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Protesters arrested for blocking Hart Bridge during rush hour

Coalition rallies for those arrested; Protesters also block I-95 near Emerson

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – About 10 hours after the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office broke up a protest that briefly blocked the northbound lanes of Interstate 95 near Emerson Street during rush hour, about 20 protesters were arrested after they briefly blocked the Hart Bridge on Monday afternoon.

The protesters were seen on the bridge just after 5 p.m.

JSO Director Tom Hackney said a group of about 20 people in several cars stopped at the top of the bridge. More than a dozen people got of the cars with protest signs and began walking slowly down the bridge with the cars following slowly behind, blocking the bridge.

Hackney said it's a violation of state law to block a roadway in that fashion. About 20 protesters were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for blocking the roadway, he said.

"Eric Garner is the reason why we are doing this. Michael Brown is the reason. So we -- just like Martin Luther King, just like Nelson Mandela… if it means that we stop around the country… 175 cities to demonstrate, we need to let our police know that our black boys do not deserve to die anymore," one protester said.

One of the protesters resisted arrest and punched an officer in the face. That protester will face an additional charge of felony federal battery on a law enforcement officer, Hackney said.

"The First Amendment guarantees that right (to protest), but when you infringe upon other people's right to travel freely, that's when it steps over that line, and really they forced our hand to make those arrests," Hackney said. "As much as the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office respects their right to protest and will work to make sure that they can peacefully protest, a responsibility also exists for the other citizens of Jacksonville to ensure that they're safe."

Within hours of the arrests, the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition had rallied at the Duval County Jail. About two dozen protesters, referring to themselves as the "Jacksonville Justice Fighters," demanded the immediate release of those who were arrested after the Hart Bridge protest.

"I think the real people who put safety at risk are the killer cops who have been allowed to remain free in our communities," said Dave Schneider, organizer with the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition. "Frankly, it's absurd that we live in a country today where police officers can gun down an African American young man in the streets and walk free while at least five protesters were arrested and in here."

The protesters outside the jail Monday said they planned to stay there until every one of their fellow "fighters" is released.

"We're standing with them and trying to figure out what they were arrested for, how to get them out. They were peaceful protesters," said Taylor Crow, whose boyfriend was among those arrested. "I did not see any personal violence. I was there."

Hackney said a private ambulance transporting someone to a hospital became blocked by the Hart Bridge protest.

Hackney said it took about 10 minutes from the time the protesters got out of their cars on the top of the bridge until the roadway was cleared by police.

"I think that's a fairly good turnaround for something of that magnitude," Hackney said.

IMAGES: Protesters cleared from I-95 in morning, Hart Bridge in evening

Monday morning protest

More than nine hours earlier in the day -- at about 7:40 a.m. -- an officer reported protesters with signs on the pedestrian overpass of Interstate 95 near Emerson Street. Minutes later several drivers reported that a few SUVs stopped in the middle of the highway and about a half-dozen people got out with signs and bullhorns.

The group was protesting grand jury decisions not to prosecute police officers in Ferguson and New York City that took the lives of unarmed black men. The protesters held signs that read "Black lives matter," and they yelled, "Hands up, don't shoot."

The protest caused traffic to come to a complete halt for about five minutes before officers were able to lead the protesters out of the roadway and onto the overpass walkway above the highway.

According to JSO, "a couple" of tickets were issued for pedestrians being on a limited-access highway.

JSO Chief Michelle Cook said that the people have the lawful right to protest on the pedestrian overpass, but, "These people took it upon themselves to get on the interstate and try and block traffic."

"That tactic is extremely dangerous," Cook said. "We are very fortunate that nobody was killed."

While the protesters were cleared from the lanes of traffic quickly, police activity and the continuing protest on the overpass caused northbound traffic delays in the area for another hour.

Terry Levy, one of the protesters, told News4Jax that Monday morning's action was in sympathy with nationwide protests against violence, and they had no desire to break the law.

"I just shook Officer Clifton's hand because he explained the proper ways to protest," Levy said. "There was no attempt to block traffic. There was no attempt to start anything unlawful whatsoever. We just wanted the community to come together. We want to be able to safely go to the store, get gas, just go to the park with our kids and live a peaceful life."

"We want people to understand what's going on, why people are upset and why people are out here. It's very clear," protester Wesley Phillips said.

News4Jax safety analyst Gil Smith said officers handled the situation well.

"They took care of it very quickly, and one thing they will tell protesters is that, 'Yes, we will protect you and your right to protest, but there are certain rules that apply,'" Smith said.

Smith recommends that protesters tell police their plans so they know what they can and cannot do. That way they aren't in danger of getting hurt or getting a ticket.

Police expect to increase patrols with marked and unmarked vehicles on area highways to be on the lookout for future disruptive protests.

Many of those rallying outside the jail Monday night said more protests are being planned around the city but would not offer any details about when or where those would take place.

Hackney said JSO intelligence is working to stay on top of such protests and monitoring social media so that officers can respond quickly if another protest occurs.