What Went Down at the Jacksonville Protest: Q&A with Alexis Lawrence


Isabel Solorzano

Calista Headrick, Writer - The Reporter

Amid hundreds of protests across the nation in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, recent graduate Alexis Lawrence (‘20) hopes to be an agent of change by using her voice to advocate for the movement and those who are vulnerable in today’s society. 


After violence and unrest broke out at a Jacksonville protest that took place the night before, protesters, including Lawrence, gathered peacefully on the courthouse steps on the morning of May 31. As the day progressed, the protesters marched the streets and continued to recite “I can’t breathe,” and “no justice, no peace,” before being broken up, and some arrested, by officers later that afternoon.


Lawrence herself was faced with being pepper sprayed and having to drop herself from a bridge to escape that chaos that erupted, and her short video narrating what was going on around her went viral on Twitter. She used this momentum and since then has been “hitting the ground running,” and has put even more into the movement. From being asked to model for photoshoots in support of the movement, to organizing more protests with an even more successful turn out, Lawrence is “that girl.”


Lawrence will ship off to bootcamp as an Army reservist this month to then return to pursue her master’s degree in the spring of next year before applying to law school. She told me about her experience at the Jacksonville protest that took place on Sunday, May 31, and what ensued in the days following.


Our conversation has been condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.


Hatter Network: Can you take me through your experience at the protest, what you did to get ready for it, what it was like when you were there?


Alexis Lawrence: Of course. So it took no getting ready for it, because at that point, that Sunday morning, I hadn’t been on social media for days. And then all of a sudden I woke up and checked the news on social media and I was like ‘oh my gosh.’ So the next step was I was searching and searching through the protests to see if there was anything to go to. I woke up at 10 o’clock, I saw that there was a protest happening at 10:15 a.m. after I searched social media, and then I literally just threw whatever I had on and rushed out the door. I think I was supposed to go to church that morning, but I left an offering on the table and was like ‘I gotta go.’ 


It’s funny because my mom texted me saying, ‘Hey, you know, I love you, be safe, stay calm, be strong, and bring some milk. I heard they’re out there spraying people.’ And I was like haha milk, like I’m gonna get sprayed at a protest right? So I was in for a surprise.


But I got there, everything was peaceful. I had gotten there maybe around 10:30 a.m. or 10:45 a.m. I was there all day and I have footage. We were so peaceful. We were sitting on the steps, we were peacefully protesting, we were singing, we were talking about experiences, just peacefully on the courthouse steps just doing absolutely nothing. No agitators, no nothing. So we did two marches, one earlier in the day. The first march we did, we were inside the street and stuff but it was still OK. We weren’t holding up traffic or anything. 


There was one agitator and he ended up getting arrested because there’s a difference between demanding justice and causing chaos, and he was just causing chaos. He was not about the cause at all and he did get arrested. And it was very upsetting because a lot of the media that day covered him. ‘Oh yeah they’re getting rowdy down there at the protest because this one white kid got arrested.’ He was just there just to be there. But we didn’t let that discourage us. We came back around, walked back, and by the time we got back to the courthouse from the first march that we took, there had been– I cannot stress to you how many police officers. 


We got in the middle of the courthouse, like back in the center, and they surrounded us in SWAT gear and everything. They surrounded the entire courthouse with patrol vehicles. We had police officers on bicycles coming down the sidewalk, we had drones, we had helicopters, we had police in riot gear and we’re like, ‘what is going on?’ It wasn’t even like a large group of people, like it wasn’t terribly huge. 


Since then we’ve had protests with a lot more people than we did that day and I guess it was a scare tactic to try and pull that on us. But when they saw that that wasn’t working, later that day we were still peacefully protesting and at this point some people left, some people came. It was around maybe 4 o’clock and before we left there were several adults, like our parents’ generation, and they’re coming up to the mic and saying ‘Hey guys it’s a peaceful protest, don’t forget that. Don’t forget that the police are here to help us.’ Basically just don’t riot, don’t lose anything like that.


