Protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement marched through Plant City’s historic downtown Thursday evening with a clear message ringing from even the smallest of voices.
Children joined their parents in the march on their tricycles, bikes and a skateboard, even holding their own small signs. Their soft voices interwoven with those of the adults at their side, all demanding to be valued and to be heard. And outside of a few hecklers, they were met with waves, nods and car horn honks of support.
The event began at Village Green park, better known as the Midtown fountain, at 6 p.m. Music blasted from speakers next to a table filled with free pizza donated by Hungry Howies and a few others, including an attendee named Amanda H. who stopped by to show support.
“We brought hugs,” Amanda H. said. “We have signs for free hugs. We brought some pizza… we were gonna go sit on Collins across from Snellgrove’s but we saw them here and we stopped here.”
She added that she hoped the evening’s demonstration would show that there’s no need for anyone to panic — just to work together to solve a problem.
“I wanted to get down here early enough just in case it would get nasty,” she said. “I see all the businesses are boarding up. It’s kind of, everybody’s panicking and we don’t need to panic. We need to just stand together as a community and do it the right way.”
Tony’s Italian Ice set up shop on the corner and coolers full of water were by the sidewalk in easy reach of all who attended. Several songs drew crowds around the fountain as they did dances like the Cha Cha Slide and Cupid Shuffle.
Before Thursday night, Mina Geist had never attended a protest before. She said she feels a strong connection to the community as a tattoo artist, as someone who has one-on-one conversations with many locals and acts as a de-facto “therapist” when someone’s in her chair getting inked, so she wants to continue that support outside of the tattoo shop.
“I’m very proud to be an American and the most American thing, everyone needs their rights and their respect,” Geist said. “If you breathe, you deserve to be treated with respect and to be heard. I’m here to help push people being heard. I don’t know their pain. I will never understand. But I can at least support and say that I am here. I will not shut them down.”
A woman who attended Tuesday’s protest and wished to remain anonymous said that it was “really powerful” to see that demonstration as a young person born and raised in Plant City. She said she hopes people who don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement will open their minds to learn about it, talk to people and stop misconstruing its message.
“Why spread ignorance if you don’t understand what we’re talking about? Inform yourself,” she said. “Read. Talk to somebody that’s been through something. Try and find the answer instead of just spewing ignorance.”
There’s a symbolism of Thursday night’s movement being held at the Village Green park. When Plant City first began to dream of bringing the Midtown District to life more than a decade ago, the commission and much of the city assumed it would be a laborious trek, yet possible to bring about at a normal pace.
The city tried and failed three times to land a developer that could follow through and complete their vision. The only thing present among the concrete slabs to indicate the start of that aspiration is the small park nestled against Wheeler Street.
Village Green was the embodiment of the hope for a Plant City that is different than today’s. On Thursday, the protesters brought a sentiment for hope and change on a much deeper and more meaningful level with every fiber of their beings as they chanted, danced, marched and prayed for that better tomorrow.
Mayor Rick Lott, along with City Manager Bill McDaniel and Commissioner Mary Mathis, arrived toward the start of the event to talk to attendees and listen to their message. Lott and Promise Goodwine, one of the leaders of the event, spoke for a long moment beside the fountain to discuss what the city needed to do to meet the needs Goodwine believes have been neglected.
Lott gave her his cell and listened as Goodwine explained the persecution she faces on a daily basis, including this week. She recounted being called by racial profanities, having curse words thrown at her as she attempts to make this world a better place. She reiterated the message she said repeatedly at Tuesday’s march: “We don’t hate white people, we hate racist white people. And there needs to be a change.”
She voiced her disgust with the Confederate flag and what it represents, describing systemic racism that has led to inequality for African-Americans across the nation and with the police who would rather “protect their own” than do what’s right.
“I hear you and you’re asking how can I help you. I can help you here,” Lott said. “I can help you with things we can improve here and change here. If you hear me, I’m always saying ‘Let’s work to move this city forward…’ let’s focus on what we can do here to make our city better, to make our back yard better. I have the ability to work with our commissioners and work with our city and work toward progress. If you have an idea, you can call and we will listen… we can focus here and work on our back yard. And hopefully we can influence others.”
Lott told her she knew his heart, she knew who he is as a person and she had to know he supports equality in his city. A short time later, as more attendees gathered, Goodwine and Lott each took a microphone and prayed for the community.
Beverly Williams said she hopes city officials aren’t just looking for a photo opportunity and are open to taking action toward making changes happen.
“I don’t know if it was just for face, but what comes after that? That’s what we want, we want to know what comes after that,” Williams said. “You showed up, we showed up, what can we do? We’re depending on you. It’s up to you and you’ve got to do something.”
Goodwine was also a prominent figure during Tuesday’s protest. She said an anonymous person continues to post about hosting these events and, since her name somehow got associated with it, she’s made it her mission to now show up to every single one and keep the peace.
“The main thing I keep telling to everyone is, we may look different and we may talk different, but we are all the same. We are all wanting the same things out of life,” Goodwine said. “I feel like the riots woke everyone up. You gotta put yourself in a black person’s shoes to see the good of the riots. But the conversation is being had now and it’s important that we not lose the bigger message through this. There shouldn’t be any such thing as a ‘good cop’ — all cops should be good. That should be the norm and anyone else should not be tolerated.”
She explained that while racism may have changed in many ways, it’s still prevalent in our society and African-Americans are living with different, unjust standards. Until that changes, she said, they will not be quiet.
She plans to hold a protest every Tuesday night at the RaceTrac intersection until the community receives justice.
“I think they see us and they’re not going to take us seriously until we hurt their pockets, but we don’t have to do that violently,” Goodwine said. “People are closing businesses. They are paying police to come out and work. They need to address the issue and they need to change. We aren’t going away.”
Many businesses did indeed close early in anticipation of the protests, and some downtown boarded up their windows in case anyone started a riot.
When Goodwine led the group through the edge of downtown toward the courthouse, she had everyone kneel on the steps as police came out of the building and stood in a line in front of the crowd, looking down from the top of the steps.
She took her megaphone and led them in prayer. When the crowd asked the police to pray with them, many officers bowed their heads as well. Before they left to march back toward the park, several of the young children darted up the steps and received hugs from the officers. Two kids estimated they gave out a combined total of 89 hugs throughout the event, and a man in a realistic chicken suit allegedly gave out six.
Some of the business owners in downtown lingered after they closed to observe the march as it moved through the heart of downtown. As the approximately 125 to 175 attendees walked and chanted for justice, reiterating that black lives matter, they waved at the business owners on the edge of the sidewalk, who also waved back.
Some, like Carlson Gracie Plant City owner Sam Kimmel, even stopped by Village Green to check it out. Kimmel, Cory West and Nick Sicignano came to hang out with the attendees, “spreading the word of love, Black Lives Matter and Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” Sicignano said.
“For me, it’s sad to see people who are supposed to be experts in controlling and defusing situations not have the ability to control a subject and maybe reach for that gun too soon,” he added.
Once the group finally got back to the fountain, Lydia Sanders, a teacher at Burnett Middle School, took the mic and thanked the crowd for fighting for peace and demanding justice. The march this evening looked a lot different than the events she attended in the 1980s and she said she was so proud of the progress the group had made.
“I’m so proud because I’m a school teacher and I have so many students that I’ve taught that I have out here,” Sanders said.
As drops of rain began pelting down, the final message was shared: If they want to really be heard, marching won’t be enough. They’ll need to take this to the city commission.