About 30 people, shouting slogans such as “self defense is no offense” and armed with protest signs and banners, marched Saturday from the Levy County Sheriff’s Office to the county courthouse in support of a Bronson man they say was treated unfairly by law enforcement because of the color of his skin.
“We’re here because a black person stood up and resisted,” said African People’s Socialist Party Committee Member Penny Hess from the steps of the courthouse.
Eric Anthony Oliver, 18, of Bronson, was arrested June 12 for aggravated battery with an initial bail of $100,000. Supporters of Oliver say a “mob” of about 10 white people came to Oliver’s family home on that date and attacked several people in the front yard, though Oliver was the only one arrested. Witnesses interviewed by the sheriff’s office, according to Oliver’s arrest report, said Oliver, after a scuffle, hit one of the people, Bronson resident Chris Milton, in the face with a rock.
Lauren Byers, with the Gainesville branch of the International Socialist Organization, told the crowd Saturday, “Eric has been charged as a black man who, apparently, doesn’t have the right to self defense.” The struggle for black Americans didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement, she said.
Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party, said Oliver is a courageous person.
“Resistance is good,” Yeshitela said. “Resistance is necessary. We have a responsibility to resist.”
Yeshitela compared Oliver’s arrest with the case of Trayvon Martin, a black teen who was shot to death in February by Sanford resident George Zimmerman. The case has brought into question Florida’s Stand Your Ground (justifiable use of force) law, which allows one to use deadly force if a person feels it is necessary to prevent harm to him or herself or others.
But, according to Yeshetela, the rule doesn’t apply to black people such as Oliver. The American system, built on the backs of slaves, is falling apart, he said, and people are fighting back.
“By being here,” he told the crowd, “we’re sort of a vanguard,” letting black people in Bronson know it’s OK to stand up.
Oliver’s mother, Rosalynd Strong-Donald, who was there when the fight took place June 12, said Friday that her son is being treated unjustly. She says there were about five people, some shouting racial slurs and demanding she send her son outside, on her porch the day of the incident. There were about 10 people in total.
For black people, she said, history shows that when a mob comes to your door, “They plan on doing something to you.”
Chimurnega Waller, a representative from the International People’s Uhuru Movement, helping to prepare for Saturday’s protest, was also at Strong-Donald’s house Friday. He agreed with her.
“The history in this county and particularly the south ... is something every black person is aware of,” Waller said. The black experience is to know that life depends on resistance.
According to the arrest report from June 12, several people, including Milton, Shirley Kreichbaun and Anthony Cormier, of Gainesville, went to Strong-Donald’s home to “talk things out” with 16-year-old Michael Vasquez, who witnesses allege almost hit Cormier’s son earlier in the day while driving recklessly.
Strong-Donald said she doesn’t know why the group came to her house. Vasquez is a family friend, but doesn’t live there, and, she added, “If you come to talk, why bring a group? And why not talk to Mikey’s (Vasquez) momma?”
Strong-Donald said Vasquez, playing video games with her sons that day, went outside to see what was going on and was immediately pounced on. Oliver went outside to help defend Vasquez.
According to Cormier’s statement in the report, Oliver and Vasquez got upset and started a shoving match with Milton, which ended with Milton and Vasquez wrestling on the ground. Oliver, according to Cormier, then came over and hit Milton in the face with the rock. Three other witnesses also state that Oliver used a rock, though Oliver and Strong-Donald, according to the report, both said a rock was never used, only picked up later as a means of self defense.
Strong-Donald said most of what happened was taken from witnesses who were part of the mob. Two neighbors who had seen the fight came forward, she said, but they were told by LCSO Investigator Mike Narayan that no more witnesses were needed.
Neighbors David Mann and Ashlee Vanwie said Friday they both saw the fight from a bedroom window. Both say a rock was never used in the scuffle.
“The cops went and found the biggest rock they could,” Mann said. “If Eric had hit him with that, it would have gone through his head.”
Vanwie said she saw Oliver hit Milton in the face with his fist, and then it was lights out, and someone in the mob promptly called the sheriff’s office. Still, the two said they were never interviewed by law enforcement. Vanwie said they didn’t even bother to take down her name.
“I’m not a convicted felon,” Vanwie said. “I’ve never been to jail. My word means something.”
Vanwie said she was shocked at how the investigation was handled. “I think everything‘s gotta’ change—the way they do things now.”
Oliver’s bond, reduced from $100,000 to $10,000, was posted July 29. Oliver’s attorney, William W. Kurtz, was unavailable for comment at press time, but no trial dates have been posted as of yet. Conviction of a second degree felony could mean up to a five year prison sentence and as much as $10,000 in fines.