A rally to promote unity drew three separate crowds to Olustee Park in downtown Lake City on Saturday.
One the side of the park closest to City Hall, people gathered around a Black Lives Matter banner and spoke of the need for Americans of all backgrounds to stand against racism. In another camp, a crowd gathered around a Confederate monument and had different conversations about race, culture and history, with a focus on preserving what they said was their heritage.
The third were members of a white supremacy group, the League of the South, that preaches secession from the Union.
The main unity rally was part of the nationwide response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in May.
Glenel Bowden, who organized the event, talked at one point about the importance of giving the youth a voice in the dialogue before introducing one of the speakers, Amaria Bowles. Bowles, a Columbia High School class of 2020 graduate, said she worries one of her own family members will suffer a fate like Floyd’s.
“I have six brothers that I fear for everyday because I don’t know who wants to kill them, or — you know — harm them in any kind of way,” Bowles said. “We’re all here for the same cause, because George Floyd’s death was injustice. And we need justice.
As Bowles delivered a message about holding those in power accountable for abuse, a man carrying the helmet and protective vest of a dirt bike rider watched from the crowd.
Earlier in the event, Mike Shipp crossed over to the main crowd and took off his gear, showing his face. He came as part of the second group, a counter-gathering to protect the Confederate monument in Olustee Park from the unity rally.
“I heard this was about trying to move the Olustee monument,” Shipp said.
Shipp saw rumors online about “Antifa” planning to bus people to cause trouble, something several others in the park also mentioned.
But there was no mayhem when he arrived. As Shipp walked up to the crowd, a group of black community members was singing an inspirational song from the park’s gazebo.
Shipp said he was relieved the event turned out to be different than he expected.
“This is awesome, this cohesion,” he said.“I’d much rather see some s*** like this.”
Another speaker at the rally, Eliana Duarte, talked about the privileges she has known as a white Latina, never having dealt with the issues that the black community faces every day.
“All Americans — every single American — must condemn the underlying racism that is rampant in our country with the same fervor that we would condemn any other act of terrorism like Al Qauda or the Ku Klux Klan,” Duarte said. “On an everyday basis, we have to continue calling out subtle acts of racism — and there is clearly racism in Lake City, considering that this park is named after a battle that the Confederacy won.”
Duarte mentioned that a hate group, the League of the South, felt comfortable enough to hold a conference in Lake City last year.
League members were there in the park on Saturday. Some wore the group’s official uniform, a black polo shirt and khakis, while others dressed more casually.
One league member, who refused to give his name, handed out literature and made comments about the true reason he feels is behind the economic inequality that black Americans face.
Another man, who was wearing a Confederate flag shirt, distanced himself from that conversation.
“I disagree vehemently with this gentleman doing most of the talking right now,” said Chris Rose. “That’s the League of the South.”
“They’re probably the reason we’re losing a lot of these,” Rose added, pointing to the Confederate monument.
Rose said he supports keeping the monument where it is, but also agreed with the message promoted by the unity rally.
“I’m not here to take anything away from them or say we do not need reform in our judicial system, our police system,” Rose said.
Mary Barlow, a leader for the League of the South in Lake City, at one point heckled the unity rally’s keynote speaker, Rev. Jacqueline Dupree. Another league member did the same, prompting Police Chief Argatha Gilmore to speak with them in an attempt to prevent the situation from escalating.
Dupree spoke for about 15 minutes, touching on a number of different themes.
“Too many of us have allowed our entrenched issues of hate and disregard to cloud what’s really important,” she said. “Liberty and justice for all.
Her speech addressed the monument, saying it was the “elephant in the room” that repulses African-Americans.
“Because it was a fight that was won to keep us enslaved,” Dupree said.
Dupree said the monument need not be destroyed, but should be relocated to either Oak Lawn Cemetery, where the soldiers it honors are buried, or the Olustee Battlefield, where they died.