Beating a tambourine with the palm of her hand, Carol Williams wove through the thickening crowd forming around the downtown Gainesville statue of the Confederate solider. Her shouts became hoarse spasms.
“Rebel!” Crack. “Flag!” Crack. “Don’t!” Crack. “Mean!” Crack. “Nothin’!”
Only moments earlier, Williams had been in a shouting match with one of the 50 protesters who had come waving Confederate flags in support of keeping the statue.
“You’re a racist!” She shouted.
“You’re a racist!” He shouted back.
They had faced off this way, hurling insults, until fellow protesters linked arms with Williams and steered her away.
Though Gainesville-born and raised, Williams said she came from Washington, DC, to visit her sister, Faye Williams, one of the coordinators of the protest. Despite being on vacation, when she heard about the protest, she said she needed to attend.
“Ya’ll know what the Confederate flag means,” she said, scanning her eyes across the crowd. “That still hurts.”
More than 150 people gathered Thursday, July 9, around the Confederate statue to either call for its removal or demand that it stay. The nearly three hours of speeches culminated in the two groups standing apart, volleying chants over one another until the police intervened.
The split protest has been developing since late June after the Charleston shootings, according to local activist Jesse Arost. Locals partnered with student groups like the University of Florida’s Dream Defenders, CHISPAS and others to call for the removal of the statue, creating a Facebook event titled “Remove the Confederate Statue! End White Supremacy and Racist Violence!” As of this writing, 248 Facebook users indicated they were going.
Those who wish to remove the statue will take a petition to the County Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 14, and speak during public comment. Because the statue is on county property, only county commissioners have the authority to move it.
Two opposing Facebook events surfaced: one called “Battle Flag Rally: Stop Southern Cultural Genocide,” the other, “Save the Confederate Statue! End Liberal Idiocy!”
Both, in addition to members of the Florida League of the South, who seek Southern independence from the United States and whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a neo-Confederate extremist group, showed up Thursday night.
James Scillinglaw, a member of Sons of Confederate Soldiers, said the Confederate flag has been hijacked by hate groups, arguing it is not inherently a hateful symbol.
“Because it’s been hijacked by hate groups, the good guys — like you and me and the average citizens — are being punished because of what the hate groups are doing,” he told WUFT News.” And that’s the reason why I’m here today. I don’t want to be punished for what some idiot did.”
Protesters who wanted the statue to remain, like Scillinglaw, hovered at the peripheries of the protest, displaying flags and Southern paraphernalia – including a horse outfitted in period-appropriate gear.
Steven Ingram, spokesperson for the Florida League of the South, said members outside of Gainesville heard about the protest from a local member and came to support the statue.
On the other hand, Arost said the group wants to remove the statue from public property and put it in a new location, like the Matheson Museum.
Opposers of the statue said they believe it is a symbol of hate. Because of what it represents, Arost added, the group wishes to have it removed from public property.
It was first erected in 1904 with an inscription reading, “They counted the cost and in defense of right they paid the martyr’s price.
“These symbols are offensive,” said resident Kali Blount after speaking during the public comment period of last week’s city commission meeting. “Anything on public space must be acceptable to the whole public.”
Eric Brown, a UF political science major and member of Dream Defenders, said removing the statue will help send a message.
“To live in America as a black person is to live in constant vigilance,” said Eric Brown, a UF political science student and member of Dream Defenders. “It is important to send a message that ‘business as usual’ will not continue in Gainesville, continue in Charleston, continue anywhere.”
The crowd let out a cheer.
After each scheduled speaker delivered his or her message, Faye Williams, who helped coordinate the event, opened the floor to anyone who wanted to speak. She hugged a number of the speakers as they stepped up, including Yocheved Zenaida-Cohen, barista at Radical Press Café, and trans affairs coordinator at Wild Iris.
Zenaida-Cohen gestured toward the crowd and said to understand those who want the statue to stay, we need to know that many of them were taught a white-centered version of history.
