Local vigils held in response to violence in Charlottesville

Published August 14 2017
Updated August 14 2017

On Sunday night, a day after white nationalists incited violence in Charlottesville, Va., while protesting the pending removal of a Confederate statue, hundreds gathered in Tampa and St. Petersburg for candlelight vigils to honor those killed and injured in the Virginia city.

At Joe Chillura Courthouse Square, those in attendance — diverse in age, ethnicity and sexual orientation — hoped for solidarity among people of all backgrounds.

And they wondered whether something that ugly could occur in Tampa.

"It could have happened anywhere," said Elvis Piggott, a candidate for Hillsborough County Commission's District 5. "It could happen in a place like Hillsborough County if we do not stand up now for more unity."

Pamela Gomez, a member of the Community Protection Coalition, said it is the white supremacists who are most fearful — scared of a changing nation that wants to offer equal opportunities to all.

"They feel threatened," she said. "And they can only respond with violence."

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman told the crowd of several hundred at Demens Landing park that President Donald Trump is partly to blame, because he "questioned the legitimacy of our first black president.''

"We may not have the leadership we want in the White House … but we have each other,'' Kriseman said. "Love always trumps hate in America.''

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin and City Council member Darden Rice also spoke.

A city dump truck was positioned at the entrance to Demens Landing as a security measure, but the rally was peaceful. St. Petersburg police estimated the crowd at 300 to 500 people.

"I feel like I need to do something about it, to stand up to hate groups," said Miranda Heitz, 35, of Clearwater, as she and two friends walked toward the rally.

Back in Tampa, the vigil did not remain all about unity.

As the group marched through downtown Tampa, some protestors chanted, "Cops and Klan go hand in hand."

Russell Meyer, the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, wanted the focus to remain on the victims in Charlottesville.

"Someone was killed by a person who knew what he was doing would kill," Meyer said of white nationalist James Fields, accused of killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others after driving his car into a crowd of protesters. "And he didn't care."

Times photojournalist Octavio Jones and staff writer Donna J. Richter contributed to this report. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.