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Nighttime clashes end a day of otherwise peaceful protests in Tampa Bay

Tuesday night’s demonstrations take a sudden turn with forceful displays by St. Petersburg and Tampa police.
A group of about 100 protesters clash with police while attempting to cross the Brorein st. bridge late on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Tampa.
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A group of about 100 protesters clash with police while attempting to cross the Brorein st. bridge late on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 2, 2020
Updated Jun. 3, 2020

Protests in Tampa and St. Petersburg took a chaotic turn around midnight when police in both cities dispersed crowds with force. In the heart of downtown Tampa, officers deployed nonlethal rounds, smoke grenades and pepper canisters. Near St. Petersburg police headquarters, they used smoke and what appeared to be flash bangs.

Dozens of protesters fled, angry and screaming. Dozens were taken into custody. Among them were two Tampa Bay Times reporters who were briefly detained, one in each city,

The clashes ended a day of largely peaceful demonstrations across Tampa Bay, as protesters took to the streets in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Riverview and Plant City in the afternoon. In St. Petersburg and Tampa, they continued into the evening.

It was the eighth day since the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man whose treatment at the hands of police has sparked sustained international outrage.

• • •

Shortly after 9 p.m. in St. Petersburg, a crowd of 200 to 300 people walked east on First Avenue N toward Beach Drive after an extended protest at police headquarters, where they laid face down in silent tribute to Floyd.

The crowd was a melding of two groups that came together near police headquarters. Loud but peaceful, they blocked traffic on their way to the downtown waterfront.

The group marched and chanted north on Beach Drive as sidewalk diners watched, then circled back west toward 16th Street and marched toward South St. Petersburg.

After that, they walked back to police headquarters, where tensions suddenly heightened. Some people who joined the march toward the end had been setting off fireworks during the march, angering many of the protesters walking alongside them. One of them tossed fireworks onto Interstate 175 at Fifth Avenue S.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said those people were “setting off explosives and we don’t know what those explosives are.”

After officers told the protesters to leave the headquarters area, police launched smoke and what appeared to be flash bangs at the crowd.

Then police and Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies closed in on some of the protesters, arresting a number of them. A Times reporter was briefly detained as well, his hands placed in zip ties.

• • •

In Tampa, a group of protesters who had been marching throughout the evening split up at the Brorein Street Bridge downtown.

Some remained, some scattered, a few dozen continued marching through the intersection of N Morgan and E Madison streets at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square. An order went out on the police scanner to end the protest, and an officer declared an unlawful assembly using a speaker atop a pick-up truck.

Other officers formed a line with bikes, and the protesters started pushing against them.

Officers responded after midnight Wednesday with nonlethal rounds, smoke grenades and pepper canisters. Protesters started running and screaming that they had been struck by nonlethal rounds. After that, officers closed in and detained dozens of protesters, among them a Times reporter who was kept with her hands in zip ties for 10 to 15 minutes before officers released her.

Protesters were pushed to the ground and officers started placing their hands behind their backs in zip ties. It appeared that 40 to 50 people were arrested — the most in Tampa since local protests started in earnest over the weekend.

Earlier in the evening, the Tampa protesters came up on the intersection of N Franklin Street and E Tyler Street in downtown. About 200 people pressed close to police in riot gear. The officers were protecting Franklin Manor, a popular bar that fell under scrutiny on Tuesday after it’s co-owner commented “just shoot them all” on social media, in reference to protesters.

The protesters included Ian Nix, 31, who said he will protest until he can’t walk anymore. He said he flew to Tampa Tuesday night from Washington, D.C., so he could march in his hometown.

“We don’t get very many opportunities to be heard,” Nix said. “Our leaders won’t listen unless we make noise. This is our chance and I wasn’t going to miss it. Not for nothing.”

Earlier in the day, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was chased from a protest outside of City Hall after a crowd of protesters refused to let her speak.

