GULFPORT — Despite the rainy weather Saturday, hundreds in Tampa Bay joined protesters across America to denounce President Donald Trump’s immigration policy that separated migrant families at the Mexican border.
About 500 people packed Gulfport Casino in the afternoon, many carrying signs criticizing the president, and hundreds more gathered outside Joe Chillura Courthouse in downtown Tampa that morning. The rallies were two of more than 700 across the nation — including one near the White House — supporting the Families Belong Together movement.
Local officials at both Tampa Bay area events railed against Trump’s immigration policies and urged attendees to make their voices heard in upcoming elections.
"For the next four months, we need to do everything we can to get the right people out to vote," Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard said from a small stage in Gulfport. "Let’s make America care again."
Multiple speakers in Gulfport said separation of migrant families shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but others offered information on how to canvas for progressive campaigns and made a point not to utter Trump’s name.
In Tampa, attendees represented a wide range of progressive ideologies, University of South Florida student Ryan Scates said, but they "all seem to agree on this one thing."
Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers stunned the Gulfport crowd with an impassioned speech, calling Trump "callous" for denying help to migrants seeking safety from violence and persecution.
"Individuals are fleeing a country where their lives have been threatened, their daughters have been raped and their husbands have been killed," she said. "They leave ... to come into a country that has a statue that holds up a torch that says we embrace everybody from every country, but they are turned on their heads."
Flowers continued through claps and cheers as a growing crowd outside the casino chanted "vote, vote, vote" to passersby. Then, she made a similar plea.
"Who will cry for that mother? Who will cry for that father?" she asked. "We will. But we won’t just cry; we’re going to work. Use your broom ... sweep them right up out of the office that they sit in."
Ray Kervahn, a 67-year-old representative with Florida Immigration Coalition, visited both rallies to help people register to vote. Seven registered in Gulfport and six in Tampa, he said.
Vickie Dunn, of Pinellas-based progressive group Indivisible FL-13, told the Gulfport rally that Trump’s policies were "either monumental incompetence or diabolical meanness," adding that parental separation can have long-lasting effects on children.
"The public as a whole has no idea the severity of the damage being done to these children," said Dunn, a retired psychologist. "These children are wounded, and it will never be right."
Longtime St. Petersburg resident Nancy Shannon, 78, spent the afternoon outside the casino, dressed in red, white and blue, holding a sign that said "Melt ICE!!!" As a mother of six and grandmother of 16, Shannon said she, too, understands the importance of physical closeness between a parent and child.
"I adopted one of my sons from Vietnam when he was a child, and even in his 40s, he still has (post-traumatic stress disorder) from being tossed around without a mommy or a daddy," she said. "It’s tough for a human being not to have that close physical contact."
As the crowd thinned, Ashley Gibson-Stewart, 31, of Bradenton listened from the back. She came with her two sons — Shane, 7, and Rory, 2 — to show support for mothers who have been separated from their children.
"As a mom, it’s awful to imagine being in the position that those immigrant families are in," she said. "I know my kids ... it’s horrifying imagining what they would be going through without me and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to tell them everything is okay."
Alejandra Gonzalez Diaz, 22, spoke toward the end of the rally, recounting when she moved from Puerto Rico as a 6-year-old. Although her mother knew no English, she was dedicated to giving her children a better life, Diaz said.
"People like me ... are being held in cages," she said. "I’m sure that for a lot of you, it’s hard to see what’s going on ... But being one of them, I am hurting."
Staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.