobody will hear your voice. The loudest voice you have is your vote.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated.