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St. Pete protesters talk the talk, not just walk the walk

Instead of marching, members of the St. Pete Peace Protest gathered outside City Hall to talk about the future.
A group of about two dozen protesters met Thursday outside St. Petersburg City Hall to talk about the issues they've spent a month marching to raise attention to and what changes they would like to see locally.
A group of about two dozen protesters met Thursday outside St. Petersburg City Hall to talk about the issues they've spent a month marching to raise attention to and what changes they would like to see locally. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 26, 2020
Updated Jun. 26, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The 27th day of their regular marches through the city, the group informally known as the St. Pete Peace Protest movement did not start the night with protesters practicing chants or organizers hyping up the crowd.

This time a questionnaire was passed out, along with pens and a squirt of sanitizer from a communal jug.

There were several questions, but at the heart of them all lay this one: What are you here for?

Organizers set aside their megaphones, and spoke earnestly to the three dozen or so who gathered across the street from City Hall.

The group had spent weeks projecting its essence outward. Forcing the city to see them. Ever since George Floyd was killed on May 25 by a Minneapolis police officer, the protesters here, in Tampa, and across the country have demonstrated against police brutality and racial injustice in his name, and the names of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

This, however, was a night to turn inward.

”We’re marching through neighborhoods, waking people up demanding our justice, but what is our justice?,” said organizer Terron Gland, who noted that the crowd probably wasn’t used to seeing him in his “work clothes,” khakis and a black polo with the logo of a security company.

“What’s phase two? Are we focused? We can still protest, but it’s time to start ... we’re talking about community development and defunding the police, but what is our approach?”

Related: How 'defund the police' went mainstream and what that means

Carla Bristol reminded the group that it was a democracy. That’s why it was time for feedback, but that also, if things were going to move forward, the group itself needed to learn to work well together.

Another woman presented a white board with a set of guidelines for the group itself: Discourse not debate, speak one at a time, listen, validate what was said and “step back.”

Bristol, who is in her 50s and has a background in community activism, was the one who suggested the questionnaire, and she took a lead in the organizing meeting that replaced the usual march. She stressed that she wants to empower the younger activists who started the movement in St. Petersburg to lead themselves.

”They’re 24, 25 years old, they’re the same age as the civil rights leaders from the ’60s themselves,” she said. “But they asked me to step up and help, and if you don’t ask for something you march for nothing.”

She said that in her experience the No. 1 reason volunteers leave an organization is that they feel like they have nothing to do.

”So I think this will make people feel more empowered, if we can say ‘you’re part of the city hall watch group, and you’re on the oversight committee looking at the police budget’ and so on.”

They split into four groups to discuss ideas for a revised list of specific demands. Then they reconvened, and each group took a turn presenting their proposed list of demands. Most were centered around defunding the police and channeling that money elsewhere in the community.

Gland reminded the group that they needed to find a way to involve the whole community.

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”What about the people who can’t be out here?,” he said.

He noted that nobody should feel “like this is just a movement for black people.”

A white woman raised her hand and said she didn’t want to “gentrify the movement.”

”But your voice matters,” said Gland. People clapped.

”Black lives matter,” Gland said, “and once people understand that, we can say all lives matter.”

Then the group, beating drums and holding signs, went for an abbreviated march down Central Avenue.

It was a repeat of the scene that afternoon, when about two dozen gathered in front of City Hall at about 2 p.m. to discuss what kind of concrete changes they want to bring about locally after spending the past month marching to bring attention to larger issues.

The St. Pete Peace Protest members talked about dropping charges against protestors who had been arrested and focusing on the upcoming Pinellas sheriff’s race, as incumbent Republican Bob Gualtieri runs for another term. Democrats James McLynas and Eliseo Santana face each other in the Aug. 18 primary to decide who will run against the sheriff in the fall.

The group also discussed the St. Petersburg Police Department’s budget and what could be reallocated from its fund needed social service programs.

About 41 percent of the city’s general fund budget — $115 million — goes to fund St. Petersburg’s police force.

”There’s no reason for them to have that,” Aaron Gilmore, 25, said of the police department’s 9-figure budget.

On a broader level, protesters discussed national issues such as the private prison industry, stationing police officers in schools, gerrymandering and demilitarizing local law enforcement agencies.

The group also discussed ways to support black-owned businesses and talked about going door-to-door in the city’s predominantly black communities to discuss what kind changes residents want to see.

• • •

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.