Update 4 p.m.: Nicole Cook, one of the protesters in the photo with the officer, says she and the others pictured support keeping street signs named for Confederate generals but that her group condemns any protesters who used racial slurs or white nationalist symbols. "I was there simply to protect and defend the street signs," she says. Her full interview is included at the end of the post.
A group of racial justice advocates gathered outside Hollywood, Florida's city hall yesterday with a simple request: Change the names of streets honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
But another 20 or 30 people showed up yesterday to counter-protest and to demand that the city keep a street named for the first KKK leader. Some were openly white supremacists, including one man waving the flag of the League of the South, a white-power hate group. Shevrin Jones, a black state representative at the rally, said those protesters called him "a nigger, a monkey," and told him to "go back to where I came from."
Given that kind of outright racist ugliness, the antislavery protesters were shocked to watch a Hollywood Police officer hugging and grinning for a photograph with the pro-Confederate street sign protesters. A photo snapped by activist Jasmen Rogers appears to show the still-unidentified officer taking a selfie with the pro-Confederacy folks.
But after New Times sent a copy of the photograph in question to a Hollywood Police spokesperson, the agency defended its officer's decision to pose with the group.
"Honestly, it wasn’t meant by him as taking a purposeful stand," spokesperson Miranda Grossman, a former editor for the news outlet Fusion, said via phone. "They came up to him asking for a hug, and he did it, quickly."
She said the pro-street-name protesters were sharing the photo as part of the #HugACop social media campaign, which was started in 2015 to help promote better community relations following the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray by police.
In this instance, it appears that selfie has done anything but bring the community closer together. Asked whether the department understood why it might upset people to see an officer hugging people who were shouting at black activists and demanding the city maintain an homage to the defenders of slavery, Grossman said she "totally understands where they're coming from." But she said the officer in question simply posed for a hug quickly and claimed he was not endorsing the views of the Confederacy or white nationalism.
But that's tough to square with some of the things Representative Jones says were hurled at him by people in the protest:
Today, I got called a nigger, monkey, and told to go back to where I came from; all for asking for unity in our City. #TakeDowntheSigns— Shevrin Jones (@ShevrinJones) June 21, 2017
The biggest eye opener was a 75 yr old black woman who left the rally, because she said it reminded her of her life in Alabama.— Shevrin Jones (@ShevrinJones) June 21, 2017
Elsewhere yesterday, the counter-protesters chanted "blue lives matter," "white lives matter," and "Trump" at a group of people who were simply asking the City of Hollywood to take down signs named for racist murderers. Grossman confirmed to New Times that five of those activists were arrested inside a Hollywood City Commission meeting for "being disruptive."
But activists online haven't shrugged the photo off so easily:
the sad part is I'm not even the least bit surprised by this https://t.co/YQoEYlGA9f— SS (@SDF3O5) June 21, 2017
They have a point. By virtually all objective measurements, police shoot and kill people of color at disproportionate rates compared to white people in the exact same circumstances. And officers who kill people in the line of duty are rarely, if ever, held accountable for their actions.
Last week, New Times noted that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle sits on police-shooting investigations for years, in what some defense lawyers said seemed to be an intentional attempt at shielding officers from prosecution or lawsuits. The Broward County Public Defender's Office has repeatedly accused longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz of similar actions to protect bad cops. New Times has also chronicled case after case over the years in which Broward-area cops have killed black people or violated their civil rights en masse.
In Broward County, the first Florida cop prosecuted for a shooting since 1989, BSO Dep. Peter Peraza was acquitted of manslaughter for shooting Jermaine McBean, a man holding an unloaded air rifle, because Peraza was able to invoke the state's deeply controversial "Stand Your Ground" law. Peraza was the first cop given protection under that law.
The Hollywood cop who took that photo with pro-Confederate protesters did so just as the public grapples with the fact that the Minnesota officer who killed Philando Castille was acquitted of manslaughter.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
There's also an even more pernicious side to all of this: According to FBI files obtained by the Intercept, the bureau warned ten years ago that white-nationalist organizations were infiltrating local police departments. In fact, local cops have a long and extremely upsetting history of defending white supremacy, particularly the Ku Klux Klan.
Update: Cook, one of the protesters in the photo, says it's wrong to assume everyone on her side of the demonstration was a white nationalist. In fact, she says she only heard one man — the same man waving a large, white nationalist flag — use racial slurs during the event. "He was not part of our group," Cook says. "We don't even know who he is ... None of us agree with what he was saying or what he stands for."
Cook says she and her friends in the photo attended the demonstration in favor of free speech, not racism. "We were there to defend and uphold the Constitution," she says. "We think the signs are part of our history and we're doomed to repeat history if we keep forgetting it."
The officer took a selfie with her in support of the #hugacop hashtag challenge, she says, not to support her point of view on the debate. "This was just to bring up awareness and unity with police," she says.