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Ax Handle Saturday events unveiled in lawsuit seeking to restrain JSO from 'unlawful' use of force and arrests

The 60th anniversary of the racist attack known as Ax Handle Saturday will be held on the same day the president is expected to make his acceptance speech.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A socially-distanced event limited to 300 attendees is planned to commemorate Ax Handle Saturday, arguably the city’s most shameful episode of racial violence.

Plans for the 60th anniversary of the event were unveiled Wednesday as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit. Plaintiffs have sued the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in an attempt to prevent a repeat of what they call “unlawful” arrests and use of force against Black Lives Matter protesters in May. 

Prosecutors have since dropped charges against 58 of the 79 people arrested during the first weekend of BLM protests. Sheriff Mike Williams has defended the arrests as lawful and justified.

The 60th-anniversary event commemorates an attack on in Hemming Park on August 27, 1960. A group of white men attacked peaceful Black protesters trying to desegregate lunch counters, beating them with ax handles and baseball bats. The incident was covered by national news outlets but virtually ignored by local media at the time.

According to the federal court filing, Hemming Park will be the focus of a small event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on August 27. A second event is scheduled at the Hope and History mural at the corner of Jessie St. and A. Phillip Randolph Boulevard from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The court filing notes that while the official events will be limited in size, peripheral events and protests may occur. 

“Event organizers are not seeking to limit the number of people who can gather to participate in the commemoration on the public walkways outside of Heming Park,” the filing notes. “The organizers of the event are seeking to have the streets adjoining Heming Park blocked off in anticipation of such attendees congregating outside the park.”

The anniversary coincides with the president’s expected acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Before the RNC was canceled in Jacksonville, the filing says, the Black Lives Matter movement was planning marches and protests on that day

“Given the current racial climate in the United States and Jacksonville," the filing notes, "Plaintiffs expect attendance at the commemorations and protests being held on the anniversary of Ax-Handle Saturday to be high. Given the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s prior constitutional violations against them and others during the protests held on May 31, 2020, they fear that their participation in Axe-Handle Saturday events and future protests leading into the highly-contentious 2020 Presidential election will result in further unlawful dispersal orders, arrests, and uses of force against them.”

JSO has not yet replied to the recent filing.