“None of us are going to be able to dismantle white supremacy without first getting extremely uncomfortable,” she said as members of the audience applauded.
Alexis Cruz produced this update.
Residents who live along four dirt roads in High Springs want them paved.
They want roads that, they say, don’t endanger the health of their children or send clouds of dust billowing toward their homes after a car drives by.
“We’re tired of this,” High Spring resident Wendolyn Hayes told the Alachua County Commissioners at a June 9 meeting. “We’re tired of looking at these dust bowls like we’re living in the ’30s… We’re begging you to do it.”
It all started in October 2013.
Mabel Blake called the Alachua County Public Works department about the roads in 2013. They told her the county couldn’t afford to build a new road.
To make it happen, Blake needed to get a majority of property owners on NW 210 Avenue, NW 205 Street, NW 218 Avenue and NW 202 Street to agree to pay higher property taxes.
She went door-to-door getting signatures from property owners for a Special Assessment District (SAD). An SAD allows people to pay the county to work on a specific project, which in this case, was paving the four roads.
Mabel sent the SAD petition, which had enough signatures, to public works. The department sent it to the county.
Then came the tricky part.
Michael Fay, development program manager for the Alachua County Public Works department, said his department had never dealt with this type of project before.
“It was a learning experience for sure,” he said. “It was the first time we dealt with a road without a typical asphalt treatment… a non-paved, dirt road.”
Those In Favor
With Blake’s petition complete, the county conducted a poll to find out how many property owners were willing to pay the county for the construction.
Ben Hill was one of them.
Hill and his family have lived on NW 210 Avenue for 14 years. Hill chose to settle in High Springs after retiring from broadcasting so he could live on a larger property, and because it was in the country.
“I own two parcels and five acres of land here,” he said.
When Mabel came by a few years ago to propose the SAD, Hill said he was eager to see the improvements made.
The first estimated cost for the construction was $320-per-year for 10 years for one parcel of land. The estimate did not include administrative or financing costs, meaning it could end up more expensive than the county’s original cost.
Hill and the other property owners learned a year later that the cost would actually be $417-per-year for 10 years.
“It is a little disheartening to find out that there’s a 28 percent increase,” Hill told the county commissioners. “I’m still willing to pay it. I voted in favor.”
Hill said the benefits of a paved road outweigh the cost. If enough cars drive by, it begins to look like a forest fire, he said. The dust covers his entire property in dirt and is very unhealthy.
According to the Department of Health website, dust particles small enough to be inhaled can cause eye irritation, coughing, sneezing, hayfever and asthma attacks.
“A lot of times we’re sitting out on the porch and are chased inside by all the smoke in the air,” he said.
Some people who own property within the SAD don’t actually live there. Most of the votes against the SAD were from those property owners.
Hill said he understands why those owners are against the road’s construction — he pays taxes on both properties and still doesn’t see any benefits.
“The county doesn’t care about us way out here,” he said.
Frank Deloach Jr. voted against the SAD. He said he shouldn’t have to pay for a road twice.
“I already pay a property tax,” Deloach said. “Why should I pay more money for something the county should have already done?”
The Deloach family owns three large agricultural properties within the SAD, according to the Alachua County Property Appraiser. However, the family does not own a house affected by the dust from dirt road.
A lawyer represented Deloach at the county commissioner’s meeting in June. Deloach’s attorney, John Wagener, said there were irregularities with the county’s poll.
The Cole family was an irregularity.
“The Coles voted against the thing and then changed their vote,” Wagener said. “Without the Coles vote the (SAD) wouldn’t be happening.”
The Cole family owns separate pieces of property that are right next to one another. When the first poll was conducted, they didn’t want to be taxed twice for the individual parcels.
To fix the problem, they combined their property and changed their vote, causing another issue.
“They were allowed to change their vote,” Deloach said. “That’s illegal.”
However, Public Works Director Dave Cerlanek said the county did not use a vote. The county conducted a poll of interested property owners, which was subject to change.
