JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jheam Johnson had just settled into his seat on a bus in Washington, D.C., that was about to embark on a 15-hour ride to Jacksonville when he heard that a racist mass shooting had taken place five minutes from his home.
The invigorating spirit he felt having just attended the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington on Saturday transitioned instantly into “an array of emotions,” he said, none of them good.
“You hear about these tragedies happening all over the country all the time. But a part of your brain doesn’t connect that it could happen right where you live. This is my neighborhood. It’s a lot to process,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a 21-year-old poet who also goes by “Reign Supreme,” said he didn’t know the three victims: Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19; and Jarrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29. But the proximity of the tragedy scared him. His grandmother and young sister had volunteered that morning at Edward Waters University, the historically Black college where the shooter, Ryan Palmeter, put on his tactical vest before going on his murderous rampage.
EWU is just a few blocks from the Dollar General store where the shooter traveled and opened fire after being turned away by campus security. “I spend a lot of time on that campus,” Johnson said. “So, this isn’t close to home. This is home.”
The community is grappling with the heartbreak and the college is haunted by the “what ifs.” People are stunned and angry that a white man would drive specifically to their community to unleash havoc.
“Something has to be done about the legacy of racism in this city and how it still lingers so strongly throughout the city,” Johnson said.
Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan said the shooting in her city gave her “a sense of personal failure ... We have to create a place and space for all of us to see each other’s humanity, for us to meet each other where we are.” She was speaking at an event commemorating the 63rd anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, a racist attack in which 200 white men attacked Black youths who were protesting against segregated lunch counters in the city.
Jacksonville Sheriff T. K. Waters said Sunday that it didn't seem like the shooter intended to attack the school. "It looks to me that he went there to change into whatever he needed to change into," he said. "He had the opportunity to do violence at EWU, he did not. There were people very close, in very close proximity, he did not do anything there, he backed out and he left."
But that didn't mean the community wasn't wracked by startling thoughts of what could have been. During the prayer vigil on the EWU campus Sunday night, student Jordan Weeks said she kept thinking: "What if the shooter had not been turned away by security?"
“It just hit me and it really scared me,” Weeks, a junior, said. “As it was, the vigil was very sad. But if he had gotten on campus and done what he intended to do, it all would have been totally different. If the shooter had gotten to the cafeteria, we would have been mourning classmates and friends that we built a bond with over the years."
“It’s scary because we know that our families drop us off thinking that their children are safe. To think something like that could happen to us, it messes with your head a little bit,” she added.
Campus security was beefed up significantly, with police presence at all entrances. “I still feel safe to a certain degree, because security has been tightened,” Weeks said. “But the thought that this could happen again ... it’s in the back of my head and it’s kind of scary to think about. And we shouldn’t have to think about something like that.”
Christopher McKee Jr., pastor of the Church of Oakland in Jacksonville, eight minutes from the crime scene, said targeting the college, “a sacred ground of education,” illuminates the “hatred that existed in this person. This is an African American community that has deep roots in Jacksonville. But this reminds us that we’re resilient and that with one another, we can overcome this."
“But this will not be easy. I’m angry. I’m hurt. Confused. But we press on, even as we wipe away tears," he said.
McKee said that he spends a lot of time on the EWU campus and that his wife is an adjunct professor there. “This is traumatizing for all, including the students on campus,” he said. “And it’s our job — faith leaders, our elected leaders, people all around the city — to be there for this community. We have no choice. We have to step up for one another.”
At the Ax Handle Saturday commemoration event, Rodney L. Hurst Sr., who was the leader of the 1960 sit-in, said it was not ironic that the shooting took place on the anniversary of his traumatic encounter carried out by a mob of angry white men wielding weapons.
“The vulgarity of racism happens all the time,” said Hurst, a lifelong civil rights activist in Jacksonville. “So, there are bound to be circumstances where something happens and dovetails in time. But the big thing is that fighting for your Black human dignity and respect and against racism is a constant struggle. It’s something you don’t go to sleep on. It’s going to happen day in and day out.”
Only time will determine how a broken community can come back from such targeted violence.
“It makes you wonder,” said Rashir Amon-Ra, who lives near the Dollar General store, “why do they hate us so much? You think about it: Every turn in life, they are trying to hold us back, especially here in Florida. But you have to take our innocent lives, too? We don’t do that."
"We try our hardest to make it despite all the (expletive) they put us through. And still, we have to mourn and cry about someone coming into our community and gunning us down just for being Black? It’s sickening.”