And just a side comment on that. All of these people who are looting — it makes no sense. It’s lawlessness. It’s not getting justice, it’s not reparation. It’s selfishness, it’s lawlessness, and it’s irresponsible because it’s taking the proper attention and the needed attention away from the problem at hand, which is black lives are being taken by police brutality. So that actually annoys me that people are doing that. But I’m sorry.


HN: No not at all. That was actually a question I had. What do you think about the more violent and chaotic protests that are being started?


AL: I do not approve at all, whatsoever, and I do not support it. There’s a difference. We’re about equality, not revenge. And all of these people who are not even here for the cause and are here to just go rob Target or something, shame on you because we’re out here trying to make a change, trying to make a difference. But you’re just out here looking for the next quick thing, the next best thing, for free. Like I said, it’s lawlessness and it’s not OK.


But anyways, before we left we had said, ‘Some people are killed. Stay safe, stay peaceful, just follow what they say and you’ll be OK. We had one female pastor there. She was like ‘While you guys go and protest and walk I’m going to stand right here and I’m going to pray. I will be here when you guys get back. I’ll be praying until you guys return.’ 


So we’re walking, we’re protesting, just on the sidewalk because we didn’t want it to be a thing. We didn’t want anything to come down from it so we stayed on the sidewalk. So we’re on the sidewalk and I heard an officer say, ‘Just tell us where you guys want to go and we will take you wherever you guys want to go. We’ll lead you wherever you want to go.’ So we’re like ‘OK.’ 


Well we wanted to go, actually let me be honest, I did not want to go on the bridge. I was one of the ones leading the protest. So we got at like a cross path and we could either go left or we could either go to the bridge and I told my people that I was protesting with—because I went to the protest by myself but I ended up leaving with a bunch of new friends—so I was telling them, ‘Hey guys I have a bad feeling that if we go on that [Main Street] bridge, I just have a bad feeling. Just a feeling that I should just go left, let’s go left.’


But you know we have to be at a front and the majority wanted to go on the bridge so I was like OK, we have to be a united front, we have to stand together. We can’t be divided. So of course we proceed onto the bridge. Well, the second we step on the bridge we have patrol cars rushing and coming onto the bridge and we had protestors who were blocking the police cars. Like what in the world is happening. 


HN: As a follow up question, some local news reports claim that the protesters were trying to shut down or block off the bridge, and that this was the reason for the arrests. Do you think that this was the sentiment that was going around, or that this was the goal?


AL: To speak candidly, the statement is an absolute falsehood. Before we began the protest, the officers told us they would escort us to wherever we decided to go, and we decided to go to the bridge. There was no ongoing traffic, we were not rambunctious, and we were unprovoking. It wasn’t until after this event that I learned what the officers were doing. It’s a term called ‘kettling’ where they trap the protestors in a place like a bride, surrounding them from all sides as an attempt to detain everyone. Had I not jumped off of the bridge after being pepper sprayed for peacefully exercising my First Amendment right on the sidewalk, they would have detained me too.


I didn’t know [about kettling] at the time, so when I was getting my certification for the National Lawyers Guild I learned about this and was like ‘Oh my god they did this to me. I lived this. This is what happened.’ 


But anyway, we got on the bridge and we’re peacefully protesting. Some people are on the road, some people are on the sidewalk. Either way it was OK. We weren’t blocking traffic and there were no cars. It was completely vacant. All of a sudden they get out of their vehicles and they proceed to push, there’s like shoving people back into the walls with such force. It was just crazy. 


And one of the girls that I had met, she’s a transgender woman, she saw what was happening and she literally jumped ahead and used her body as a human shield to block the police officers from bulldozing these black guys into the wall. She used her privilege, she used her platform to help out African Americans who were in trouble. So that was amazing all within itself. 


