The rain did not slow down protesters in Tampa Bay on Wednesday, as they spent a fifth day demonstrating against race-based police violence and speaking out against the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who was killed when a police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes.
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway spoke with protesters at several scheduled times through the afternoon. The first scheduled meeting, at 2 p.m., drew just a handful of people. Attendance picked up at the next two meetings.
There were two developments Wednesday evening involving St. Pete’s police chief:
An armed protester was arrested, accused of throwing an object at the police chief and a major, according to St. Petersburg police. The incident took place at an undisclosed time when officers asked protesters to use the First Avenue N sidewalk to permit traffic to go by, police said.
Then a protester threw the object, which police released no description of. The man was arrested, and police said they discovered he was carrying a loaded semiautomatic pistol in his waistband.
The official St. Petersburg police Twitter account tweeted a photo of the confiscated weapon and a loaded magazine. The name of the man who was arrested, what charges he faces and other details were not released by police.
Wednesday night, Holloway also held a private, unannounced meeting with a pre-selected group of 15 unnamed people, which police officials said included six protesters. Mayor Rick Kriseman, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and the St. Petersburg police command staff also attended. No journalists were invited to attend, and police officials did not disclose what was discussed.
Earlier Wednesday, Holloway, Kriseman and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, talked one-on-one with about 20 people who shared concerns about improving policing and standing in solidarity with protesters. City and community leaders met at City Hall hours earlier in a show of solidarity with protesters and to promise that they would work together on change.
“We’re here,” Holloway said. “We’re not going anywhere, they’re not going anywhere, so let’s have these hard conversations.”
St. Petersburg resident Kevin Pace, 25, said he came to the police station to protest thinking there would be a large crowd. But with few protesters out at 2 p.m., he talked with Holloway and Kriseman about how police interact with community members.
Pace said he wasn’t sure what Holloway would do with his recommendations but that their conversation felt genuine and he planned to follow up with him.
“I was hoping for a traditional march, but this was better in my opinion,” Pace said.
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Patrick Mugan, an American history teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School said he came to talk to Rep. Crist about Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s resolution introduced to Congress May 29 to condemn police brutality, racial profiling and the excessive use of force. Mugan said he wasn’t reassured by their conversation.
He said Crist didn’t seem to know what resolution he was referring to.
“That’s unacceptable because we put him in office to protect us,” Mugan said. “He should be seeking these things out or he should be the one sponsoring these bills from the start, but he’s not. He’s out here glad-handing with people, saying just the most generic B.S. It infuriates me.”
About 30 protesters had shown up by 3 p.m. An hour later, when Holloway was scheduled to talk with protesters again, the group had already started moving West onto the street — against the flow of traffic — on First Avenue N.
By 5 p.m., several hundred people chanted as they walked through the rain toward the busy intersection at Central Avenue and 34th Street S. Cars honked as protesters blocked the street. Some drivers got out of their cars but protesters yelled at them to turn around.
As in similar demonstrations over the past few days, protesters laid down on the wet asphalt and shouted, “I can’t breathe.”
Police blocked the intersection for protesters’ safety.
Ethan Joseph, 26, said he’s been surprised to see so many people turn out for protests in St. Petersburg.
“Never in my life did I think I’d see something like this,” he said. “It shows how much this has affected everybody.”
He said protesters are trying to keep law enforcement “tired and spread out” by being such themselves. The goal is to get their point across but remain peaceful, Joseph said. No one wants to damage anything or be violent.
“We don’t hate cops, we don’t want to hurt them,” he said. “But we won’t back down.”
Clearwater’s Westfield Countryside Mall closed in expectation of more protests Wednesday. Police monitored its empty parking lots through the dreary afternoon.
In Tampa, about two dozen protesters gathered at City Hall, where the day before a group had chased Mayor Jane Castor away and did not allow her to speak.
Caroline Raski, 23, said she was hoping to make a statement today by carrying her concealed handgun during the protest.
“It’s not fair that white people can complain about hair cuts and get to bring out their AK-47’s & M-16’s and nothing happen to them while I was teargassed for peacefully protesting," she said.
For roughly a half-hour, 22-year-old Joseph Reategui, held an umbrella for 41-year-old Detroit native Justice Umbiya at the center of Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa. The two protesters, who didn’t know each other before Wednesday, were among the roughly 30 who stood in a steady late-afternoon rain just outside the Glazer Children’s Museum hoisting fists and homemade signs.
“The (passing motorists) that support us, they slow down so that they don’t spray us,” said Umbiya, who is expecting the birth of a son, his second child, later this month. “But the vast majority of those people, they will speed up and get closer just to spray you. It’s about the disrespect.”
Reategui, who said he was arrested for violating curfew Sunday evening, said he’s affiliated with no organization, defying the elements Thursday for the sake of “the struggle.” Umbiya said he was here for his yet-to-be-born son.
“So he’s not dealing with the same things I was dealing with growing up," he said.
A subdued but passionate crowd of about 50 gathered at 6 p.m. in Hyde Park Village in South Tampa, bearing “Black Lives Matter” signs and umbrellas amid a steady rain. As police blocked the road and watched from street corners at Swann and Dakota Avenues, speakers addressed the group, urging them to keep up the cause.
Among them were Nikolas Jen and Annalise Freeman, who toted a sign that read, “George Floyd, the name a mother gave her son, the name a daughter knew as her father.” Their friends, Brian Wright and Zoe Antoniadis, held ones that said “Black Lives Matter,” and “Rally the Vote 2020.” It was their first protest. The rain didn’t seem to bother them.
“I don’t think rain is going to stop anyone,” said Wright. “Black lives are still being lost.”
Getulio Gonzalez is a board member for Tampa’s Democratic Socialists for America, one of the event organizers. He’s been marching every day since Friday and he doesn’t plan to stop — even though he knows people who have been injured by bean bag rounds.
When asked if he was scared of protests leading to arrests like Tuesday night, he responded: “Hell no. None of us are.”