I wrote this piece for the current issue of Gainesville magazine.
Ariel Lane caught herself crying in her refrigerator. Wallace Mazon got tear gassed in Iowa.
Then Lane pulled herself together, and Mazon came home to Alachua County. And they both went to work helping to organize two of the largest and most diverse demonstrations Gainesville has seen in years.
Each united by a common theme: Black Lives Matter.
And both Lane and Mazon say those demonstrations were just the beginning, not the end point, of their work.
Lane moved to Gainesville 7 years ago from a D.C. suburb. She works for a local high-tech company that builds drones for the Defense Department.
“On May 27th the George Floyd story was everywhere,” she recalls. And her 8-year-old son, Liam, saw a news story about Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
“He asked me if this was going to happen to me…and my heart just rolled,” she said. “I was doing some things in the refrigerator and I broke down in tears. Nobody wants to have their child see them crying.
“I told him that it was all fine, but that was a half-truth because I didn’t actually know.”
Soon after that incident, Lane decided to organize a Black Lives Matter demonstration, and she began calling up friends. “I figured if every friend called up 10 of their friends we’d end up having 50 people show and then call it a day.
But it didn’t work out that way. She started a Facebook page to publicize the event. “By Wednesday evening we had 855 people in the group. By Thursday we had almost 3,000 people.”
All this for an event that she had done so far very little preparation for.
But things came together quickly.
City Commissioner Gail Johnson “reached out to me and said ‘Listen, we have to talk. This is going to be much bigger than you thought.’ We needed to have GPD set up barricades, close the road and provide an escort.”
Then the local chapter of Dream Defenders volunteered to hand out water and face masks. “Out of nowhere,” medics on bicycles came forward to provide first aid assistance, “which was great because it was going to be hot.” Someone volunteered a flatbed truck as a speaker’s stand. One friend hand-made and distributed more than 100 signs.
“Nine of us got together the night before and had a meeting with GPD,” she recalled. “And I’m like ‘is this really happening?’ I was shaking like a leaf.”
That same night there had been unrest in Atlanta,” she recalled. “My mom called me and said ‘Do you see what’s happening? Don’t get arrested!’”
On that sunny Saturday morning, May 31, people began to gather in Depot Park – arriving at first in twos and threes, and then by the dozens and then by the scores. White and black, young and old. Moms pushing their kids in strollers. Dog owners decking out their best friends with BLM signs.
Before long it became apparent that marchers would be numbered, not in the hundreds, but at least a thousand, and perhaps two thousand strong.
“I still get choked up when I think about it,” Lane said. “There was a man in a wheelchair. A woman showed up with her horse. If I really think about it long enough it feels like a dream. I think I floated outside my body for a while.”
Reaching out through a friend, Lane had contacted Reuben Faloughi. Now a University of South Florida psychologist, Faloughi helped organize a series of demonstrations at the University of Missouri after Michael Brown was killed in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson.
Brandishing a megaphone and a strong voice, Faloughi kept the crowd chanting and on message as the not-so-small army departed Depot Park and proceeded down Main Street to assemble for a rally at the Bo Diddley Plaza.
“I think it was a beautiful event,” Faloughi later said of that first large Gainesville BLM march. “It was well executed and we handled a lot of unknowns. There has been a lot of contention with police, and I was really happy for the support from (Gainesville) police. But they also gave us enough space to avoid confrontations. It was a good balance.”
Mazon, an Alachua County native and recent University of Florida graduate, was a little late to the Gainesville BLM scene, having recently been tear gassed and arrested during a George Floyd’s protest in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I was working for a group there called Sunrise Movement,” he said. “I was going to come home a bit earlier but I had to go to court.”
Mazon is a member of the Gainesville chapter of Dream Defenders, or GoDDsville. Shortly after his return, the group had organized a campus demonstration at the law school and president’s mansion, and then began to lay plans for a much larger march that would start at UF and proceed downtown.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “Honestly, most of the people there were very passionate about organizing and were hungry for change.”
Like Lane, organizers posted this second march on Facebook. Unlike the downtown march, Dream Defenders wanted no official Gainesville police escort. “We are an organization of young people who want to redefine what policing means,” he said. GPD “asked if they could help and we said ‘no, we’re good.’”
The killing of “George Floyd doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he continued. “It happens because of both government action and government inaction.”
By early Saturday evening, June 14, an estimated 1,500 demonstrators had assembled in front of the O’Connell Center and then marched off campus to University Avenue. Unlike the earlier demonstration, Mazon said this event was intended to closely focus on some issues of racial contention that are specific to Gainesville itself.
“What you got was more of a history lesson about Gainesville and what was going on in the community,” he said. “We went to Seminary Lane to talk about gentrification” and the displacement of residents in that traditionally black neighborhood. “We walked through Pleasant Street, and we went to the courthouse to talk about the origin of the police. And then we went on to Porters Quarters.
“We wanted people to see what was going on in our community.”
Paul Ortiz, UF history professor and author of “An African American And Latinx History Of The United States,” remembers Mazon as one of his brightest and most articulate students.
“He was an excellent student, he always connected his love for history with his passion for organizing,” Ortiz said. “And he’s a uniter, he brings people together. He’s the type of person who says ‘let’s not just have a rally, let’s think about the real systemic changes that have to happen.’”
And on that score, neither Lane nor Mazon consider the demonstrations they helped organized as end points in their participation.
Lane has formed a non-profit group, March For Freedom, to work for change within the community. “Our message is providing equality through empowerment in our own neighborhoods,” she said. “We’re working on voter rights issues, and on neighborhood improvements.” For instance, much of east Gainesville is “a food desert,” she said. “There is no urgent care service. There are long stretches of roads with no lighting.”
Neither has Lane forgotten the event that originally drew her into activism. “We want to have an open discourse between the police department and the constituents of Gainesville,” she said. “A lot of people feel there is not an open conversation.”
Likewise Mazon say the Dream Defenders intends to continue to shine a light on inequities in Gainesville.
“We’re gonna defund the police, that’s what going to happen,” he said. “We will lobby our city commissioners get involved in the process. We want to reallocate these funds to the community. We’re going to get our people registered to vote and continue to do actions like these until we get what the community needs.”
E. Stanley Richardson, a longtime community activist and Alachua County’s poet laureate, took hundreds of photos to help document the march Lane initiated. And he remembers Mazon from the young man’s days at Santa Fe High School.