DELAND, Fla. – The Volusia County Sheriff and members of the Minority Elected Officials of Volusia County met Thursday to further discuss a block party that resulted in arrests and sparked debate over whether the response from law enforcement was racially motivated.
Deputies captured body camera video of the block party that drew thousands to the Spring Hill neighborhood of DeLand Saturday night, blocking streets, injuring members of law enforcement and creating what Sheriff Mike Chitwood called a riot.
The news conference included members of the Minority Elected Officials of Volusia County, a “community based political organization focused on identifying and developing resources for disadvantaged communities throughout East and West Volusia County.”
MEO released a statement regarding the block party saying that the organization wanted to express its “disapproval of the activities surrounding the Memorial Day block party held on May 16, 2020, in the Spring Hill area of DeLand.”
Organizations leaders said in a statement that they were very concerned for the health, safety and welfare of those who attended the block party, saying the country is still in a pandemic and that the party was in clear violation of health guidelines outlined by the state.
“Statistics show that this virus has a far greater impact on the Black community more so than any other ethnic group. While the numbers continue to advance, we are adamant about the protection of those within the Spring Hill community and all communities throughout Volusia County,” the statement read.
Ida Wright, Volusia County school board representative and chair of MEO said she personally spoke with the organizers of the block party and said the event was intended to be a much smaller gathering to commemorate the life of someone who dies in the Spring Hill community a few years ago.
“COVID has a really unique way of bringing people together and the events that transpired over the last weekend, something that started as simple as a family gathering, turned out to be major crowd,” Wright said.
Wright also announced a new coronavirus testing site coming to the community which would begin operation Thursday and runs through Saturday.
“We are happy to announce that here in Spring Hill, we have a testing site that will open from [9 a.m. to 1 p.m.] every day,” Wright said. “The first 200 guests who walk up, drive-in can be tested. There’s no age limit and you do not have to have any preexisting conditions or any current issues. We want to encourage this community to please take advantage of the testing.”
Both Chitwood and DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger expressed their willingness to work with the Spring Hill community to find ways to mend relations and allow legal, safe public celebrations in the future.
“As we move forward out of this [pandemic]… we’re all in this to make this community, our community, better than we found it,” Chitwood said. “And moving forward that’s what I think we need to do. We need to put our heads together, come up with a way that certain activities can be permitted that are safe and that they’re legal.”
Authorities estimated that at least 3,000 people gathered across DeLand for a memorial and block parties that spanned many different locations on Saturday. Deputies said the parties went on well into the early hours of Sunday.
When deputies showed up at the block party to disperse crowds and monitor the safety of the event which violated social distancing guidelines, they said they saw many alarming activities. Deputies said while they tried to control the crowds, they encountered sucker punches and had objects like bar stools and mason jars thrown at them.
Deputies said a long gun was also pointed out of a passing car. One Volusia County deputy suffered a minor knee injury, while a DeLand police officer had a minor head injury.
The two men, 27-year-old Alphonso Parker and 37-year-old Charles Turner were each taken into custody and charged with resisting an officer without violence, inciting a riot and possession of a firearm/ammunition by a convicted felon, deputies said. The Sheriff’s Office said more arrests related to the block party were likely.
When asked about the arrests made at the block party, Chitwood said that the law enforcement that responded to the scene did what they needed to do to keep residents safe and that not everyone attending the block party was committing a crime.
“The analogy I’ll use is that 3% of the individuals are responsible for 90% of the crime," Chitwood said. "What does that tell you? 97% of the people in the world aren’t criminals and don’t commit crimes. But you have 3% that no matter what you do, for some unknown reason, that’s what they focus on, and all we can do is our best as a community to stand up against it and take the people out that are armed and consistently want to go out and destroy the quality of life and destroy people’s lives.”
Reaction to the body camera video of the incident has been mixed, some commending deputies and other law enforcement officers for their response to the party, others saying the deputies’ actions were racially motivated.
Chitwood said that because the majority of attendees in the crowd were black and the fact that the responding deputies and police were white, the community is now having to have hard conversations about race, racism and inequality.
“We understand that [that the block party] started out as something small, something they had for the last 9 years, to commemorate someone who passed away in this area,” Wright said. “But at this time we have a discussion, we all agreed that moving forward we will obey the policies at hand so that we can protect our community… until we find some way to help with COVID-19.”