ST. PETERSBURG — A sweltering midday heat bearing down, preacher and former state Rep. Frank Peterman, his voice rising to a bellow, implored the crowd to support the good politicians in this state who are working for what's right. He yelled for St. Petersburg police to refer arrested young black men to diversionary programs rather than take them to jail. He analogized the city with Esther from the Bible.
"I say to you, St. Pete," he continued, "maybe you've come to this place for such a time as this."
Whether it was the varied content of his message or the dramatic delivery, the crowd of about 75 — gathered at Vinoy Park on Saturday in protest of Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law — was well stoked as he left the stage. They raised hands and clapped. They shouted support.
Then came Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch with something different — a quiet word on Ronald Reagan.
"Trust," he said, "but verify."
Welch used the phrase, made famous by the former president, in reference to Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford's Friday announcement that he will order hearings on the controversial law.
The crowd calmed.
Weatherford, he noted, had placed in charge of the hearings one of the law's fiercest supporters, state Rep. Matt Gaetz.
"We cannot be bamboozled," Welch said, "by a bait and switch."
It remains unclear whether the continued protests here and around the country will have any real impact on the "stand your ground" laws or the future of the man at the controversy's center, George Zimmerman, who last month was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.
A group of young people known as the Dream Defenders have spent the past two weeks protesting at the Capitol. They viewed Weatherford's announcement as a small victory, but it fell well short of their ultimate goal: a special session of the Legislature. Gov. Rick Scott has flatly denied that request.
Still, among the small crowd in St. Petersburg, the movement felt closer to its beginning than its end. More rallies and protests will soon follow.
As Welch left the stage and event organizer Sevell Brown III took the stage, their voices rose again.
"What do you want?" he yelled into the microphone.
"Justice," they said back.
"When do you want it?"
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]