Following the recent racial tension across the nation, movements such as Black Lives Matter and its allies have sprung up across the nation, mainly in large cities, or in some cases, relatively small ones. Take Naples, Florida for example. With a population of 20,600, slightly more than FGCU’s student population and significantly less than UCF’s, one wouldn’t expect a social justice movement to take root in the heart of the predominantly wealthy, white community. But, along came SURJ.
Showing Up for Racial Justice is a national network made up of majority white members organizing for racial equality.
“We are showing up to take our responsibility as white people to act collectively and publicly to challenge the manipulation of racist fear by the ruling class and corporate elite,” the SURJ website says.
The Southwest Florida chapter was formed just after the Charleston church shooting last year when nine black church members were killed by a white shooter who intended to “start a race war.” The group was originally initiated by Billy Huff, an FGCU professor in the communication department who is transferring to USF in the fall. Though the local chapter is new, it has already been active in the Collier and Lee County communities and has made local headlines recently for its march at Naples Pier on July 16.
The march was just an idea to Hannah Seitz, an FGCU junior forensics major with a minor in psychology, but when she began circulating her interest in organizing such an event on Facebook, Ellen Hemrick of SURJ jumped in and took on the majority of planning. Together, they managed to host an impactful event, which 45 community members, ranging from young to old, participated in despite the relentless rain and lightning.
“After Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths, everyone was talking and was really frustrated, but no one was taking action,” Seitz said. “I felt like at a place like Southwest Florida, especially Naples where I’m from, people are kind of hopeless about racial justice and equality. I felt like the rally and march would get people out and gathered to work together for equality for all people.”
The Southwest Florida chapter of SURJ gave a similar reasoning for the demonstration, without naming the recent events specifically, in its July 13 media release.
“Given recent events, we feel moved to gather in a public way,” SURJ said in the press release. “We know our silence is taken for consent. We want to take action to end discrimination in our criminal justice system and in our everyday lives.”
This sentiment was found on demonstrators’ signs, which read messages like “we cannot be silent any longer” and “white silence equals violence.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black,” Seitz said. “This ‘movement’ should matter to everyone because it affects everyone. It shouldn’t be a movement because we should all have equal rights, no matter our race, gender or ethnicity.”
Rachel Bass, a recent FGCU graduate, also attended the march. Bass says she was always aware of racial injustice in the U.S. but wasn’t confronted with it until a case of fatal police brutality against a black male made national news.
“The first time I was really faced with it and realized how different my life was because I was white was when the Rodney King police beating videos were released,” Bass said. “I remember being deeply affected by it, and I lived in an all white community, all-white family, went to an all-white school, so no one was talking about it the way I was seeing it. I started realizing people were seeing it differently. They weren’t connecting with him as a person. They were seeing him as something different from them.”
Bass went on to become involved in equality movements across the board, from LGBT rights to racial issues.
“It’s hard to talk about issues surrounding gender and sexual identity without touching on race as well because they all intersect,” Bass said.
Bass’ senior project included the interactive art piece “Deconstruction:
Challenging the Privilege of Denial,” which featured bricks etched with dismissing statements made by white people in regards to racial equality. Lifting the bricks revealed a statistic highlighting inequality in the U.S.
Bass hopes to continue using her art as a voice for those without one, as does SURJ, which continues to host events across Southwest Florida. SURJ’s next demonstration will be a Black Lives Matter youth rally and march down Fifth Avenue, beginning at Cambier Park, from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, July 31.