As It Stands
If the Coles voted against the project, the road would not be constructed. But with one less parcel and one more yes vote, the SAD made the cut with 75 percent – the exact number needed to be approved.
Deloach said he will take his case to Tallahassee, directly to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. He said he intends to fight the county.
As it stands, the construction on the four roads is set to begin in March 2016 at the original estimated cost of $320-per-year for 10 years.
County Commissioner Ken Cornell proposed an amendment that required the county to pay the administrative and financing costs. The commissioners voted unanimously to pass the amendment and for the county to pay the additional cost.
Cornell said it is important for the county to keep its commitments to the citizens.
“All Ms. Mabel ever asked for is that the county follow the process they asked her to follow,” Cornell said. “And she’s done that. And she’s done all the work.”
About 40 churchgoers sit together on the back porch of the St. Elizabeth Greek Orthodox Church parish house. It’s coffee hour after the Sunday morning mass. The Eritrean and Ethiopian families are providing the food, all of which is eaten in under an hour.
Gainesville’s Greek community is a small one.
St. Elizabeth, located down the street from Devil’s Millhopper State Park, is the only Greek Orthodox church in or near Gainesville. The building holds 22 pews, each of which could seat five people comfortably.
But size is not what sets this church apart from its Greek Orthodox counterparts across the country.
It’s the people inside.
Greek Orthodox church congregations are typically made up of Greeks and filled with Greek chatter, according to the Rev. Nikitas Theodosion, presiding priest at St. Elizabeth. This is not the case in Gainesville’s Greek Orthodox church.
Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Georgians and Romanians, and all of their respective Orthodox religions, make up the part of the church parish that is not of Greek descent.
“It’s more like 30 percent Greek,” Theodosion said of the church’s parish.
A Community Unlike The Others
Greek communities are generally anchored by two things: religion and food, joked George Caranasos, who has lived in Gainesville for 48 years.
Caranasos, along with his wife, Connie, were on the front lines of the formation of Gainesville’s Greek community in the early 1970s when they realized a small Greek population existed but a lacked organization.
That community has since grown and become more ethnically and culturally diverse. Because the church community and social community are almost one and the same, the local Greek community has become somewhat of a melting pot.
“We encouraged that from the beginning,” Connie Caranasos said.
This blending of ethnicities and cultures within the church community is quite different from the way Greek Orthodox churches tend to operate, according to Theodosion, who is from Cleveland, Ohio.
While growing up in Cleveland, he said there were four big Greek Churches. Almost everyone who attended them was Greek. Worshippers of other nationalities had their own churches.
Stella Harbilas said the same thing about the Greek Orthodox church in Redondo Beach, California, that she grew up in.
“That was probably 95 percent Greek,” she said. “With maybe non-Greek spouses mixed in.”
Harbilas, 52, works within St. Elizabeth and the Greek community and has lived in Gainesville since 1992.
Not Always So Diverse
To understand the history of Gainesville’s Greek community, you have to visit the large home of George and Connie Caranasos.
The house is littered with family photos. A religious calendar hangs on the kitchen wall, and a plate of cookies sits on the counter just begging to be eaten.
Because the Gainesville Greek population started with only a handful of people, it took a while to grow into what it is today.
Florin Curta’s first visit to St. Elizabeth was 16 years ago. Curta, born in Romania, said he remembers being outnumbered by the Greeks in the community.
“When I first came here, it was all Greek.” he said. “The service was in Greek, the singing was in Greek.”
Today, the services are in English.
Every Sunday, The Lord’s Prayer (“Our father, who art in heaven…”) is recited in as many as six languages, each nationality taking a turn to say the entire prayer in their language.
That’s something you won’t see in other churches, Curta said. It’s a tradition they developed over time.
Curta now says The Lord’s Prayer in four languages to support those who are alone in speaking their language.
By including so many different cultures and backgrounds in its community, the Greeks have created a social blending in Gainesville.
