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Meet St. Pete’s accidental protest leader, who found he has something to say

Inside the hectic life of Terron Gland, the new activist leading the city's civil rights marches.

This is what now passes for a moment of peace and quiet in the life of Terron Gland: He wakes to a smoke detector screaming for new batteries, reporters knocking at the door and Cardi, the Maltese-Chihuahua mix, barking her outsized bark.

It is Day 16 of marches, and Gland’s feet are tired from the dozens of miles he’s walked; his voice, often the booming center of the protests that course through downtown St. Petersburg, barely rises above the hum of the air conditioning unit. Still shirtless, he rubs his eyes and covers the distance from the bedroom to a couch, flops down and considers everything he has to do today:

Get the car washed. Go to Walmart, buy Gatorade and snacks. Visit relatives. Pick up a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. Eat lunch. Catch up on the news. Lead two marches, then whatever comes after: A dance party, drinks, a very late dinner. And a barrage of phone calls in between.

The smoke detector shrieks again.

Gland’s life ripples with sound and motion, qualities that have propelled him, incidentally, to leadership of the city’s protest movement: As he tells it, he showed up on the first day of demonstrations outside the police station, and when he had something to say, the crowd listened.

He doesn’t see himself as an ideological or political or spiritual leader — “Don’t make me Martin Luther King,” he says. He doesn’t have a background in activism. He’s never voted in a local or state election. Though he’s become president of the group organizing the protests, others formulate the list of demands for city officials. He says he’s just learning about concepts like defunding the police.

But he has a lighthouse beacon of a smile and a preacher’s sing-song voice, and he magnetizes the attention of the people around him, whether they’re marching alongside or receiving one of his street sermons. Energy flows out of him and into everyone else.

* * *

The early days of the protests were raw, angry affairs focused on police headquarters. Protesters shouted at officers, who stood resolute in helmets and gloves and, sometimes, behind riot shields. Four consecutive nights ended as dozens of patrol cars rolled in. Police and deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deployed smoke bombs and flash-bang grenades and fired less-lethal foam rounds. A few dozen protesters were arrested.

Protesters demonstrate outside St. Petersburg police headquarters on Monday, June 1. It was Gland's second day at the protests. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]

Gland, who’s 32, arrived Saturday, May 30. That march was organized by a man named Anthony Koedel, who carried a megaphone and wore a reflective yellow vest.

At one point, Gland and Koedel wrestled for control over the megaphone, and Gland led the group on a march to 18th Avenue S. Koedel was arrested days later, accused of inciting a riot the night before, after police said they found projectiles and the makings of a Molotov cocktail inside of a vehicle. Koedel, who has denied any involvement with that vehicle, stopped showing up to the protests.

In Tampa, and in many other U.S. cities, recent protests have been decentralized, with no single leader. But Gland soon became the de facto leader in St. Petersburg.

He pushed the group in a new direction, away from the police station. He said he wasn’t protesting out of anger — that wasn’t what he felt watching the video of George Floyd.

“I just see it as another black man who got killed by white people in the United States,” he said.

Gland felt compelled to inject some positivity into the group. In front of the police station, on the streets downtown, by City Hall, he started talking about love and peace.

Gland was 8 years old when riots broke out in 1996, after St. Petersburg police shot and killed 18-year-old TyRon Lewis, who was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle that lurched toward an officer during a traffic stop. Gland hadn’t thought the riots left much of an impression, he said, but he could remember hearing sirens and watching looters from his family’s home on the south side. When protests spread across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, that history suddenly felt important.

“We can’t go back to burning down our city,” he said. “We didn’t get anything from it. We certainly didn’t get justice for him.”

He talked about “educating the people” — those who watched the marches from balconies and sidewalks and cafes. “March with us” became a defining chant.

It’s not that unity is the only message. Protesters still list the names of black people killed by officers, hold signs advocating for abolishing police, halt at intersections to speak on grief and trauma and racism.

Gland talks about wanting something beyond messaging. In public, he hasn’t lost his cool, though an early episode with police showed another side, as he unleashed anti-Semitic and homophobic words that denigrate some of his own followers. Gland himself is gay.

He says he’s proud of the racial diversity among protesters. Proud that people feel comfortable bringing their kids. Lose him in the crowd, and you might find him with his arm slung around a new friend; stick with him until the end of a night march, and you might see him leading a dance party in the middle of the street. The protests have become a community unto themselves.

Tiffany “TT” Taylor, another of the core protesters, encountered Gland in the protests’ early days and realized she remembered him — they’d gone to the same church years earlier. She could still picture him channeling a pastor’s energy, shouting to the congregation: “You’d better preach! You’d better sing!”

“He doesn’t wait for anyone else to be passionate,” said Taylor, 24. “Some people wait until other people are vocal.”

