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In St. Pete, protests bring a new nightly tradition: City Hall dance parties

Marchers are letting off steam in the streets, with a little help from Sam Cooke, Sister Sledge and Tupac.
Protesters at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 18th Avenue S in St. Petersburg pause their march for a dance party in celebration of what would have been Tupac Shakur's 49th birthday on June 16, 2020. Dance parties have become a regular part of Black Lives Matter protests in St. Petersburg.
Protesters at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 18th Avenue S in St. Petersburg pause their march for a dance party in celebration of what would have been Tupac Shakur's 49th birthday on June 16, 2020. Dance parties have become a regular part of Black Lives Matter protests in St. Petersburg. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jun. 17, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Tuesday was a special day. It was Tupac Shakur’s 49th birthday, Will Breeze told about 100 protesters gathered outside St. Petersburg’s City Hall.

“Let’s put our hands together for him,” Breeze, a rapper himself, said through his megaphone. “People say, ‘Where do you all get your energy from?’ Tupac Shakur.”

An hour into their march, after the crowd sang Happy Birthday to Tupac at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 18th Avenue S, a white Expedition with a booming trunk speaker pulled up blasting Tupac’s Changes, a song about racial injustice, including white police shooting black men. For about 10 minutes, the group’s solemn circle turned into a celebration.

Nearly three weeks into St. Petersburg’s Black Lives Matter marches, that’s become the norm. What started off as mostly peaceful but occasionally tense face-offs with police now feel at times like roving block parties. Skateboards and roller skates. Poetry and prayers. Sing-alongs and drum circles. And for the past week, at the end of each night, a big dance party at City Hall.

“Dancing is a part of happiness,” Breeze said. “We want to be happy. We want to celebrate. We know that other cities are doing different things. Our thing is we want to do it the right way. That’s no way to honor anybody.

“We’re rejoicing. We’re uplifting people. A lot of people, they come out here, but we don’t want people that’s depressed, (with) negative thoughts, to be in this march. That’s why we dance.”

The music changes along the way, blasting from the Expedition or another car in the protest’s nightly convoy. Some songs are suited to the moment (Childish Gambino, Rage Against the Machine); others are straight-up club music (Party Rock Anthem, Wobble, Turn Down For What). One dance party featured the smooth sounds of Sam Cooke, Luther Vandross and the Commodores. Another brought a mass Cha Cha Slide.

Organizers say this doesn’t mean their movement has lost teeth. Breeze respects the Malcolm X way, the “by any means necessary” way, and sometimes that is the way to go. But he really feels Dr. King’s transcendent message of peace and positivity. That can bring people in, too.

“I believe in protesting and rejoicing,” he said. “That’s why we were rejoicing in Tupac Shakur. It’s a positive thing. We’re peaceful. We’re chanting, ‘No justice, no peace.’ They’re dancing, they’re happy. We’re just trying to keep it positive.”

Musicality is built into these marches. Organizers chant in a cadence, calling for claps and responses as they beat on drums and djembes. Between cries of “Say his name!” and “Whose lives matter?” are the occasional “Make some noise!” and “Give it up!” The marches are long, and they need to keep spirits high. As St. Pete leader Terron Gland put it: “We’re not trying to lose people; we’re trying to multiply.”

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During each march, people on porches chant and raise fists and bob their heads to the music. On occasion, date-night diners hop up and walk along, lured by cries of “March with us!"

Michael Rossi was out with friends at St. Petersburg’s Five Bucks Drinkery when they saw the march pass and decided to join in. By the end of the night, he was surrounded by strangers, break-dancing harder than anyone.

“I would rather come out and march every night for something with a cause than to go out anywhere," said Rossi, 22, of Spring Hill. "This is more fun. There’s meaning behind it. I love it. ... There’s no doubt we’re going to be out here again. I live an hour away, and I’ll make the drive.”

Gland has said he wants marches to continue for more than a year. That’s a long time to keep up a nightly celebration. And in fact, after a steady run of end-of-night dances, he ended Tuesday’s nearly 7-mile march by taking the megaphone and announcing they’d be turning in early. No music. No street party.

“A lot of people are tired, so we’re just going to go ahead,” he said.

There was a palpable reaction from the protesters. What? No dancing? For real?

“Y’all want to dance?” Gland said. “I guess if you want to hang out and make some noise in the road tonight and dance, go ahead and make some noise.”

The crowd let out a cheer. The Expedition blasted Yeah! by Usher, Ludacris and Lil Jon. And with the words “Black Lives Matter” projected in light across City Hall, they all hit the street and got it on.

• • •

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.