Harbilas and Theodosion both spoke of how the relationships that form between people go beyond just seeing each other at church on Sundays.
Harbilas emphasized how much people have learned from each other and about different traditions and cultures. The Eritrean and Ethiopian meal after Sunday’s mass illustrates that point.
Theodosion pointed out that in Africa, Eritreans and Ethiopians, residents of neighboring countries, do not get along.
“Yet here, they’re friends,” he said.
So, as everyone gathered after church on a blazing summer Sunday, these friends sat down together for a meal.
Scrolling through the Southern Indie Bookseller’s Alliance’s list of board members, Erica Rodriguez Merrell’s photo stands out.
While the other members’ pictures are cropped tightly to their faces, smiling pleasantly at the camera, Rodriguez Merrell chose a full-body shot, her legs thrown over the arm of one of the many brightly colored patio chairs outside of Wild Iris Books, the downtown feminist bookstore she co-owns and runs.
Her grin is cheeky and delighted, and she wears rainbow socks.
Then there’s her self-description.
“Once upon a time in a land far, far away,” it begins, her voice a break from the restrained, official tone of her peers, “actually in the late 70’s in Connecticut, a baby girl was born.”
The biography goes on to sketch out her history, adding that she’d lived in five states by the time she was 18. She eventually went to college in upstate New York then settled in Miami, working at Borders.
But for the past 11 years, she and her husband have lived in Gainesville. It’s the longest she’s stayed in one place, and she doesn’t plan to leave any time soon.
She has become a vital member of Gainesville’s community. She works as a bookseller, co-running Wild Iris downtown. She’s been keeping books and a business up and running since running the Miami Borders. She can do those tasks in her sleep, she said. She knows her inventory so well, she said, that off the top of her head she could tell you if they have the book you’re looking for.
Over the course of her six years with Wild Iris, she’s accrued the additional ambient roles of community organizer, mentor, facilitator, advocate and friend to anyone who wanders into the courtyard behind Wild Iris.
“I feel very strongly about this threshold,” she said, gesturing to the archway connecting the courtyard to the outside world.
Stepping through there, she said, should feel like coming home.
“I like to think that people have little holes in them,” she said. “And I have a bunch of extra love. So I’m just going to go and plug in your holes while you’re not looking. That’s my job.”
Rodriguez Merrell and her team organize feminist support groups, women of color brunches and barbecues with the sole purpose of celebrating trans womanhood. Most recently, they launched a weekly series called “Feminist Vents,” where women gather to drink wine or coffee and talk about micro-aggressions they experienced throughout the week.
But her bio says it best. She left corporate bookselling to take on the volunteer-run Wild Iris and the non-profit world for a specific purpose: to “wield her powers for good against the modern day dragons of oppression and inequality.”
Wild Iris was founded in 1992, functioning as it does now, as a cross between a bookstore and a community space.
Two second-wave lesbian feminists founded the store, which began by focusing exclusively on the experiences of those who identified as cis-gender and lesbian.
This corresponded with the general environment of the early ’90s, when feminism was beginning to develop its third wave.
Intersectionality, the idea that influencing factors like race, class, gender and sexuality are essential to understanding oppression, was becoming widely discussed by academics and activists, such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins. Until intersectionality reoriented the focus and widened the net of feminism, the movement focused primarily on cis-gendered white women.
“One thing I try to remind people is that when this space was an exclusive, kind of separatist lesbian space, it’s because (the world) was not safe,” Rodriguez Merrell said. “People were just trying to be out.”
Feminist bookstores began to die in the early 2000s with the rise of large-scale booksellers like Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million. They dealt blows to niche stores like Wild Iris by offering a wider selection and competitive prices.
Amazon later felled the larger sellers – Borders filed bankruptcy in 2011 – for identical reasons, killing off more and more feminist bookstores.
There are only 12 left in the United States and Canada. Wild Iris is the last in Florida, Rodriguez Merrell said.
