In September, I wrote a column headlined Could Ferguson Happen in Jacksonville? The short answer was yes.
I contended then that “Ferguson, as we know it, is a very specific place. But to me, it looks like many areas right here in the Bold New City of the South, areas transformed in the last couple of decades from places where you could raise a family and be pretty sure the kids weren’t stepping up to the plate with two strikes to what these places are now: war zones, hellholes, places where you never relax at a red light even when the sun burns bright in the sky … where theshift over the last quarter-century was not accounted for in city government, including the police force, exacerbating the very real divide between the governing and the governed.”
We are almost seven months out from the day that column was filed, and since then, there has been a lot of verbiage about Ferguson in Jacksonville. It’s come mostly from black activists and the occasional candidate for sheriff at a forum in a neighborhood scarred by continual low-grade guerrilla skirmishes related to the drug trade. The Ferguson meme keeps recurring because the material conditions that begot Ferguson (in the form of police-involved shootings) keep recurring. There have been three police-involved shootings locally in the last phree weeks. The latest one was in Apartment 199 of Cleveland Arms.
The official account of the incident is pretty straightforward.
The shooting followed a foot chase that began when police responded to a 911 call reporting a domestic dispute, heard a woman screaming and discovered a woman being strangled by a man on top of her inside an apartment at the Cleveland Arms apartment complex about 8:45 a.m.
Devanta DeJuan Jones, 22, was shot at least four times by Officer Cliff Sames of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The shooting happened after Sames and another officer tried unsuccessfully to stun the man, later identified as Jones, three times with their Tasers during the pursuit in which Jones kicked in the door, then ran through a neighboring apartment occupied by a mother and three children. Jones also tried but failed to force his way inside two other apartments during the foot chase, said Director Tom Hackney of the Sheriff’s Office.
Sounds pretty linear. The story is not so controversial the farther you get from Cleveland Arms. However, across the street from the Cleveland Arms Apartments, a Section 8 apartment complex in Northwest Jacksonville, the official account of what happened on Sunday was controversial indeed.
I was there Monday night to cover a protest, staged at Li’l Albert Food Store, across the street from the complex. Word was that sheriff candidate Ken Jefferson was going to come and address the rally. That would have been a Next Level move, but Jefferson did not show up. According to local activist Denise Hunt, Jefferson had a Democratic Party event that created a schedule conflict. Apparently every other politician had a similar conflict.
It was probably just as well that the genial sheriff candidate didn’t show up. In a campaign where the phrase “public safety” is such a buzzword that it should come with a hashtag, the people at the rally would have told him, point blank, that certain sectors of the public, for whom campaign rhetoric is not crafted, don’t feel safe at all. Jefferson, during forum season, talked about a “lost generation … lying in pools of blood on the street.” But talking about it at a forum and appearing at an event like this are two different things.
I talked with Diallo Sekou of the Kemetic Empire as old Public Enemy songs played in the background. Sekou, whose group organized a candidate forum a few weeks back, dismissed the public officials who did not show up to the event. “If you want to be champion for the people,” he said, “you need to be here.”
“These incidents that some say are isolated are generational and systemic,” he said. “We’re going to hold our ground and bring attention to systemic racism.
Sekou advocated for a long list of reforms to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, including civilian review boards with subpoena power and increased minority inclusion in the JSO. Such reforms likely are not on the table in this current sheriff race.
Sekou seemed aware of that. “This community has to save itself. JSO has to clean its own house,” he said.
Sekou took me across the street, to Apartment 199, the scene of the police-involved shooting. We looked at the door, and he discussed with another person there which of the bullet dents and holes were old and which were new.
He pointed out bullet dents at the base of the door. He said, and a few people agreed, that they were evidence that 22-year-old Devanta Jones was down on the ground and still being shot anyway. As one witness put it, “They shot him and shot him and shot him like he was a dog.”
There is some deviation between citizen accounts and the official version, obviously.
I talked with others at the Monday event. Joseph Willis, who ran against Reggie Brown and lost in the District 10 race, rhetorically asked more than once where Reggie was at. Reggie was nowhere to be found.
I talked with Ben Frazier, a local writer, who said the “Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office must stop the practice of shooting first and asking later.”
I talked with Rakeem Joyner, the brother in law of Devanta Jones, who contended, “What’s being told is not the truth; we want nothing but the truth. What we saw versus what the JSO is saying … there are huge, missing pieces of the puzzle.”
“He’s terrified of Tasers,” Joyner said of Jones. “He ran out of fear for his life. The Taser misses. He was shot in the chest, the stomach.” But he didn’t die; that’s the important thing, Joyner said.
During a march, members of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition walked up and down the road in front of the complex. The expected chants, such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” filled the air. Signs galore punctuated the march, as the sun started to lower and the squad cars blocked off the street from traffic to maintain a perimeter presence on the side streets.
The protesters want redress. They want accountability, and body cameras for officers, and a police force that they feel represents them. The problem they encounter, though, and will continue to encounter is that even though they can draw critical mass for a protest event, the larger discourse does not include their voices. The debates between Republicans and Democrats, especially those campaigning citywide, cannot address such tragic narratives.
Could Ferguson happen in Jacksonville? It’s by no means a sure thing, but the ingredients are there. The incident that started it all in that St. Louis suburb was comparatively minor: a petty theft, an officer acting on the presumption that the suspect matched the description. Twelve shots later, days of riots later, and an endless national conversation later, and all we know is that such a thing could happen anywhere.