Near sunset on the 10th day of protests, Terron Gland paused.
Monday’s march was winding along St. Petersburg’s most upscale strip, past white-cloth tables and al fresco diners whose waterfront view briefly disappeared behind a throng of cardboard signs and clanging cowbells. “No justice, no peace!” protesters chanted at the quiet patrons. “March with us!”
Gland’s voice had been worn thin in the last week, and the march still had miles to go, but the 31-year-old protest organizer turned to the tables outside 400 Beach Seafood and Taphouse, where mostly white diners sat. He began to speak.
“We want to be as equal as you,” he shouted above the crowd. “We want to eat with you. We want to share our love with you.”
Idling cars honked in a frenzy and protesters lit up in cheers. Gland walked closer to the teal umbrellas and patio chairs. Under the lush canopy and string lights of Beach Drive, he stood, tired, in a plain white tank top and red track pants. Instead of a megaphone, he held an empty Gatorade bottle.
“We want to let you know ...” He caught his breath while cheers went on. “We want to let you know we are the new generation of change.”
“Forgive me for being a black man and not having the right to choose white privilege,” he added.
“We love you!” a woman in the march screamed.
“Forgive me,” Gland went on, “for every black man and any black woman that ever made you feel uncomfortable, ever made you feel unsafe, just because of the color of their skin, just because of what their hair looks like, just because they sag their pants a little bit, just because they talk a little Southern.”
“We ask that you find it in your heart, deep, deep down, to forgive us, and to begin to accept the change that’s going to happen right here across our nation.”
Some diners looked away or sat impassively in front of their wine glasses. Others stood up and came closer. Behind Gland, the circle began to tighten, as the protesters who’d been following his tireless chants edged in to hear his latest speech.
“March with us! March with us!” they chanted in the cobblestone intersection, holding phones up as the sun came low through the trees. Cars honked with the beat. WHITE VOICES FOR BLACK LIVES, one sign said. SILENCE IS VIOLENCE, another said. Gland tried to speak again, but the group kept chanting, “Change is here!”
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When they quieted, he said he knew it would take some people longer to find the sympathy or passion to join the cause. But he needed them to know black people have been suffering for 400 years.
“So excuse us if we tear things up sometimes," he said. "Excuse us if we seem a little angry sometimes.”
“We don’t apologize,” one protester said, and Gland countered that he was speaking for himself.
To the people at 400 Beach, he spoke about George Floyd, whom he said died in the company of cowards.
“It’s not right,” Gland said. “If that don’t hurt you, something is wrong in your heart.”
More patrons stood. An elderly white couple in beach casual clothing, hands in the pockets of their chino shorts. Young people in face masks. A twenty-something man in a short-sleeve button-down and flip flops, who held up his phone to record.
“A lot of us work 12 hours and get paid $8 or $9,” Gland said. “Some of you go to work for four to five hours - if you go to work - and probably make $100,000 a year or more, probably way more than that.”
He asked them: “Love us. Give us a chance. Chant with us.”
He envisioned a St. Pete where his audience could let their kids play in Bartlett Park with black children, and where those black kids could play at Vinoy Park without white people gawking. He envisioned a city where black people could eat on Beach Drive without white people locking their car doors.
There was a movement happening, he said, and if they kept sitting, they might miss it.
“We love you. We want to make this world a better place.”
He raised both hands in the air. The cowbell clanged, the crowd went wild, and some of the diners clapped as the march moved on.
Under towering live oaks and past tidy lawns with the sprinklers on, they walked toward the next neighborhood they needed to hear their invitation.