“I realize that I’m one of the people keeping that number from dropping to 11,” Rodriguez Merrell said. “I can’t let that happen.”
When Rodriguez Merrell took the reins in 2009, she guided the store headlong into the intersectional bracket.
When the store moved downtown in 2012 from its old location on the corner of University Ave and NW 10th Street, Rodriguez Merrell and co-owner Cheryl Calhoun, who mostly runs the website, revamped the entire catalog, adding books addressing issues of queer women, trans women and women of color.
Rodriguez Merrell has become a local champion for intersectionality, which prompted the University of Florida’s Diversity Affirmation and Awareness Committee, a group of psychology graduate students devoted to teaching inclusivity and equality, to invite her to give a talk in February, according to Alex Lanzen, one of the committee’s chairs.
“My co-chair saw what she was doing in the community,” she said. “We thought to bring her in for a discussion.”
Rodriguez Merrell converted events like the weekly feminist open mic into a queer open mic and ended the exclusive, lesbian-only dance parties. She helped launch a bi-weekly event called Free Store, which crowd sources, and offers free of charge, supplies like clothes, underwear, makeup and tampons for anyone who needs them, which has been especially helpful for those transitioning and taking on the fiscally daunting task of converting their wardrobe.
“I fancy myself a Robin Hood in my brain,” Rodriguez Merrell said. “’How can I steal all the resources and give them to you?’ is really my end goal in everything.”
Though the business still operates on a shoestring and continues to struggle to stay in the black, this year’s holiday sales were the best they’ve ever been, according to Rodriguez Merrell. The transition has not only made Wild Iris a more inclusive, active space, but has brought it a gust of success. They crammed about 200 people into the Courtyard this April for the “Viva La Vulva” art gallery.
Wild Iris is the only bookstore remaining downtown since Broken Shelves closed earlier this year.
Part of the appeal is that Wild Iris does more than sell books. Rodriguez Merrell intentionally cultivates safe, welcoming and inclusive space. This sometimes takes the form of Rodriguez Merrell acting as confidante. She’s made herself available and open to anyone who needs emotional support.
Once, she said, a woman whom she had never met came into her store, walked up to the counter and confessed that she was married and had children but was in love with her best friend, a woman, and she didn’t know what to do.
Rodriguez Merrell directed her to the Gainesville Pride Center, which offers counseling and a community. She said listening and providing support helped the woman begin to navigate the process of recognizing her sexuality.
Her customers and staff respond to this care with fierce loyalty. Many of the younger customers get converted into the battalion of unpaid interns.
“When I started, I was very nervous,” said 22-year-old former intern Nina Plocek. “I wasn’t really confident in my knowledge about feminism yet, which is interesting because I’m studying women’s studies.”
Plocek said Rodriguez Merrell provided a comfortable learning environment and taught her to have a sensitive, open mind when it comes to understanding oppression and struggle.
“I think she’s a good example for how to be a good ally and someone who is considerate of many viewpoints in the community,” Plocek said. “She’s a mentor for a lot of us.”
Charlotte Germain-Aubrey discovered her passion for biology in Madagascar while studying trees that provided food and shelter to lemurs.
The postdoctoral student was 20 when she decided to become a scientist, but she knew it would have happened sooner had she been exposed to the sciences at a younger age.
Now she wants to help introduce other girls to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by creating a weeklong camp for fifth- and sixth-grade girls.
“Science is so broad and has so many applications,” she said.
Germain-Aubrey’s involvement in the University of Florida’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program helped her create the WiSE Girlz Camp. She reached out to various UF science departments. Within a week, she had multiple faculty members on board.
The next step was figuring out a way to fund the camp and keep it affordable for parents. She realized how expensive STEM camps were after looking into them for her son. The cost of STEM camps in Alachua County ranged from $200 to $300, she said.
Teachers and guest speakers volunteered their time, so Germain-Aubrey was able to keep the cost of the camp at $50 per student. The only cost was for daily meals, and scholarships were available to those who couldn’t afford the fee.