But when I saw that they were starting to reach for her, because I did, I watched them the entire time and I said, ‘This does not sound right, there is something not right here,’ and I saw their hands going up to their belt. The belt is where the taser, guns, where all of that is. And so I snatched her from the other side of the wall because there was the sidewalk, there was a wall to the right of the sidewalk and the road itself. I snatched her from the road and over the wall onto the sidewalk. So if they have anything to say, my solution is I’m thinking ‘Well if she’s on the sidewalk then they can’t get here. She’ll be OK. She didn’t do anything wrong. She’s out peacefully protesting and they can’t get her if she’s on the sidewalk.’ Wrong. 


So we get on the sidewalk along with the other people all of the sudden, no one is provoking them, no one is like throwing a temper tantrum or threatening them or nothing. We are just peacefully protesting on the sidewalk. They pepper spray us while we’re on the sidewalk and proceed to drag us, the people on the sidewalk, over the wall to arrest us, to bring us onto the road to arrest us. She was one of them. My other friend was also one of them. I was fortunate enough, because I still got pepper sprayed, so after I got pepper sprayed it all went black. It all went dark. And all I can hear is my mom’s voice saying ‘Stay calm, stay safe, stay strong.’ There was this mantra in my head.


At the time I’m like you know what, there’s a lot of people screaming because they got pepper sprayed and so forth, and the only thing that was going through my mind was that I have to stay quiet. Because if I make noise and I make a scene, I will attract them to me and they will take me away. Because they did that to several people. They pepper sprayed my friends and they also arrested them. So at the point that I got pepper sprayed, I’m hanging onto a wall and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see. Like it was an awful experience. It felt like vinegar and salt and 91 percent proof alcohol was just in your eyes. It was awful. It felt like my insides were burning, or like my eyes were getting ready to melt, and it felt my skin was burning off of my face. It was bad. 


HN: Wow that’s crazy. So were you able to find some sort of relief for it or people to help? Something like milk?


AL: Oh yeah I’m getting to that. So I’m hanging onto the wall because I had been pepper sprayed, and at the time I was on Instagram live and I think my cousin was one of the people who saw, but I’m on Instagram live and I was like ‘Hey, I just got maced while peacefully protesting on the Main Street bridge. I can’t see. I can’t breathe. But I’ve just been pepper sprayed.’ So I keep repeating this on Instagram live. All the while I’m still holding onto the wall. I’m walking away and I can’t see anything so I’m using the wall as a crutch so I could walk away from where I was. Because at this point they had already taken the girls I was protesting with.


Well another friend of mine, he was protesting with me and he sees me and I’m clutching the wall. He’s on the bottom of the bridge and he sees me. Then all I hear is ‘Lex! Lex! Jump down! I got you, I got you!’ Because they’re now arresting people and detaining people. I can’t see and I don’t know where I’m going, so I just follow the sound of his voice. So I hop over the bridge but at this point I originally hopped off at a place where there was no bar or place to step down on. So keep in mind, I still can’t see. So I’m just hanging from the bridge.



HN: That had to be so terrifying.


AL: Yeah it was freaking terrifying! I can’t see, I can hardly breathe, and now I’m hanging off of a bridge. So now I’m having to do a little army crawl to move myself to a part of the bridge where there’s at least some kind of thing to step down onto. And then I literally had to take a leap of faith. I had to take a jump and take a stand. Like Rosa Parks had to take a seat, like Colin Kaepernick had to take a knee, I literally had to take a jump, take a stand against what was happening and what was going on.


Thankfully my friend caught me and after they got me down and everything, they were quick about it, they gave me milk. And I didn’t know about this but water and baking soda apparently helps. At the time I was like, ‘Um, that sounds like it would burn.’ But at that point I wasn’t going to question anybody. If they told me hot sauce would help, I was just going to use hot sauce because it was just so bad. 


