KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Zac Taylor wasn’t looking to start trouble when he reached out to four friends to start a discussion about social issues and racism in their hometown.
The original plan to meet on the Fourth of July at Keystone Beach was supposed to attract about 15 people. But thanks to social media, it quickly turned into story that made the national news cycle.
Unite Keystone Heights was created to turn racial issues from the hallways at the junior and senior high school into a public discussion.
“When Zac called me, he said he wanted to do a march in Keystone,” said Ciarrah Fernandez, one of the five organizers. “I thought it was a little risky, but it will make a statement, especially on the Fourth of July. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I didn’t expect it to grow nearly what it did. I really thought it would be 15 people ... at most … marching in the rain because it was supposed to rain.”
The march never happened. Neither will one planned for Aug. 8. The group, however, hopes the city council will approve another request at its next meeting on Aug. 3.
The council decided to push the request to August out of concerns for COVID-19. It also turned down requests for a Kiwanis rummage sale on Aug. 1 and Meet Your Neighbor celebration on Sept. 5 for the same reason.
Taylor graciously agreed to the delay, and said he will resubmit the request next month.
The organizers, however, said they aren’t going away. And neither is their resolve.
“The conversation is racism and Keystone Heights,” Sarah Garcia said.
What started as a community conversation quickly spiraled into a bigger issue than anyone expected when people responded to the group’s posts on Facebook and Keystone Word of Mouth. Some offered support. Others vowed to riot. And some threatened everyone involved. In all, there were 800 replies.
In response, Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels posted a video on the sheriff’s office’s social media sites vowing to deputized legal gun-owning residents to protect themselves and property against rioters and anarchists.
The group felt their intention and message was hijacked.
“I think the person who hijacked this was Sheriff Daniels,” Bruno-Smith said. “It was never anti-police. It was never anti-terrorist. He took the dialog a couple days before the Fourth of July and frankly made it dangerous for anybody who wanted to attend because he said he was going to deputize any rightful gun owner.
“We were in discussions with the sheriff’s office to make it a safe event as it could possibly be. When he went on national television, Fox News, which is, of course, all right, more reactionary than it is conservative. It’s very biased. He put the blame on us, saying we were bringing in other groups. We weren’t. He was deputizing gun owners to basically shoot us.”
About 20 people spoke virtually or submitted emails to the city council at its last meeting. Most said they supported the rally.
“I’m not going to say ‘Let’s not have the Unite Keystone,’ Can we please postpone it again until we get a better grasp on this virus and see what’s going to happen?” councilman Larry Peoples said.
Makayla Bruno-Smith said it’s time to change the culture of ignorance and indifference in Keystone Heights.
“They get a lot of what they believe from their parents and their grandparents. Living in a small town your whole life, that’s all you know,” she said. “That’s what you learn to know. While some of it is ignorance, some of it is defensiveness. When you tell someone you’ve done something racist or you’ve done something to offend me, they take it like you’re attacking them. It’s not to attack them. It’s to inform them. Can you not threaten my basic fundamental rights of a minority group?
“It’s a simple ask, but I think that they can become anti-racist if they were educating them and informing them. There are biases on both sides.”
The plan still asks for residents of all races to meet at Keystone Beach and march one mile around the park. They hope everyone will have a better understanding of each other.
“I think one of the biggest problems is people ignore it, or they just don’t see it,” Lane Peoples said. “A few years ago, I wasn’t like this at all. I was a lot different. I’m not proud of who I was three or four years ago.
“When you go on social media, on Facebook, and you go down some of those rabbit holes with some of those videos, you start hearing things and believing things. I never had friends who were different than me. That was a problem. I never surrounded myself with people who were different than me.”
That changed with Unite Keystone Heights. Now he hopes others follow.