Eleven girls attended the camp in March, including 13-year-old Charlotte Trabbic. Each day was dedicated to a different science field, such as biology, astronomy, geology, engineering, computer science or chemistry, which turned out to be Trabbic’s favorite.
She said she enjoyed how hands on chemistry was, like when she created slime by mixing chemicals and learned how certain chemicals could change the color of fire from pink to green.
Trabbic’s main fascination with science is its ability to help others.
“It’s so cool cause you can help someone by doing something you love,” she said.
She wants to be an anesthesiologist when she grows up, but Trabbic said she is still exploring other health and science fields.
Germain-Aubrey said that at the end of the day, many girls wanted to become engineers and computer scientists.
“I think exposing them to many disciplines and people is really key,” she said.
Stephanie Zick, WiSE president and doctoral student, said the camp focuses on girls in middle school because that is when girls tend to drop out of the sciences.
Zick said she noticed a gender gap when she realized most of her graduate professors were male.
“Part of the reason of why I became involved in WiSE is because I had a privileged upbringing because I was always encouraged, and I want to continue that across a wider demographic,” Zick said.
According to the United States Census Bureau, women’s representation in STEM fields has increased since the 1970s. But women are still underrepresented. Women made up 26 percent of the workforce in STEM fields in 2011 and men made up 74 percent.
Other organizations like The National Girls Collaborative Project work to encourage young girls to pursue STEM careers and connect them with STEM programs where they live. Brenda Britch, senior research scientist at NGCP, said it’s important for everyone to have a strong STEM foundation and for girls to see that STEM is not just for boys.
Britsch said role models also help inspire girls. Programs like WiSE, which involve women who are studying STEM working with younger girls, can help the girls connect with a STEM field they are interested in, according to Britsch.
“College students are key because they’re not that much older than girls and can really impact those girls,” Britsch said.
She said getting students interested in topics they personally care about is crucial to sparking interest in STEM.
“Let students choose what they’re going to do and tackle issues they care about,” she said. “It’s not only more interesting, but it helps connect girls to science.”
An update about the 2015-2016 School Resource Deputy program, which places officers in area schools, was on the agenda of Tuesday’s Alachua County Commission meeting.
The school board has not yet approved a contract renewal with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office for the coming school year, which begins Aug. 24, according to Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
In contest is an $80,000 difference in the budget of the school district and the requested amount from the Sheriff’s office.
The county requested a reimbursement in May of $886,222 from the school board for costs associated with the program. Darnell said the amount is about 50 percent of the cost of the program, including the deputies’ salaries and operating expenses, which is on par with what other counties pay for similar programs. She said about 42 percent was requested in previous years. The police, funded by the county, will pay the additional costs.
Alachua County Superintendent Owen Roberts did not approve the request, saying the school board was only willing to offer about $807,000 in state-provided funds for the entire county, Darnell said.
“If he and the school board members…truly valued the program of school resource personnel in schools, I would have hoped that they would have valued it so much that they would want to be a part of coordinating and participating in putting together a customized model within the schools,” Darnell said.
Now they’re at a stalemate.
The amount the superintendent proposed is less than previous years, Darnell said.
The amount requested reflects nine months of personnel costs and operating expenses, which is billed to the school board for reimbursement to the county.
Mary Helen Wheeler, a teacher at Westwood Middle School for 21 years, said that while she uses the school resource officers often, the contract may not be a priority for the superintendent.
“Our public schools are being choked to death by the lack of funding,” she said.
If the contract is not renewed, deputies will not be on school grounds unless responding to a call. However, as long as the contract is signed, Darnell said the program will continue, even with the lower reimbursement.
“If the law enforcement budget remains the same, I am still committed to the School Resource Deputy program,” Darnell said.
There is no projected date for a decision by the school board because the contract is still being negotiated, according to Jackie Johnson, Alachua County Schools spokeswoman.