She turned to Gland, sitting next to her in his apartment one recent morning.

“You can just keep going. It shows (the protesters) they can keep going. And I feel like not everybody can do that.”

* * *

Even in his car, Gland doesn’t escape the beeping. He goes without a seat belt while driving his Sebring convertible, choosing to ignore the persistent warning, a series of five beeps every 10 seconds.

Maybe he doesn’t hear it. Almost every second of his drive to a relative’s house that morning is filled with calls.

He holds the phone as he FaceTimes with the protest’s secretary, who’s still in bed and who, the day before, left her eyelashes stuck to the Chrysler’s dashboard. She’s giving him an update on social media: One Facebook post reached 24,500 people, and 15,000 engaged with it.

Gospel music blares from a parked car when he arrives at the home of Mike “Trouble” McCall, who runs a driveway car wash business — “Hold on, change is coming,” one song goes. Kids run around tossing a football and tackling one another. They try to get Gland to chase them, but he waves them off.

“Got to save my energy,” he says.

Gland, center, watches as Robert Tulles III, 19, washes the car he uses to lead protests. Also pictured are Major McCall, 6, left, and Ian Reid, 9. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

His white convertible once belonged to a man who lived at a complex in Tierra Verde where Gland worked as a security guard. When that man died, his wife gave Gland the car. Mike and his colleagues scrub over a torn-off sheriff’s office bumper sticker and a faded one that touts “10-20-Life,” Florida’s mandatory minimum sentences for felonies committed with a firearm.

Sunday marches are typically the largest, and Gland’s car is often the lead chariot, with people piling in and sitting on its trunk as music blares from the stereo. The driver — Gland, or whomever it happens to be at the time — lays on the horn to energize the march.

At Walmart, Gland pauses before getting out of the car. He watches the last few minutes of the sermon at Holy Christian Church over Facebook Live, as the bishop talks about blasphemy and recompense and how might doesn’t make right.

“Don’t worry about the evil-doer,” the preacher says, “because God has said, ‘Vengeance is mine.’”

After shopping, with the Gatorade stuffed into his trunk, Gland FaceTimes his nieces, the young girls making signs for that day’s protest.

“No justice,” he begins. “No peace!” the girls chant back.

Back at home, he settles in for a lunch of Walmart chicken wings, a pre-march ritual. He tunes to Bay News 9, turns the volume way up. The news is all he watches, he says. He needs to know what’s happening.

The TV broadcasts a burned-out Wendy’s in Atlanta. It’s been less than two days since police there shot Rayshard Brooks in the back as he fled with a Taser, less than one since a crowd set fire to the restaurant.

Gland says this is a worst-case scenario: He tells protesters that change can only come through peace and unity.

“At the end of the day,” he says as the newscast continues, “the police come along, and they stick together. So you have to stick together as the people and hold them accountable, like they try to hold us.”

The noise of the television almost drowns him out. But not quite.

Gland grabs a meal before heading to City Hall on June 14. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

* * *

The marchers may call him Terron, but his mother calls him Tiny.

Gland is a twin. He weighed 7 pounds 6 ounces at birth, while his brother weighed 8 pounds 6 ounces. Their mother, Tajuana Gland-McKenzie, still calls them Tiny and Fatty.

Tiny was the loud one — “He loved to talk,” Gland-McKenzie said.

The family spent Terron’s early years in Camden, N.J., but after his grandmother got married and moved to Florida, the rest followed.

Gland-McKenzie said her son was a curious kid, always taking things apart to figure out how they worked. He dabbled in basketball and football, but he really loved to cook and dance.

His only aspiration for adulthood, he said, was to be “a successful person.”

Gland has worked an array of jobs. He was a manager at Taco Bell, where his stepfather is a general manager. He says he now works as a security guard and has a wedding planning business.

Gland ran into trouble with the law at an early age. He was first arrested at 12, on an obstruction charge, according to state records. Gland said he was present while his brothers threw rocks at cars.

Other arrests followed — more obstruction, and two aggravated battery charges, one of which was dropped. Problems continued at Boca Ciega High School, his mother said, where he acted like he ran the classroom.

He was eventually sent to a juvenile justice program in Okeechobee County, he said, where he spent several years in his mid-to-late teens. While there, he was charged with battery two weeks before his 18th birthday and spent 141 days in jail. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to time served.

He has at least 15 arrests, records show. He has a handful of misdemeanor convictions as an adult, including providing a false name to a law enforcement officer and driving with a suspended license. Most of the other charges have been dropped or abandoned. He has an open case in Tampa on a misdemeanor charge of petty theft — he said his daughter stole a phone case from a Busch Gardens gift shop, and he took the fall.

Gland said his criminal history doesn’t disqualify him from leading this movement.

