Protesters worry that Tampa looting, police clashes will overshadow message

Police fired beanbags and tear gas. Stores were burned and looted. The explosive weekend left protesters with complicated feelings.
Protestors march south along 16th Street Monday, June 1, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Protestors march south along 16th Street Monday, June 1, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published June 1, 2020|Updated June 9, 2020

TAMPA — Keith Allen Jr. stood before a police line in Tampa late Saturday night, pleading passionately for understanding. The tension had grown thick at Busch Boulevard and 30th Street, as a line of officers drove protesters back. Now, they stood at a standstill.

Allen, who is black, wore a black tank-top. The white officer in front of him wore a badge, a riot helmet and a gas mask. The two were separated by maybe 18 inches of air and so much else.

“This is what I have to do,” Allen, 31, said, as he put a hand on the shoulder of the woman standing next to him, in a moment captured on a Tampa Bay Times reporter’s phone camera. “I have to protect people like this.”

A few moments later, the police line broke. They let everyone go, a bloodless ending to a tense moment that would stick with Allen two days later. But by Monday, Allen’s mind was also on the immolated Champs Sports, the looted gold store, the burned and battered gas stations all in the same part of town — not just because he resented the destruction, which he believed came from an anger he understood but had turned away from, but because he worried the world would see only that damage and nothing else.

“I promise you: My justice will be here if I stand here," Allen said Monday. "But if I go blowing up buildings, if I go burning down crap, that just makes me another statistic. It gives the police, it gives the force another reason to laugh at us. They say, look at these ignorant people.”

Others who had gathered in Tampa’s streets and parks Saturday and Sunday, to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others as well as the general condition of policing and race in America, were also grappling with their complicated feelings about how the weekend had gone.

Like people in St. Petersburg and dozens of other cities across the country, they’d raised voices with messages that felt to them both vital and depressingly familiar: that black lives matter, that police brutality must end, that American law enforcement systems are poisoned to the bone with racism. And they had also seen explosive moments of conflict that they worried would overshadow those messages, or would brutally prove their point.

Police had launched beanbags and tear gas at protesters, actions that some protesters said seemed at times to come without provocation. Some people — it wasn’t clear if they’d been protesters in the first place — took the opportunity to set buildings aflame and loot stores during the Saturday protests, drawing media attention away from the weekend’s more peaceful moments. Tampa police said 40 businesses were damaged, and 75 people were arrested in Hillsborough County over the weekend amid the unrest.

“They’re not about the protest," Teddy Holloman, who attended a Sunday protest near Cyrus Greene Park, said of the looters. "They have nothing to do with this. I am afraid the media wants to portray us as these crazy animals who are doing this.”

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Holloman had gotten to the park around 3 p.m. Sunday, she said. For a while, the atmosphere was communal, productive. She saw teenagers talking with older men and women about their struggles with racism decades ago. Videos showed music and dancing. Organizers registered voters and handed out water. Then police in riot gear declared it an unlawful assembly — the protest had spilled into the street — and launched volleys of tear gas and beanbag rounds.

For Holloman, the moment both erased the peaceful feeling of the protest’s first hours and illustrated the police behavior that causes fear and pain for so many black Americans.

“I felt like it was 1961 and I was reliving the stories my grandmother told me," she said. “I felt like nothing changed.”

Taurus Jones, 26, said she attended a protest Sunday in downtown Tampa, where police shot tear gas into the crowd as protesters flung water bottles at police cars and threatened to block the interstate. But Jones said that, from what she could see, a small group of white protesters were provoking police amid a largely peaceful crowd, and she’d been upset not to see that reflected in media reports.

“If you’re coming to support black people and black lives as an ally, that’s just not how you do it," said Jones, who is black.

One of the organizers of that same protest, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears being targeted by those who don’t support the protests, said she felt both disheartened and encouraged Monday morning. She believed police had acted too rashly in gassing the protesters, she said, and she hated that looting in other parts of the city threatened to commandeer a disproportionate spotlight. She also had been deeply moved by other protesters’ actions, as when several of them knelt before a police blockade.

“It was so powerful,” she said, "because they were so peaceful.”

Mukhunth Raghavan, a 24-year-old University of South Florida graduate student, had left Saturday’s protest when the burning and looting began, but he could see smoke and hear explosions from his home nearby.

He had complicated feelings, he said. He wanted to distinguish between the protesters and the looters, but he’d also seen the arguments in defense of looting — that they brought extra visibility, that stolen or damaged property is nothing compared to a lost life — and he wasn’t sure where he stood. As a native of India, he lived a life affected by American racism, but he couldn’t claim to have experienced first hand what black Americans have. During Saturday afternoon’s peaceful protest, and as he read articles after, he was trying to listen and learn.

There was a moment that afternoon, he said, that stuck out to him. A group of protesters clutched at their necks, shouting, “I can’t breathe.” A silence fell among the people around them.

“People could really feel the tension that has been suppressed in silence for so long — the voices that were unheard were finally being heard.”