Just after noon on Wednesday, April 1, the air along University Avenue in downtown Gainesville was pierced by the sound of over 20 car horns blaring all at once. The horns persisted for nearly two hours as protesters from various local organizations staged a demonstration urging elected officials to reduce the county’s incarcerated population as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread.
Aside from the fact that a protest consisting of a small army of cars is ear-splitting, it’s also the safest option at the moment. Manu Osorio, a local activist involved with the event, said organizers were determined to protest while maintaining proper distance among themselves.
The “honk-out” began at Gainesville City Hall. A trail of cars and bicycles emblazoned with signs and banners looped several times around the State Attorney’s office on West University Ave and North Second Street before heading east to the Alachua County Courthouse on Southeast Third Street and back, horns honking the entire time. The caravan was led by a white pickup truck, the bed of which held an organizer brandishing a megaphone.
Though police didn’t attempt to stop the demonstration, they did pull over two protesters: one for running a stop sign and the other for making a right turn without using a turn signal.
There is growing concern for the public health risks associated with mass incarceration during this pandemic, as it is nearly impossible to practice social distancing within a jail or prison. The most recent report by the Department of Corrections shows that 69.8% of those held in Alachua County Jail are awaiting trial, meaning they could go home if they could afford bail.
On March 26, a letter signed by three city commissioners, a county commissioner and 19 organizations including GoDDsville Dream Defenders and the Alachua County Labor Coalition was sent to various city officials, including State Attorney Bill Cervone. The letter asked officials to reduce the number of inmates in Alachua County Jail to mitigate the harm caused when the virus inevitably finds itself there.
Specifically, the letter called for the release of all inmates still awaiting trial. The letter also asked that inmates with fewer than 180 days remaining in their sentence be released, as well as elderly and immunocompromised inmates who are at higher risk. Cervone has yet to act, though prisons across the country have already freed hundreds of inmates as the virus spreads.
As of April 1, there are 12 confirmed cases of the virus among Florida Department of Corrections staff, though none have been reported in Alachua County, according to the DOC.
“People in our county jail are not able to practice social distancing,” said a protestor who wished to remain anonymous. “Our elected officials have shown us that it is more important to punish people than it is to look out for public safety. We’re paying attention.” •