“Go home Jane,” the group of roughly 100 chanted. Castor pleaded with protesters to hear her out, but eventually retreated back to City Hall after several minutes. The protesters roared as she began to walk away.

“We do not want you to speak today,” shouted the protest’s main organizer, Bernice Lauredan, 28, through a megaphone to Castor. “You are taking oxygen away from people who are hurting due to your anti-black leadership and we’ve had enough.”

The group who organized the protest, which began with about 40 people at 4 p.m. and quickly swelled to over a 100 in a half hour, is called Dream Defenders Tampa. The group typically focuses on issues surrounding prison reform, said Diana Shanks, the Tampa chapter’s communications director. They chose to organize outside of City Hall to send a message to Castor.

“We chose here because of the way Jane Castor has handled the protests,” Shanks said before listing a number of official demands the group has for Tampa officials. They include banning the use of tear gas and removing the National Guard from the city.

The group remained peaceful into the early evening. Even after Castor left the scene, there was little police presence. Earlier in the day, the city of Tampa ended its 7:30 p.m. curfew which was in effect the last two nights.

The group grew to about 300 protesters as they marched down Kennedy Boulevard. Donovan Whitney was nearly hoarse from chanting. “Say her name. Breonna Taylor. Say his name. George Floyd. No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA."

As a mixed-race 26-year-old man, Whitney said he has seen police react to him differently whether he’s in a predominantly white or black town

“I’m tired of this," he said. "They’re killing us.”

He said he is tired of accountability coming only when a video catches a police officer acting unlawfully. And even then, he said there is no long-term change.

“There’s COVID-19 out here and we have to be out here fighting for our lives,” Whitney said.

He hopes the protests around the country motivate people to vote in November, not just for a new president but for local and state leaders who prioritize racial justice. He heard the news Tuesday that Mayor Castor will buy body cameras for her officers, but he worried it’s not enough.

“Ok great, but she should have been doing that,” he said. “I’m not down with Trump but it’s not just about him."

As nearly 300 protesters paused outside the Fox 13 headquarters on Kennedy Boulevard, they took turns addressing the crowd with their stories. June Altier, 31, spoke about her cousin, Jonas Joseph, 26, who was shot and killed by Tampa police during a traffic stop on April 28. A news release published by Tampa Police stated that officers shot Joseph after he put his car in reverse, hit a tree and began shooting at officers. Altier doubts that story and says the family has requested dashboard camera footage but has still not received it.

“We want the dash cam,” she said. “Tell the truth. They killed him.”

She came from her home in Fort Myers to demand police accountability and to force change. Tears rolled down her checks as she told the crowd about her cousin, but she said it is not in vain.

“It’s as if he’s here with me now,” Altier said later. “I would never have done this without him.”

More than 100 people gathered again in front of the St. Petersburg Police headquarters to chant and march across downtown. Protesters encouraged each other to remain peaceful.

Spencer Cook, 44, told the crowd they’re trying to organize music performances, yoga and speeches to keep protesters engaged and coming back.

“If we’re going to remain peaceful, we have to do more than scream and holler,” he said.

Dwauan Brown, 19, and his grandmother waved from their doorstep at protesters walking by their house on 13th Street N and Second Avenue. Brown was out with his mom at the protests last night. They said they can hear the crowds from their home. His grandmother said, “I was surprised, but it’s fine as long as they’re peaceful.”

Samiha Shamseddine, 34, of St. Petersburg brought about 20 handmade cardboard signs to pass out to protesters outside police headquarters. Using materials she normally uses to make hula hoops, Shamseddine, whose family comes from Sierra Leone, thought it was the best way she could amplify voices at the protest. When Brooke Kimball offered her $5 for a sign reading “What if your son or daughter was black? BLM!,” she refused.

“I had the materials,” she said. “I didn’t just want to sit at home and be angry."

The protest, which grew to at least 200 over time, shut down the intersection of U.S. 19 and 5th Avenue for 30 minutes. It’s the first the group has moved through downtown and west to 34th Street.

