Florida gunman thwarted at Black college before store shooting

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) -A campus police officer chased a white gunman off Florida’s first historically Black university a few minutes before the shooter killed three Black people at a discount store, the school’s president said Monday, two days after the attack.

The gunman, Ryan Christopher Palmeter, 21, parked his car on the Edward Waters University campus in Jacksonville and was putting on gloves and a military-style vest when students spotted him. They summoned the officer, President A. Zachary Faison Jr. told reporters, providing new details about what occurred.

Palmeter then sped off, pursued by the officer, and headed to a Dollar General store in Jacksonville. About 10 minutes later he carried out what authorities have said was a shooting motivated by racial hatred.

After the attack and as sheriff’s deputies closed in on him, Palmeter shot and killed himself. He left behind several manifestos for media, his parents and law enforcement detailing his hatred for Black people, according to authorities, who said they may release the writings at a future date.

Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters on Monday said he believed a discount store – and not the university – was the gunman’s intended target though investigators did not yet know why he chose the specific Dollar General store where he opened fire.

Waters said Palmeter had worked at a Dollar Tree store and surveillance footage showed him entering a nearby Family Dollar store before he arrived at the university.

Additionally, the sheriff said, university surveillance footage showed two young Black men getting into a car parked next to Palmeter’s as he sat in it, but he did not attack them.

Federal and state officials condemned the shooting on Monday.

“We can’t let hate prevail. It’s on the rise,” President Joe Biden said at the White House before civil rights leaders including the family of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., gathered for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pledged $1 million to increase security at Edward Waters University and said an additional $100,000 would be donated to a charity supporting the families of the shooter’s victims.

DeSantis said money for extra security would come from the Volunteer Florida Foundation, a non-profit organization that receives state and federal funding.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement personnel on Monday evaluated security on campus and made recommendations for safety improvements, according to DeSantis.

Some Black leaders have denounced DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, for what they say is his government’s attack on Black history.

Florida in January banned an Advanced Placement course on African-American history for high school students. The state in July directed kindergarten through high school history teachers to include lessons on how enslaved Black people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

The governor on Sunday was booed at a prayer vigil for the shooting victims, where he told the crowd the gunman was “a major-league scumbag.”

Jeffrey Rumlin, a pastor at the Dayspring Church in Jacksonville who spoke after DeSantis, disagreed. “At the end of the day, respectfully, governor, he was not a scumbag,” Rumlin said. “He was a racist.”

In an interview on Monday, Rumlin said prior statements by DeSantis and other government officials that “spew hate and divisiveness” had contributed to racist violence.

Rumlin said the swift law enforcement response to the shooter’s presence on campus showed that security at the university was not lacking.

“The solution is not increasing security,” he said. “The primary solution is to change our rhetoric.”

(Reporting by Julia Harte in New York; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, David Gregorio, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle)