It was billed as a rally not unlike the protests against police violence and racial injustice that have become a daily occurrence in Tampa Bay and across the country in the 33 days since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
But this Saturday march through downtown Tampa felt different.
First, there was the name: It was billed as the “Love Walk” in solidarity for racial equality. Then there were the celebrities.
Thaddeus Bullard, a Tampa resident and philanthropist better known as pro wrestling superstar Titus O’Neil, was the leader. He donned a T-shirt with images of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
His charity, the Bullard Foundation, organized the march which started at about 10 a.m. at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. He was joined by fellow wrestler-turned-movie star Dave Bautista.
After 90 minutes of marching, he told the crowd that they had to start “flattening the curve” of racism.
There also were politicians — namely, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.
Bullard called her a friend. The mayor, who was also once the city’s police chief, has walked a fine line of supporting the protesters’ goals while defending her police department. She told the crowd Saturday about the systemic changes that needed to be made, and to keep that momentum going.
“What I’m asking you to do is to continue with that energy and help make effective lasting change in our community,” Castor told the crowd.
Not everyone was satisfied. Later, as they began to disperse, a woman spoke through a megaphone.
“This is just a photo op for Jane f---ing Castor!” activist Estefany Espinoza shouted.
She kept speaking while Bullard and others tried to calm her.
“All lives don’t matter until black lives matter,” Espinoza said.
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In Pasco County, about an hour’s drive north of the Love Walk, a different kind of rally took place.
About 200 or so gathered at the Sims Park Amphitheater in New Port Richey for a pro-law enforcement “Back the Blue” rally.
Event organizer Bill Lawless, 58, said he worked for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office for 31 years. He started organizing it prior to a similar demonstration took place June 13 in Tampa.
He said the purpose of the event was for the “silent majority” to come out and show their support for law enforcement.
Families sat on the grass, with children and dogs alongside American flags and pro-police “blue thin line” flags. The event looked like a Fourth of July. Speakers blared the Rolling Stones’ 1964 remake of “It’s All Over Now” — their first No. 1 hit.
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Sheila Griffin, who is running in the Republican primary to face incumbent Democrat Charlie Crist in Florida’s 13th Congressional District in the fall, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police. She said officers have been painted with a wide brush.
She said doesn’t mind the protests, but added: “You don’t get to hijack our nation, and you don’t get to hijack our cities.”
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who has spent nearly three decades in public service, challenged those who support the defund the police movement to go on a ride-along with an officer and see what their job is like.
“When someone out there needs help, you’re not calling a psychiatrist, ladies and gentlemen,” Fasano said. “You’re calling a cop.”
Kathleen Callahan, 60, said she’s a supporter of President Donald Trump and isn’t happy that people are calling to defund the police. She carried a sign that read “We (heart) LEOs,” or law enforcement officers.
”If we don’t have police,” she said, “we’re going to have chaos.”
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Back in Tampa, under a blazing sun, wearing sweat-soaked shirts, marchers numbering in the hundreds carried signs and banners that read “spread love” and “love heals.”
They were mostly quiet, but there were a few chants, including “Black Lives Matter.”
They walked from the park northward to the Fortune Taylor Bridge. The bridge was renamed in 2017 in honor of Fortune Taylor, a freed slave who amassed more than 30 acres near downtown after the Civil War.
Led by Bullard, the crowd paused on the bridge for photos and drone footage, before continuing on to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
On a raised platform, Bullard spoke of the need to teach young people about black history and that the culture of law enforcement must change.
“I can’t sit here and say that all law enforcement is bad,” Bullard said. “But I can say that a system, a justice system, and a culture that has been developed within law enforcement has consistently been unjust to people that look like me.”
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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.