So they’re pouring milk in my eyes, they’re pouring that water and baking soda into my eyes, and I was just like, ‘OK. Lord help me, I still can’t see.’ But then there was this girl named Rylee. I did not see her until the very very end, which I will get to, but I had never met this woman a day in my life. Then all I feel is her hand on my arm and she’s saying ‘My name is Rylee. I’m going to be here for you. Hold onto me, don’t let me go. I’m going to be your guide and I will lead you.’ And keep in mind, I had never met this girl a day in my natural born life. So I said ‘It’s so nice to meet you, my name is Lexi. Thank you so much, this means everything to me.’ Because at this point she’s risking herself to help me. She’s risking her own safety, her own freedom, all for a stranger. So I will forever be grateful to her.


Because this is what this movement is about. This is what we’re trying to do. Because Rylee is a white woman. She literally used herself, she risked her life, she risked herself, to help me—a woman she had never met in her life before. She was my sight. It means the world to me and I will never forget her.


But at this point they poured the milk, they poured the baking soda, and they told me, ‘You have to blink. It will hurt so bad and it’ll be hard to.’ Because it didn’t just hurt in the eyes. You felt it inside of your nasal passage and your throat and stuff. So everything came out, like snot and everything came out. So you just had to sniff back up the snot and you’re sniffing back in the pepper spray. I found that out the hard way. So it was terrible, just awful. And then all the milk that they poured, this film, just this thick film was just all over your skin and was really hard to get out and was in your hair. It was awful. 


But after they poured it all and I was able to see again, and my other friends who had been pepper sprayed but not arrested, we were all walking and several men with cameras came up to me. And that’s where my viral video came from. Because at this point I’m still recording in case the police do anything else. Because they were. They were telling us to leave even though we were already leaving, trying to threaten us. But this is where the video came in. 


A man came up to me and said, ‘Hey queen, how are you? What’s going on? Are you OK?’ And I told him, I said, ‘If George Floyd can die, if Trayvon Martin can die, if Breonna Taylor can die, then I surely can endure this.’ And it was that statement. It was that moment. It was that raw vulnerability of that time. I didn’t even realize what I was saying. I look back on it now and that is what I guess what set the trend. Not even trend, because I hate the word ‘trend.’ That’s what set the precedent, what laid the foundation. That’s what started not even igniting within me, but within the community. It [the video] went viral on Twitter. 


But since that, since those events occurred, I’ve been hitting the ground running as related to protests and stuff. Our protest group, I don’t know how, but people are reaching out to us. Our platforms have reached to such an extent that they’re reaching out to us. They’re asking us to put together protests, to go to their protests, they’re asking us to be the face, to model for shoots and stuff. Like we had a photographer making Black Lives Matter T-shirts where all the proceeds go back to the Black Lives Matter movement, and they had my friend and I model for those. Basically just trying to be a part of, and immerse ourselves in this movement. They saw our struggles, they saw what we had to go through and they were like ‘We see you. We want you guys to be the face, we want you guys to lead because you have what it takes.’ 


It’s sad that we had to go through all of that to make the difference but if I can be that for someone, if I can stop the next girl from being pepper sprayed, from having to jump off of a bridge, if I had to go through that then absolutely. I would do it all over again. And since then we’ve been hitting the ground running. It was scary because after that we planned a protest—our protest group that we put together—we planned that inside of our group chat. And I kid you not, Calista, we had over one thousand people protesting with us and marching with us downtown.


HN: Wow, that’s amazing.


AL: Yeah. We’re not a part of an organization. We have organizations ask like, ‘Oh what organization are you from?’ or ‘Do you want to be in the admin of this?’ And I’m like, no. I told my groups and I told the organizations that the authenticity of who we are as people, who we are as individuals, who we are as friends, it doesn’t lie with an organization. It doesn’t lie within this structural piece that you guys have constructed. 


