Connell Crooms is the man in the mural.
It’s nearly impossible to miss him. He is 150 feet tall, depicted in black and white beside a fellow activist, Palestinian-American Sara Mahmoud. They are each painted on their own massive silo, back-to-back, with their giant eyes downcast. They watch over downtown Jacksonville, Florida, situated directly across from Everbank Field, where the Jaguars football team plays.
With only three losses this season, Crooms often jokes that maybe his mural has something to do with the Jaguars’ recent wins. He’s glad that it’s the first thing the players and fans see when they enter the stadium.
Whether or not Crooms’ depiction is a good luck charm for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the passion that he and Mahmoud showed at a protest shortly after President Trump was elected in November 2016 inspired a famous street graffiti artist named Guido Van Helten. Van Helten, commissioned by the ArtRepublic, took only four days to paint the two activists.
“This is just a black man and a Palestinian woman struggling for solidarity to show that the power of the people is always going to win. That’s what this signifies,” Crooms said. “I am a deaf black man. I know what struggle is, I know what struggle looks like, but what I also have that many people don’t have is the opportunity to learn how to fight back and use that knowledge to get wins for the people.”
For Crooms and his fellow activists, those “wins for the people” have varied over the years, and they have undoubtedly come with setbacks. In Hemming Park on April 7, 2017, an anti-war protest was held. Crooms attended the rally and was asked to speak about the international struggle against oppression.
Things quickly escalated as protestors and counter-protestors mixed. Blue Trump flags were waved and exchanges between the two groups grew heated. Protestors requested multiple times to have the two sides separated, but the Jacksonville police did not act.
As Crooms spoke into a megaphone on the stage, Gary Snow, a Trump supporter and well-known provocateur, stood beside him on the stage and attempted to drown Crooms out with his a megaphone.
“We were being harassed by white supremacists who were out there, including Gary Snow, everybody’s favorite white supremacist here in Florida, apparently,” Crooms said. “He was out there, agitating us, harassing us, literally hitting people with his Trump flag.”
The next minutes were caught on tape from as many as 37 different cameras. From one of the videos posted on YouTube, the tension appeared to heighten between Crooms and Snow as they shouted in each other’s faces. According to Crooms, when the police officers present wouldn’t separate the two sides, he said “F--- the police” and was attacked.
“You could literally read the police report. They wrote that I was arrested for saying ‘F--- the Police.’ As a deaf black man, what free speech do I have that I can’t even say ‘F--- The Police’?” Crooms said. “ I thought I was going to die that day. The next thing I know I’m being choked, punched, kicked in the face. I tell people, I was beaten like a slave. I was being beaten like a runaway slave. I decided to do nothing and trust the people around me to record everything. On top of that, I got tazed. To get tazed and not know why was just scary because all I could feel was a thousand horses running across my back.”
Crooms was arrested that day along with four other protestors. They quickly gained Internet fame with the hashtag #JAX5 and thousands of people clamoring for “justice” for them throughout the spring and summer of 2017, especially as the videos of the protest and beating went viral. Crooms was initially charged with one felony count of inciting a riot and one felony count for assaulting a police officer. All charges were subsequently dropped against him.
Crooms believes the Jacksonville police may have targeted him on April 7 because of his consistent activism over the last five years and the notoriety he has gained as the man in the mural.
“The police knew who I was. The cops had it in their mind exactly what they were going to say and exactly how they were going to arrest me,” Crooms said. “The video speaks for itself. I didn’t start a riot and I never hit a cop.”
For Crooms, the events of April 7 signified more than anything that the city of Jacksonville is changing. When he was arrested, the police shut down the streets around the jail downtown for a two-block radius. Crooms believes law enforcement officers that hold racist beliefs see the movement he has helped spur as a threat.
“There’s just a vanguard of racism in the south. So goes Jacksonville, so goes racism everywhere else in the country, and that’s just something I believe,” Crooms said. “You have to believe that the movement we have built here in Jacksonville is a threat to a lot of people, including the racist cops.”
There may be some factions that do feel threatened by a rising civil rights movement because north Florida is home to several known hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern National Congress, a Neo-confederate organization, and the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan both make their home in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville is only 45 minutes north of St. Augustine, a town that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the most lawless community in which we have worked” after he was arrested for trying to eat at a segregated restaurant.
In October 2017, the Klu Klux Klan distributed flyers throughout Jacksonville advocating for black men to be beaten with bats if they looked at white women. The flyers also said that fighting Jewish people was the same thing as fighting the devil. Calling the number listed on the flyer ends at a voice message claiming the holocaust was a "fairytale" and Hitler was just retaliating against Jewish people for killing white Christians in Russia.
But Jacksonville is changing.
The demographics are shifting. There are more young people, more Hispanics, more African-Americans and more immigrants that now call this coastal city their home. There are several active refugee resettlement programs in the area that serve people fleeing the Middle East, Cuba, parts of the Caribbean and Central America.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, from 2011 to 2015 Jacksonville saw people moving in from cities like Miami, New York, Orlando and Washington, D.C. 9.3 percent of new residents came from outside of the United States entirely. While the incoming residents from that time period are still mostly white, nearly half are African-American, Hispanic, Asian or from other places such as Europe and the Middle East. The majority of new Jacksonville residents are also in the Millennial age bracket or lower, with 57 percent of them 35 years old or younger.
While Crooms sees an increase in the amount of people that are becoming activists and involving themselves in the community, he believes that getting more white people involved in issues of civil rights is the way to make the most progress. He sees using “white privilege” as a powerful way to educate and inspire others.
“There’s no silver bullet to solving the issues of racism. It will always exist. But it’s a question of what can we do to bring people together to better a understanding of each other,” Crooms said. “Jacksonville has its problems, but we have the potential to be a great city with great leaders. It’s just that all it takes is young people getting involved and getting active, learning and educating and serving other people. We’re building bridges here. We are the city of bridges.”