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George Floyd: Frustration in Tampa Bay after another ‘I can’t breathe’ death

The man’s death following an incident with Minneapolis police hit hard locally, even if mourners couldn’t grieve in person.
After the death of George Floyd following an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492."
After the death of George Floyd following an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492." [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published May 27, 2020
Updated May 28, 2020

Orlando Davis couldn’t sleep Tuesday night.

The program director at hip-hop station Wild 94.1 knew he’d be devoting much of the next morning’s episode of Orlando and the Freakshow to George Floyd, the 47-year-old Minnesota man who died after been pinned to the ground, a police officer’s knee on his neck, during a street search on Monday.

It was an all-too-familiar tragedy, the likes of which Davis has discussed with listeners many times. But this time, he didn’t know what to say to get through it.

“I started looking up all of the stories that have happened — the Michael Browns, the Tamir Rices, the Trayvon Martins,” Davis said. “I hated that I was feeling like I should be hating. I feel like, because I’m so fun and friendly with everyone, I was doing a disservice to the pain that I feel as a black man. I’m sitting there, like, ‘How am I going to get into this tomorrow?’”

As details of Floyd’s death swept across the nation Tuesday and Wednesday, people in Tampa Bay struggled to process how unsettlingly familiar it all felt.

It involved what should have been routine stop, as with Alton Sterling and Walter Scott. It happened in the Minneapolis area, like the death of Philando Castile. It even involved a victim shouting “I can’t breathe," just like Eric Garner. And it came on the heels of two other incendiary racial incidents — the Georgia shooting death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery, and a white woman calling 911 while confronting an African American birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park.

Related: Four Minneapolis officers fired after death of black man

At a time when mass vigils and protests aren’t really an option due to COVID-19, the death of another African American confronted by police left some struggling with their grief and anger.

“When you’re in a pandemic, and you can’t go anywhere, and you don’t have the distraction of brunch or friends or work or family, you’re kind of sitting with this," said Clearwater civil rights attorney Michele Rayner-Goolsby. “I do this work day in and day out, but it is something that even for the strongest of people, it takes a toll.”

Rayner-Goolsby, a District 70 candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, put her emotions on display Tuesday in a raw Facebook video, in which she confessed through tears how exhausted and frustrated Floyd’s death left her.

“As I began to talk about what happened, the emotion overtook me,” she said. “I don’t like being emotional on the internet, even though I’m an emotional person. But at some point, it just becomes a lot. At some point, I hate having to beg people to see me as human.”

Floyd had been stopped by Minneapolis police on suspicion of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. In a video circulated widely on social media, he can be heard pleading as if in pain, saying he couldn’t breathe. He died hours later at a nearby hospital. On Tuesday, the four officers involved in the incident were fired.

People gather and pray around a makeshift memorial, Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis, near the site where George Floyd, a black man who was taken into police custody on Monday and later died.
People gather and pray around a makeshift memorial, Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis, near the site where George Floyd, a black man who was taken into police custody on Monday and later died. [ JIM MONE | AP ]
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In St. Petersburg, Allendale United Methodist Church, known for its progressive social stances, minced no words on its marquee: “George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can’t breathe!” By midday Wednesday, a Facebook post about the sign had been shared more than 500 times, attracting 50,000 impressions, said senior pastor Andy Oliver.

The church has posted viral signs before, including one about Arbery this month. But this was the first time they’ve used the word “lynch.”

“We intentionally used that word because we felt that this was an intentional murder by a mob that just happened to be dressed in police uniforms this time," said Oliver, who is white. “A lot of people have the misconception that (lynching) is specifically hanging, but it’s not. It’s any type of mob mentality that seeks to kill black bodies — and that is tied back to our city’s history, when John Evans was lynched by half the population of St. Petersburg in 1914. That’s a part of our history that St. Pete tends to overlook.”

After Floyd’s death, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis, and were met with tear gas and flash grenades. Such chaos, said Rayner-Goolsby, “adds insult to injury” when contrasted with scenes of protesters picketing to reopen their businesses.

“They are met with water and they are met with masks, and they are met with kindness and humanity — and they’re protesting their discomfort,” she said. “And then you have folks that are protesting lives that have been lost, and it’s been called unruly.”

On his show Wednesday morning, Davis opened the phones to listeners. Some wished for an eye-for-an-eye punishment for the Minneapolis officers. Others recalled their parents giving them “the talk” about safely interacting with police. Others advocated more engagement in city and law enforcement affairs.

“We didn’t allow the combustive rhetoric to rule the day,” Davis said.

But the fact that the conversation was happening yet again — another black man dead, another American city engulfed in police protests — still felt dispiriting.

“It was history repeating itself, and that was the sentiment this morning,” he said. “We haven’t mourned Ahmaud Arbery yet, and we have more. That’s where we get numb to it, because it’s like, Okay, here we go again. That’s the tragedy. Because each person deserves to be mourned and remembered.”