What makes us real, what makes us true and what is making us heard and seen is the fact is that we are just being ourselves and we are going with the flow. We don’t have any systematic, we don’t have any plans put in place. We move based upon how we feel. We don’t have to report back to anyone. We don’t have to try to call around and do this and get a yes or no from whoever. So we feel and we do. We think, we feel, and we do. That’s what makes us, us. And it’s been working so far because people know us wherever we go. I’ve had several people say ‘Hey aren’t you that girl?’ ‘Yeah. Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I am that girl. I am her.’ 


And I will continue to be her. I don’t want to be a part of organizations. I don’t want to succumb to being a middle man for someone else when I can be out here using my voice and my platform, using whatever blesses my body to be the voices for those who could not be here today. And I stand for that. I do not want to answer for anyone else.


HN: So that just all stemmed from your friend group who was at the protest?


AL: Yeah! I told this to them and they agreed. And it all came from our group, that we’re not an organization. We’re just friends formed by a common interest. We are individuals: people who came not even knowing each other who came together for this common injustice that we seek to change. That is the glue that binds us. That is the foundation. That is our rock. We don’t need anything else. We don’t want anything else. 


All of our platforms, like all of this viral and trending stuff and so forth—we could have done without it honestly. That’s just a perk, because now we have a platform to build off of. But we were not in it for the clout. We’re in it for the heart. So if that stuff happens to fall at our feet along the way, then so be it. It’s good for the movement because at least now we know that our intentions are true and that people are watching us. They’re looking at us. They’re seeing our true intentions and they will follow. 


HN: It’s so good to see that like you said, you would have done it anyways whether you had that following or not. But it doesn’t hurt now that you have those people paying attention to you and you can spread awareness even more.


AL: Absolutely. 


HN: And did you go to other protests in Jacksonville? 


AL: Oh absolutely. So after the one on Sunday, like I said, we hosted one and that had the biggest turn out and then from there it got bigger and bigger. After that the JCAC, which is the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, they hosted protests and over ten thousand people came after that. We set the precedent. After what happened to us, after what we did, every protest that has happened since has had a bigger and bigger crowd. 


But we also have been doing protests elsewhere. We did a St. Augustine protest on Sunday and it was amazing. I think St Paul, a baptist church in St. Augustine, they were the ones who were leading it. That was an amazing turn out, especially for St. Augustine.


Before that I went to another one and it was just not good at all. Because the thing is, with the population of St. Augustine, you have to think about the ratio of who is going to be there. There’s not a lot of African American people who live in St. Augustine and when you’re doing the Black Lives Matter movement, you really do need the voices and the presence of other black people to really get down to what’s happening. Our white allies can scream and shout all day to the heavens and until their faces turn blue, but that doesn’t mean that a single day from here on out you’re going to face the oppression that I have; that you’re going to go through the struggles that I have; that you’re still not going to be privileged or still have a platform, you know? 


So while yes, I’m so excited that we have non-black allies who are there for us because it means the world to me. But we do need black people there. So the first St. Augustine protest I went to, there was not any, like at all, there. But with the second one, everyone came out. It was amazing. We walked those streets.We actually had an agitator who ran to the side of us with a Trump 2020 flag and we shut him down really quick. There was also another stand with Trump merchandise, Trump shirts, and Trump flags but we also shut them down really quickly. So none of it lasted too long.


HN: So would you say that the other ones after the one on May 31 have been moderately peaceful in comparison to the first one?


AL: Oh absolutely. It’s like we had to literally go through hell to get to heaven. We had to get a little uncomfortable. But not even uncomfortable. This whole situation, to know that it’s happening, none of it is comfortable whatsoever. But we had to go through it to come out on the other end. I think I should have just left it at ‘we had to go through hell to get to heaven.’ Except we’re still not in heaven, we’re still going to fight damn it! We’re still fighting but we did have to go through it for it to get better. So they have been more peaceful in comparison to that first one. 


HN: That’s so great. And after being at the protests and seeing all of the news about them, what do you think about the criticisms that they’re receiving?