• • •

Tuesday also saw the first protest in Riverview in response to George Floyd’s death. People gathered at the busy intersection of Big Bend Road and U.S. 301 in Eastern Hillsborough County. Police began blocking off roads in the area early in the afternoon. Deputes asked businesses in the area to close early.

Protesters march north Tuesday on U.S. 301 where Hillsborough County deputies formed a line to prevent them from crossing over Gibsonton Drive.
Protesters march north Tuesday on U.S. 301 where Hillsborough County deputies formed a line to prevent them from crossing over Gibsonton Drive. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Around 5 p.m., at the start of the event, long lines were seen at shuttered gas stations as commuters looked for a spot to fuel up. A Speedway gas station at the Big Bend Road intersection covered windows and doors with plywood. Over the weekend in Tampa, protesters burned a Mobil gas station and sporting goods store.

U.S. 301 is notorious for congestion and traffic delays even under normal circumstances. As the protest began in peak rush hour, traffic flow was already slowing to a crawl. Patrol cruises hung in the Publix parking lot where protesters congregated before walking to the sidewalk, lining 301 with lawn chairs and signs. The group was made up mostly of families and teenagers and remained peaceful.

Merle Berg, 71, had never been to a protest before the Riverview Black Lives Matter march, let alone stood in the middle of a highway. She was registering voters from Wimauma Democrat Precinct.

“It was just heartbreaking to watch. I couldn’t stay home,” Berg said.

Some protesters brought dogs, many brought strollers, babies and toddlers on tricycles. Some were shirtless, wearing homemade face coverings fashioned out of a purple Crown Royal bag. Others were in suit and ties and designer shoes as they marched into the intersection.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office had a converted school bus full of reinforcements - deputies dressed head-to-toe in riot gear holding non-lethal rifles in case things turned ugly. But apart from a few tense standoffs, they didn’t. Some lone voices in the group chanted “no justice, no peace” in unison, but most were silent, phone in hand, watching the parade of protesters.

Christian music played and a crowd gathered around a preacher who stood on top of a van, shouting through a megaphone and leading the group in prayer. In another spot, the Electric Slide played.

A protester held this sign as more than 200 people gathered in the Riverview area to demonstrate against police brutality.
A protester held this sign as more than 200 people gathered in the Riverview area to demonstrate against police brutality. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman stood by the black, unmarked SUV that took Col. Donna Luczynski and other top officials to the scene.

“What can I say,” she said, taking in a deep breath as she tried to make sense of the scene unfolding before her. Most were locals, families from the many neighborhoods and suburban subdivisions along U.S. 301. But as the group grew to roughly just under a thousand — there were concerns that the march had attracted some agitators, people who came to make trouble.

“I mean, this is our sleepy little Wimauma, our quiet little home town,” Murman said. “I think people who live here are just shocked to see something like this here, where we live.”

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks with a demonstrator in Plant City on Tuesday evening.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks with a demonstrator in Plant City on Tuesday evening. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]

In Plant City, local authorities closed City Hall and the Hillsborough County Service Center building at 3:30 p.m. due to planned protests at 5 p.m.

From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., protesters marched between the Race Trac and the Plant City Police Department. Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies deployed a less-lethal round at an individual who was seen throwing bottles at deputies and Plant City police officers, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Wednesday. The individual fled to avoid arrest, the Sheriff’s Office said.

In addition, a Plant City man was arrested on charges including inciting a riot after taking a Confederate flag from a vehicle and trying to set it on fire, leading to a confrontation with the owner of the vehicle, the Sheriff’s Office said. As a Plant City police officer was placing the man in handcuffs, the officer was pepper-sprayed by a demonstrator, the Sheriff’s Office said.

No injuries or property damage were reported in Riverview or Plant City, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Demonstrators march on Tuesday evening outside the Plant City Police Department off East Alexander Street.
Demonstrators march on Tuesday evening outside the Plant City Police Department off East Alexander Street. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]