JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The top prosecutor in Jacksonville is dropping the charges against nearly 50 demonstrators arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd and police brutality.
Video from the second day of protest in Jacksonville show demonstrators quietly sitting on the courthouse steps, and hours later, officers surrounding the perimeter of the courthouse lawn as they order demonstrators to disperse.
In various police reports describing what led up to dozens of arrests, officers wrote that “due to concerns of public safety” announcements were made for all the protesters to leave.
A collection of cellphone videos, Instagram stories and footage from professional photographers show at some point during Sunday’s protests officers in riot gear and National Guard troops surrounding the perimeter of the courthouse lawn.
Protesters can be heard yelling, “We have the freedom to assemble.”
The same compilation of footage shows the arrest of Chad Hollett. One officer can be seen with his arm around Hollett’s neck as another officer runs into frame and punches the protester. Hollett had two visible black eyes after his arrest. The video obtained by News4Jax is now being investigated within the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office internal affairs department.
Video also shows the arrest of photographer Bernardo Santana. Santana was behind the camera filming the arrest of a demonstrator standing near him when officers brought him to the ground and arrested him too.
Other video off the Main Street Bridge shows protesters walking along the side before officers begin to pepper spray the demonstrators. Other angles of the video show protesters jumping off a shallow end of the bridge to avoid arrest and getting the chemical sprayed near them.
One female protester was taken to a hospital after being arrested Sunday, according to police records. Narratives from police reports state that around 1:45 p.m. Sunday officers began to give orders for protesters to leave “due to concern for public safety.”
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry did not announce a curfew until several hours later.
Two defense attorneys representing some of the protesters arrested on Sunday say the order for protesters to leave the protest was unlawful.
“People are entitled to free speech. There was no danger to the police. This unlawful assembly charge was unfounded. What’s even worse about the unlawful order to disperse is there’s no proof that people who were arrested even heard it,” said attorney Mark Barnett. “You can’t say go away, we don’t like what you’re saying. Not in a democracy.”
In total, 54 people were arrested May 31. Most of the protesters were charged with unlawful assembly and in some cases, resisting an officer without violence.
Records show officers arrested more people during the largely peaceful protest on Sunday than they did during the unrest the night before, where buildings and police cars were vandalized and an officer was assaulted.
Friday, in a disposition, the State Attorney’s Office said after reviewing “a number of videos taken over the course of the day, including drone and aerial footage” it’s office “declined to file charges” against 48 protesters, not including a Jacksonville-based pastor who they cleared on charges of unlawful assembly days earlier. Her arrest was caught on Facebook Live.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams chalked the move to drop charges on all but five protesters to lack of details in arrest reports and a higher threshold of probable cause needed to prosecute a case.
“As we began to talk about this early in the week and some of the challenges maybe with documentation on our end, that we’re working on fixing in these types of scenarios, that’s where you get that,” said Williams on The Morning Show. “So, it’s not the fact that we made arrests that were illegal. That’s not the case. But, there’s a different threshold for her to have to prosecute those cases than there is for us to make the arrest in the street.”
Williams told The Morning Show anchors Melanie Lawson and Jen Waugh “It’s not a peaceful protest once the rock is thrown, the fire is lit,” when asked why Sunday’s protest ended in dozens of arrests.
Five people arrested Sunday were not listed on the disposition declining to press charges against protesters, one of which is facing 11 federal felony charges.
Investigators said a 27-year-old man was seen throwing items at police officers and passing cars, and that after ordered to leave, the man and a group continued to stand in the middle of the road. Police reports state detectives found a liquor bottle with gasoline, a wick, a lighter and paint-filled balloons in his backpack.
Another protester, still facing charges from Sunday afternoon, was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge and a charge that he encouraged a riot after police overheard him say “fight the police,” “f*** the police,” and “attack the police.” The report stated that because others were around while he said these statements there was an imminent threat for the use of violence. The suspect pleaded not guilty to those charges.
One woman arrested near the demonstration was charged with criminal mischief, but not unlawful assembly after police say she banged her head against the police car while being detained accepted a conviction but did not enter a guilty plea.
Another protester charged with unlawful assembly and resisting an officer without violence also accepted a conviction without entering a guilty plea.
One woman charged with unlawful assembly after officers say she “failed to disperse” is also not listed on the state attorneys’ disposition to drop charges.
Barnett, who represents several protesters arrested Sunday, says despite the state’s decision to decline charges against most of the protesters that his firm is researching a class-action lawsuit related to the arrests.
“Many of my clients want to pursue this further,” said Barnett. “This was a clear deprivation of civil rights under federal law and we are looking at class action lawsuit right now.”
According to a State Attorney’s Office spokesman, charges from arrests on May 30 are still under review.