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Tense moments at Back the Blue rally as cop supporters, protesters come together in Tampa

Protesters against police brutality show up at the “Back the Blue” rally to share their message.
Black Collective Movement's Emadi Okwuosa (center right, with bullhorn) faces off with a "Back the Blue Florida" protest as the groups intersect on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday.
Black Collective Movement's Emadi Okwuosa (center right, with bullhorn) faces off with a "Back the Blue Florida" protest as the groups intersect on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jun. 13, 2020
Updated Jun. 14, 2020

TAMPA — Protesters returned to Tampa Bay’s streets with renewed strength on Saturday.

Black Lives Matter led about 2,000 people down Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa. There were tense moments in St. Petersburg when protesters found themselves menaced by two pickup trucks that tried to drive through their ranks. No injuries were reported.

Related: Marchers fill South Tampa’s streets; pickups menace protesters in St. Petersburg

But in Tampa, it was the “Back the Blue” rally that captured this moment of heightened racial tension and calls for change in America.

By the announced 11 a.m. start time, a sizable crowd lined Tampa Bay Boulevard outside the Tampa Police Department’s District 1 office. They held signs with slogans like “BLUE LIVES MATTER, TOO!" and “PRAYING FOR THE BLUE.” Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American blasted from a parked Ford Mustang. A giant “thin blue line” version of the American flag, suspended from a crane, waved in the breeze.

Chris Metz attends a "Back the Blue Florida" protest on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday.
Chris Metz attends a "Back the Blue Florida" protest on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Then the dynamic changed. A group of protesters who have been taking to the streets for more than two weeks to protest police brutality arrived. Fists raised, they marched down the street chanting “Black lives matter!" and “Blue is not a race!”

The two sides, stark in their demographic differences, shouted to be heard, their faces sometimes inches apart, while police stood at the ready. There were some tense moments, but no violence and no apparent arrests before the crowd dispersed. Organizers on both sides said they made their points.

The rally and counterprotest happened during a busy Saturday in the Tampa Bay area as protests continue more than two weeks after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

During the Back the Blue rally, the crowd marched east to Dale Mabry Highway, then turned around and headed west, past the police station to a roundabout at North Lois Avenue.

By then, rally co-organizer Kelli Campbell was sweating in the humid midday heat. Her sign read, in part: “I REFUSE TO HATE BLACK PEOPLE. I REFUSE TO HATE GAY PEOPLE. I REFUSE TO HATE POLICE. I REFUSE TO HATE.”

“I am here to support all law enforcement officers because the largely negative rhetoric that’s being spread against them is unfair," said Campbell, 45, of Sarasota. “It’s unbalanced. We’re judging everybody by the actions of some bad police and it’s time for that to stop.”

Christine Stokes, 21, (holding sign) argues with a "Back the Blue Florida" protest participant as groups intersect on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday.
Christine Stokes, 21, (holding sign) argues with a "Back the Blue Florida" protest participant as groups intersect on Tampa Bay Boulevard on Saturday. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

The rally crowd ranged in age from kids to seniors, but skewed older, and was almost entirely white.

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Tom and Toni Grant, both 70, arrived early, each carrying a sign. Her sign: “OUR PEACEKEEPERS, GUARDIANS, HEROES!!!” His: “SUPPORT LAW AND ORDER!!”

“We have driven up here from Sun City Center to support the police and to show them how much we respect and support what they’re doing,” Toni said. “Blue lives matter, and we back them up 100 percent.”

As the rally went on, members of the Black Collective Movement gathered at Capaz Park about a mile and a half away. The group and the person behind the Twitter account @ProtestsTampa both moved protests scheduled for other times and places on Saturday to counter the Back the Blue protest.

By 12:15, a group of a few dozen marched east on Tampa Bay Boulevard. They carried signs and chanted “Black Lives Matter!” They were a younger, more racially diverse crowd.

Rallygoers standing on both sides of the street countered with their own chants to drown them out. The protesters continued to Dale Mabry, paused for a while, then returned, their numbers swelled with new arrivals. The group made another pass through the rally, and then another.

“Blue is not a race!" they shouted.

“We deserve to be here and we deserve not to be killed in the way that we have," said Jayden Cline, 25 of Tampa.

Related: In Zephyrhills, activist and police chief take stage together at unity rally

Until this point, several Tampa police officers in their standard uniforms watched from the parking lot of the police station. Then, a line of bike cops moved in to get people onto the sidewalk, then cleared out. Eventually, though, police closed that stretch of road. The counterprotesters stood in a line in the street, facing rallygoers and chanting.

“No Trump, No KKK, no racist USA! No justice, no peace!"

Members of both groups urged one another to stay peaceful. They did, but there were some heated exchanges.

“It’s not about you!” a white woman said to counterprotesters.

“Yes, it is about us!” a young black man shot back. “We’ve been killed, we’ve been enslaved!”

“Go f--k yourself,” a middle-aged white man replied, then held up a middle finger.

“No, no, no, don’t do that!” a fellow rallygoer told the man, her admonishment an apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation.

There were some civil attempts at dialogue.

“Silence equals complicity,” a protester told a man holding a “Back the Blue” sign. “You haven’t spoken out and said George Floyd matters. You’re just saying back the blue.”

“All I’m saying is you can’t abolish the police,” the other man said. “Reform’s needed and better training.”

“I appreciate you talking to us,” another young protester responded.

By 1 p.m., when the Back the Blue rally was set to end, most people who came for that event had left.

“Everything went very well with the exception of some aggressive people," said co-organizer Cassandra Kistler. "I think we got our message across, I think it was positive. We’ve even had some conversation going on with Black Lives Matter which is huge because conversations need to happen. They need to be heard.”

But there were some more tense moments yet to come.

Protesters jeered at bike police who rolled into formation in front of the crane as a man lowered the “thin blue line” American flag. One woman called “you’ve been trolled” and flashed the hand signal for “white power” — the okay sign. Protesters and a small group of Trump supporters — one woman held a Trump 2020 flag, another clutched a Trump campaign sign — exchanged profanities.

Related: Can you be fired for protesting? In Florida, you can

Moments later, bicycle officers raced to surround the Trump supporters’ station wagon as they got in and drove away. The police pulled their bikes back into the street after the car left.

A Black Movement Collective organizer named Ahmed said later that the woman hit at least one person in his group with a flag pole.

Other than that, the protest went well, said Ahmed, who declined to give his last name.

“People were peaceful, people held their composure, no matter what they said, no matter what racist slurs they had to say to us," he said, “we still stayed the same way, the same power, the same energy.”

Times staff writers Bernadette Berdychowski, Romy Ellenbogen, Josh Fiallo, Divya Kumar, Sara DiNatale and Claire McNeill contributed to this report.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.