As some celebrate the kickoff to the annual illumination of St. Augustine’s downtown core, others will march in protest of Confederate monuments that share the same space.
The Rev. Ron Rawls plans to lead protesters to the Plaza de la Constitucion on Light-Up! Night, the kickoff to the months-long Nights of Lights season. The event draws large numbers of locals and tourists to the city and its businesses.
Protesters will begin their march from St. Paul AME Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, a church that Rawls pastors, less than a mile away.
Thousands could come for Light-Up! Night, and police are planning for the march as part of security efforts at the event.
Rawls said the protest is against the city and the University of Florida, both of which have not announced plans to remove the monuments from the public square. UF and the city each control one monument.
The city recently decided to keep its monument and add context with the help of an advisory committee that has yet to be appointed by city commissioners. Despite commissioners taking hours of public comment at two meetings, Rawls said city officials have not really listened to him and other African-Americans in the community who want the symbols removed.
Until that dialogue begins, protests will continue, he said.
“Now we’re going to test the economy,” Rawls said.“We have three big events we’ll show up at this year, so we can show other people outside of this Deep-South stronghold … [what] the attitude is here.”
He declined to name other events he plans to protest.
The city owns the Confederate monument in the east Plaza, which was installed in the 1870s and honors local men who fought for the Confederacy and died away from home. People have defended the monument as not being a glorification of the Confederacy but rather a place for local women, who didn’t get a chance to bury their dead, to mourn. Relatives of those men still live in the area.
The University of Florida controls the monument in the west Plaza, which was installed in 1920 and bears a carving of the Confederate flag, according to a state document. The memorial honors Confederate Gen. William Loring, whose ashes are buried on site, and his service in the Civil War and other conflicts.
University officials had said they would conduct an evaluation of their own monument based on the city’s actions, City Manager John Regan said in October. Rawls said he contacted the university but hadn’t heard back directly as of Thursday.
While the city’s Public Affairs Department helps plan the festivities, the protest and how it will be managed is more of a police matter, department director Paul Williamson said.
“People can do that, of course,” he said. “We always like knowing. … There’s no special preparation from our standpoint. We’ll just hope all the lights come on when we flip the switch.”
For police, though, word of the protest has required adjustments.
Officers will help protesters make it to the Plaza and help keep the peace because of “the temperature of the issue,” Assistant St. Augustine Police Chief Anthony Cuthbert said.
As part of regular planning for the event, officers plan to close Cathedral Place and roads leading into the historic district to vehicle traffic in the evening, he said. People who live and work in the area will be able to get through.
Nights of Lights ceremonies, which mark the holiday season, began more than 20 years ago, according to the city. After Light-Up! Night on Nov. 18, the lights will be on nightly through Jan. 31.
The lighting ceremony will begin about 6:30 p.m. with the help of two people chosen by Mayor Nancy Shaver to light the city’s Christmas tree and the Plaza.
Shaver chose city event administrator Wanda Bray, who will retire in 2018 after about 15 years, for her efforts in making city events happen and helping the city host dignitaries. She also chose Michael Lugo, owner and executive chief at Michael’s Tasting Room, in part for helping people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and for feeding city crews after Hurricane Matthew.
Protesters will begin walking from St. Paul AME to the Plaza about 5 p.m., Rawls said. He said he’s not sure how many people will come to the march.
“If this doesn’t get us a real good ear, then we have a level after that,” he said. “This is just the next level to get real, sincere dialogue going.”