“My voice has nothing to do with my record,” he said. “We all have a past.”

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

Soon after Gland took leadership of the protests, he experienced his highest-profile arrest.

A daytime march had just ended June 3 when Gland hopped in an aunt’s passenger seat to go grab lunch, he said. Almost immediately, officers pulled over the truck: A dash-cam video obtained through a public records request shows a police vehicle suddenly cutting off the truck head-on. An officer approaches the truck and says he pulled it over because people were standing in the pickup’s bed while it was moving. He also tells Gland he’ll be arrested if he gets out of the truck.

Later, the officer says that a child in the car — Gland’s niece — is unrestrained, and he tells Gland he’s going to write him a citation for not wearing a seat belt. Neither of those things is apparent in the video — the truck’s windshield is too dark to see through — and police don’t say in the video that they saw Gland and his niece unbuckled while the truck was moving. Gland tells officers that he unbuckled himself when the truck stopped, and both he and a woman in the truck say the child was only unbuckled after the truck stopped, too. The officer tells the woman that “doesn’t matter.”

After Gland declines to show his ID, officers order him out of the pickup. Shirtless, he raises his arms — “Hands up, don’t shoot,” he yells — and pleads the Fifth. Then he collapses to the ground, hands behind his back.

A half-dozen officers surround Gland, and he is later placed in the back of a police vehicle. The ensuing audio is partially redacted — police cited a statute that references the confidentiality of juvenile criminal histories — but Gland can be heard yelling at the officer with anti-Semitic and homophobic language. Gland, who reviewed the video, told the Tampa Bay Times that during the redacted portion, the officer taunted him, telling him he’d go to jail and not be able to bail out for 24 hours.

Related: Chief judge says he relied on Pinellas sheriff’s word to keep protesters in jail

Gland was angry at that moment, he said. He had thought the police vehicle would collide with the truck head-on, and he feared for the safety of his niece. As the police drove him away, he became more scared for himself, he said. He says in the video that he believes officers are going to beat him.

“I’m gonna die,” he says. “Here’s another death of a black man.”

The video ends as the vehicle turns into the back of the police station.

“I was scared for my life,” he told the Times. “I was already a target.”

He doesn’t apologize for his language, though he said he almost never uses those words. He said he responded that way because he believed the officer who detained him was racist.

Officers did not physically harm Gland. He later signed a court summons and was released. He faces an obstruction charge for not showing his ID and was issued a citation for not wearing a seat belt.

Gland-McKenzie had always tried to be open with her sons about how police — and the system — might treat them as black men, she said.

Don’t give them a reason to pull a gun on you, she’d tell them.

Gland told the Times he believes police have an important role, and that they should be allowed to use force in some circumstances.

“I don’t hate the police,” he said. “I got children in this world. I need them protected.”

Gland describes his daughter and son, ages 9 and 8, as “the sweetest kids” (he’s separated from their mother, whom he married in 2012.). He said the children understand that their relationship with police is nuanced: They will run up to officers and ask for stickers, yet they also know there’s a time “to sit back and shut up,” he said.

That Gland has taken on this leadership role surprised those close to him in some ways, but seemed obvious in others. His mother said he’s always been determined and adept at motivating other people. She believes he picked up those qualities from her: She continued her education as an adult and opened her own business selling seafood out of her home in New Port Richey. She wanted to be a role model for her sons, and Terron, she said, is a total momma’s boy. The two talk every day.

She can’t tell yet if the protests will mark a portal into the rest of his life.

But she’s proud of him. And worried.

“I agree with what he’s doing,” she said, “but at the same time, he could be just like one of those boys he’s protesting for.”

* * *

"If you love, love, love, you cannot hate, hate, hate," Gland told marchers before hitting the streets on a Sunday under a blazing sun. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

The harsh sun beats on the protesters as they kick off their Sunday afternoon march from the park across the street from City Hall.

It’s 3 p.m., and the temperature approaches its 88-degree peak. It’s a cloudless day, the shadows are straight, and people are dragging. Their chants, fine-tuned after more than two weeks, wilt in the heat.

Tensions have faded since marchers started avoiding police headquarters. The atmosphere has turned less confrontational and more communal, even celebratory at times.

But maintaining the energy of the first few days is hard.

As the march turns onto Central Avenue toward Beach Drive, Gland pumps his fist in a kick-start, weaving through the crowd, light on his feet. A couple of marchers have hand drums, and he signals them to start a beat. He motions for the other protesters to clap.

Gland leads that familiar call-and-response — No justice, no peace — and lassos the voices into one. Car horns behind them bleat scattered bits of melody.

Later, at that night’s march, when there are more drums, more voices, more clapping hands, he will be content to sink into the crowd, another voice among many, a man surrounded by music.

