By Adam Chaskin
With the Jacksonville Jaguars completing an incredible comeback to defeat the San Diego Chargers in the first round of the NFL playoffs on Saturday, January 14, our city was filled with fans, excitement, and pride in our hometown team. As we cheered the Jaguars to victory, however, an act of hate was occurring just two miles down the road from TIAA Bank Field. Unfortunately, we have become too familiar with such incidents in Jacksonville in recent months, and once again someone chose to project an antisemitic symbol—a cross intersecting with a swastika this time—on the side of the downtown CSX building during the game, a large, heavily attended event.
I did not become aware of the image until the next day because there was no media coverage and practically no online reports about the incident. After finding a photo of the image on the CSX building, I reached out to friends in local law enforcement to verify that the picture I found was real and that the incident had occurred. It had. Although the previous antisemitic incidents in the fall of 2022 had led to necessary conversations within our community, I was frustrated and wanted to know what actions, if any, could be taken.
I contacted the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) and our local FBI office about the latest incident, the circumstances behind the act, and what could be done to stop this from happening again. We had a lengthy conversation during which these law enforcement officials repeated their own frustrations. They explained that the perpetrators were smart, knew the law, and would step up to the line of breaking the law but never cross it. Therefore, the projections and messages shown throughout our city in recent months, although hateful, were expressions of free speech and not illegal.
The officers I spoke with also explained that the City of St. Petersburg had put a statute in place making it illegal to project images on a building without the permission of its owner. If Jacksonville had a similar statute, we at least could stop the tactic being used to spread these repulsive messages. Free speech, as we all understand, is protected, so although we cannot stop these expressions, we can undermine the method the perpetrators were using to convey the hate speech.
After that phone call and some guidance from a friend in the State Attorney’s office about how to search for statutes, I found the existing statute from St. Petersburg, which seemed simple enough to replicate quickly. I then contacted several city council members, urging them to create and pass similar legislation because something needed to be done.
Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber, who serves in the district where our Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) is located, was kind enough to take my phone call that Sunday evening. I informed her about what had happened the night before, my conversation with local law enforcement, and my research on the existing statute. Almost immediately, she was interested in pursuing similar legislation in Jacksonville. I made more phone calls and contacts on Sunday evening, and on Monday morning, I reached Councilman at-Large Matt Carlucci to request he support legislation to prevent projections of images on buildings in Jacksonville. I also contacted a few of the companies that own buildings in downtown Jacksonville and asked them to use their influence with the members of our city council to enact the legislation.
From that point on, the political process took hold. Councilwoman Cumber submitted the proposed legislation under emergency procedures on Wednesday, January 18, so there would be a shorter-than-normal waiting period before the legislation could be voted upon. The following Tuesday, January 24, the Jacksonville City Council approved the new legislation, making it illegal to project images or words on a building without the permission of its owner. Additionally, CSX is working with its lobbyist to pass similar statewide legislation.
Although we realize this law will not stop the hate, it has taken away a tool that repeatedly gave voice to antisemitism. As I reflect on these widespread incidents in Jacksonville, I believe this experience is a testament to the solid relationships we have with local law enforcement agencies and our community’s political leaders. I know we can work together to repair the world and achieve great things for our future. As we move forward from these incidents, we are more aware of the vital role our Jewish Community Alliance plays in helping others. This time, I am proud that we could come together quickly to fill a need in our community.
Adam Chaskin is the CEO of Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) in Jacksonville, Florida.