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Panama City Residents Celebrate Freedom, Call Out Injustice

Panama City Juneteenth Celebration.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Panama City residents call for an end to racial injustice at the town's first Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday, June 20, 2020.

Hundreds of Panama City residents took a stand against racial injustice on Saturday at the town’s first Juneteenth Celebration.

“We have Black, White, Asian - everybody is mixed in here today,” "DJ Big Boi" David Barnes, a local radio host and community activist, told demonstrators. “Today we can make change.”

The event began with a march along the downtown section of Harrison Avenue to McKenzie Park, where community leaders called for justice on behalf of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with local residents 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson and 19-year-old Eric Henley who also died in the hands of law enforcement.

"Black lives do matter," Barnes told the crowd. "I'm tired of seeing us killed."

Barnes says he was surprised to see so many people from the community participate in the day's events. “I was overwhelmed - almost brought to tears.”

Ashley Gray.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Ashley Gray, 26, poses with her sign at Panama City's first Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday, June 20, 2020.

Juneteenth marks the liberation of the last remaining people who were enslaved in the U.S. on June 19, 1865. The date is an official holiday in Florida. But Barnes says many local residents remain unaware of its historical significance. “A lot of people don’t know about it,” he said. “We definitely have to correct and educate people.”

In the afternoon, protesters gathered at the site of the now-demolished Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, which the city plans to eventually rebuild. Some of the demonstrators' signs read: “Black Lives Matter,” “Racism has Bullied its LAST Generation!” and “Justice for George Floyd.”

The event's organizers called on residents to register to vote, especially those who have felony records and until recently were disenfranchised. Some leaders also spoke about the need for more police oversight, including equipping all local officers with body cameras.

“We have to bridge that gap between law enforcement and community,” Barnes said. “We have to have that conversation. We have to sit down. Sometimes we have to have uncomfortable conversations. I slowly see change. It’s happening, slowly, but surely.”

At the afternoon’s demonstration, Peaches Ridgeway stood on the sidewalk with her two young nieces, holding a sign that read, “George Floyd. I can’t breathe.”

“We’re standing for our lives, our future, their future,” she said.

Ridgeway says she didn’t learn about Juneteenth in the classroom, and her nieces aren’t taught about the holiday in school. “Coming from a community where we didn’t learn a lot about Black people, Black things, Black history - it’s just better to be out here and to teach them,” she said.

Over the last few weeks, there have been more local conversations about race. “We organized the law enforcement community to stand against this,” said Tony Bostick, vice president of the Northwest Florida Minority Business Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, he says about 70 local pastors signed an agreement on Thursday, condemning racism.

Bostick says new leadership in local government is bringing about positive change. “Our people and our community were never engaged,” he said. “The city of Panama City is now under new management.”

Both City Manager Mark McQueen and Mayor Greg Brudnicki attended the march to show their support.

Organizers say they’re planning a larger festival to celebrate Juneteenth next year. Bostick says he hopes the elevated community dialogue about race continues.

“It’s a new day - a new dawn - here in Bay County.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.