But this is his talent: He can turn a protest into a protest song.

Gland, right, drums alongside Issac Harris, 15, while marching through St. Petersburg earlier this month. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

* * *

Sometimes, on the hottest of days, Gland rides in a car. He’s missed some recent marches altogether. He’s made way for new voices on the megaphone — some more raw, more revolutionary. None is as rhythmic.

Gland never fails to deliver on Beach Drive where, after a few days of marching through the city’s south side, he and other leaders heeded calls to take their message to white neighborhoods, including the city’s ritziest strip.

Related: Along Beach Drive, a protest leader implores diners: ‘Chant with us'

On a recent Monday, Gland decided the diners outside 400 Beach needed a lesson.

“We ain’t nothing but human beings that is born to die,” he sang, pacing the curb in long black shorts and flip flops, the microphone of a walkie-talkie tugging down the neckline of his white T-shirt. “So you better get on the train, and get on the right train. Because we’re on the right train. We’re on solidarity train, we’re on equity train, we’re on human rights train, we’re on the same train. So y’all reach to the crowd and tell them that ‘black lives matter.’”

“Black lives matter!” the marchers chanted in response toward the diners, who put down their forks and knives to watch.

Related: Along Beach Drive, a protest leader implores diners: ‘Chant with us’

Gland envisions incorporating motivational and educational speakers into the marches, to give the moment appropriate context and expose everyone to different cultures and histories.

He’s floated a kid-friendly night, when they could hang a sheet and project a movie, and a camping night, when people could bring tents to City Hall, and a beach day, when protesters could march before lounging in the sand.

The demands for action by city officials are in the works, but Taylor, a regular protester, won’t give details until they are ready. When conversations turn to ideology and policy, Gland demurs, noting that so much of this is new to him.

Related: ‘What we want’: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful

“An organization doesn’t take one person — it takes a group of people,” he said. “There’s so many smarter people than I am. I keep the heartbeat going, basically.”

He does have one concrete goal: He wants the demonstrations to continue for 382 days, one day longer than the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott in the wake of Rosa Parks’ arrest. It’s an ambitious goal, especially considering the pandemic, but Gland said he’s not worried about COVID-19. He encourages marchers to wear masks.

Maybe the marches are a beginning. Maybe they’re a means to an end. But to Gland, they are a microcosm of the future he wants to see. He imagines a city where parents take their children to play at parks across town, where residents feel comfortable dining at restaurants on Beach Drive and the south side.

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

* * *

Sunday night ends with bursts of joy, as so many of the nights now do. The marchers, returned to City Hall, stand in a loose circle around Gland. He’s walked for miles but can’t stop moving his feet, pacing as he speaks through the megaphone.

“Y’all know what time it is,” he says. “What y’all wanna hear?”

Music pours from one of the SUVs trailing the crowd — Turn Down for What, a song whose only two lyrics, about never stopping, repeat and repeat. A pair of headlights frame Gland, bouncing and pumping his fist as the rhythm ascends.

The beat drops. Bodies wriggle, writhe, spin. TT Taylor sails by on her rollerblades. A protester does a front flip and lands upright on the asphalt.

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

Later, they form two lines in the middle of the road. One by one and then two by two, the protesters shimmy and twirl down the middle. “We are family,” the song now on the speakers goes. Gland grooves slowly for a few steps. He spins around and opens his arms wide, as if for a hug. Then he turns, his arms out, sprinting toward the end of the line, as if for liftoff.

He and a few other protesters wind up at Angelo’s, a couple of blocks away. He gets wings and a side salad with extra ranch, and shots.

“What do we want?” he asks the group, recalling a protest chant.

“Tequila!” they answer back.

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

He sits at a corner of the table — not the head, not the middle — flashing his smile and squeaking through laughter. He orders rounds and joins in when the other protesters holler at the few patrons.

“2 and 7 at City Hall!”

“Every godd--n day!”

It will be 2 a.m. soon; there will be a 2 p.m. march, like always. Terron Gland will wake with bleary eyes to the undying squawk of the neglected smoke alarm and know that he has another long day ahead. But right now, the music is loud and these protesters he met a week or two ago smile and dance between tables.

He ambles over to the touch-screen jukebox in his socks. He gives it his money and overrides Queen mid-song in favor of Sam Cooke and the Cha-Cha Slide and Leona Lewis’ mid-2000s pop. Some of these songs blare from cars as they trail the protests, the soundtrack to this civil rights movement.

He throws his head back and sings along, loudly, that he knows a change is gonna come and that he’s gonna take it to the top like he’s never gonna stop and that he keeps bleeding, he keeps, keeps bleeding love.

Gland, center in the white suit, leads a march on Juneteenth through St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the 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.

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