Approaching the second week since George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, protests in Fort Myers have been steered from the carnage of other U.S. cities.
Peaceful protests, not rioting and looting, have been happening in and near downtown Fort Myers.
Three are slated for Saturday.
The Fort Myers 1,000 Men Non-Violent March is at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Roberto Clemente Park, 1936 Henderson Ave.
A car caravan rally at noon will drive west on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and pass by 2210 Widman Way, the Fort Myers Police Department headquarters.
A separate gathering of youth protesters is slated for 2 p.m. at Centennial Park.
Chantel Rhodes has not organized those protests, but she has connected with those who have after co-founding Peaceful Protest Lee County, a Facebook group that vets its members and strives to keep the protests peaceful.
“It is extremely important,” Rhodes said of maintaining peace. “The country had been rallying for nine days. Here in Fort Myers, we had been rallying for five days. We created this group so we could stay committed to peaceful protests. We did not want Fort Myers to look like what we have been seeing in other cities. I give all the credit to the people who have shown up to participate with us.”
Dan Braha studies mass protests and global civil unrest as a complex systems scientist and professor at the University of Massachusetts and the New England Complex Systems Institute. He uses social media to track events and identify early warning signals for when the peace turns to chaos.
Fort Myers has a poverty rate of about 20.6%, slightly less than Florida’s 23.4% rate, an economic factor making an area susceptible to creating unrest along with exposure to media and social media, Braha said.
“However at this point, I don’t see any inciting online activity that could indicate riots,” Braha said. “Some people mention the arrival of militant activists, but I don’t see overwhelming activity in this direction. Although it is difficult to predict human behavior, I would expect non-violent protests in Fort Myers.
“However, any spark such as a strong reaction from the police force could easily ignite the fire.”
The relationship with Peaceful Protest Lee County and the police has been critical in maintaining peace, said Rhodes and Rachel Bass, an organizer with Showing up For Racial Justice (SURJ).
Although the protests haven’t turned violent, there has been violence in the region, Bass said.
“We’ve had toxic slush in neighborhoods, and have had no one held accountable for it,” said Bass, who is white. “That’s violent. Property damage from uprising, I don’t think you can compare that to what black people are living under every day here. The Florida prison pipeline and over policing. Those things are violent. We can’t leave that stuff out of the conversation.
“When we’re planning a protest, we’re not telling people to show up in riot gear, ready to rumble,” Bass said
She said the Fort Myers Police Department’s behavior and willingness to communicate was critical to keeping the peace.
“They were not antagonizing us,” Bass said. “The police are not inciting violence, currently. They aren’t showing up in riot gear. They aren’t overpolicing the crowd.”
Bass’s comments made sense to Braha, who has studied protest and riots for the past 16 years.
The number of protesters is the first factor in what could tip from peace to violence, he said. So far, the largest in Fort Myers drew about 250 people, a number he considered small.
“The second consideration is related to factors that serve as ‘arousals’ of aggressive behavior,” Braha said. “This could be the level of physical noise or temperature. Typically, high levels of noise and temperature are associated with increased probability of riots.
“The third factor might be the level of alcohol consumption: high levels of consumption increase the likelihood of riots. Interestingly, consumption of drugs (e.g. Marijuana) decreases the likelihood of riots.
“The fourth factor is related to whether there are leaders that are engaged in aggressive behaviors. From my understanding, the leaders of the protests in Fort Myers advocate peaceful protests.”
Rhodes and Lisa Shamma, also with Peaceful Protests Lee County, have taken steps to prevent violence, they said, by vetting members who join their group and advocating for peace in its very name.
Max Herman, a professor of sociology at New Jersey City University and the author of “Summer of Rage,” which compared and contrasted the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, said when protests get out of control, the violence at first is directed against property and not people.
“But when the police engage in more military tactics, the people respond,” Herman said. “The fear of police is overcome by the anger at the police at a certain point in time. The police have to stand down and back off and allow people some room to breathe. When the police begin to withdraw, their presence is no longer a lightning rod for violence.”
Having a black police chief, as FMPD does in Derrick Diggs, should play another factor in keeping protests peaceful in Fort Myers, Herman said.
“Having top brass in the police of color makes a huge difference,” Herman said. “To the protesters, it sends a message that there’s someone in a position of power who might actually understand what they’re going through.”
Braha, the professor from UMass, said another factor could be the distance from Fort Myers to Minneapolis. It’s 1,700 miles.
“Overall, considering the low density of protesters, and the peaceful messages by the leaders of the protests, I would predict that the protests would continue to be peaceful,” Braha said. “Also, the effect of the spread tends to attenuate as we become farther away from the original event that sparked the fire.”