AL: Yeah, I honestly try not to pay too much attention to it because at the end of the day I know what we are doing is the right thing. I know that what we’re doing is making a change. Sorry but really quick: I think just yesterday we went to a protest to basically change the names of the schools that are named after white supremacists and confederate forces and stuff. So this is stuff that was not happening before. Our voices are being heard, changes are being made. Something different is happening right now. Something’s a-brewing. 


The generation before us, like our parents, they were like “Oh you guys are out there but you’re not making a change. Just get up and go home.’ But it’s like what has that done for you? You guys did that. How does that help us? Where did you get? You guys got nowhere. We all have the same goal in mind. We all have the same goal, the same belief: that this is wrong. We just have different ways of going about it. But I feel that with our generation, this newer generation coming around, that we have a different way of going about things. 


I feel that all those who have something to say against it, especially those who, like my mom for example, she’s very much like ‘Why are you going to these protests? It’s so unnecessary,’ and so forth. But I’m like, Dr. King marched for 318 days. I’m only on week three. You’re saying that we don’t need to do this, we don’t need to do that. I’m hearing on the radio the same thing. ‘They just need to sit down, shut up, and be quiet.’ But what has that done? We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We’re fed up. And this generation, our generation, we’re bold. We’re strong. We can endure. We will push through. If you push us then we’ll push back.


That can be a double-edged sword sometimes but we need that momentum and that energy. We need that it-factor to get us where we need to be. And I’ve seen, at least for the past week, that we’ve been making a change and we’ve made a difference. Like right now, we got voted seven to one to change the names of those schools that I was telling you about that are named after white supremacists and confederate origins. We did that. It was because of our sacrifice, and because of our cries and uproars and our protesting that we were able to make this happen. So to those people who are discouraging and speaking against it—whether it’s out of malice, or prejudice, or racism or they’re just ignorant to the cause—I say to them: join us. 


HN: I love that. And the last thing I want to ask is do you hope that people do more? Do you feel that enough has been done up to now? 


AL: Absolutely not. We can always be doing more. There’s always something we can be doing with this cause to better further it. Within the last week, black people have been hung and it’s been said it’s a suicide. Like excuse me? This is targeted. This is outrageous. We can’t stop here. We can’t stop now. It doesn’t stop with George Floyd and it didn’t stop with Breonna Taylor. It didn’t stop with these people and it didn’t start with them either.


This is 400 years of racism in the making that we’re just trying to undo at this point. We can’t sit down and shut up anymore and just nod our heads and just be compliant to this. We can’t just stop at ‘Oh yeah look at what we did. We’re done protesting. Good job guys.’ No. Because there’s still so many more that haven’t been touched on, haven’t had nearly as much media attention. We’re not stopping at one man. We’re trying to redo the entire system. It’s corrupt and it needs to be reformed. 


So to answer your question: there’s always something more that we can be doing. We’re not doing what we’re doing for a day or a week or a month. This is an ongoing situation and one where I’m dedicating my life to this movement. I 100 percent will dedicate my life to this cause. I plan to go to law school like I’m in the Reserves and I’m getting my master’s degree. Law school is the plan. That’s where I intend to be. 


I intend to be the change I want to see—to use and translate the laws dictated by our Constitution to protect the vulnerable. And in this case right now, the vulnerable are people who look just like me. It’s disheartening. I just posted a thing the other day saying that I don’t know how to feel: confused, scared, mad, angry, sad? All of this stuff is happening and it’s discouraging. It’s just disheartening. So it doesn’t stop here. We just have to keep going and keep pushing. 


And trust me, I know that I’m tired, that my voice is gone, that my feet are killing me. But it’s important, so I understand. And to those people I also say: self-care. Self-care is also important. To help others you have to help yourself. So if you need to take a day off, that’s why we’re all in this together. We can pass the torch and pass the baton. The day that I can’t be there then you guys can be there. If you guys can’t be there that day then I can be there that day. It’s because we’re all united inside this front, because we’re together in this, that we can do that. We’re not looking at 5 or 10 people—we’re looking at thousands.