The protesters vs. the Pier. How St. Petersburg’s demonstrations evolved.

The twice-a-day marches have faded. Instead, a new target has raised protesters' ire: The $92 million St. Pete Pier.
Protesters file down the stairs of the St. Pete Pier on Monday as they start their new strategy of targeting the $92 million Pier district, which opened that day.
Protesters file down the stairs of the St. Pete Pier on Monday as they start their new strategy of targeting the $92 million Pier district, which opened that day. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published July 9, 2020|Updated July 9, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The steady, easygoing rhythm of protests in the city — marching from City Hall every day starting at 2 and 7 p.m. — has suddenly changed in the Sunshine City.

Demonstrators now have a new strategy, a new target and a new tenor: They’ve started marching through the $92 million St. Pete Pier, taking their mission to disrupt the city, condemn injustice and spark change to Mayor Rick Kriseman’s crown jewel.

They spent Monday and Tuesday nights executing their plan of making the Pier’s patrons uncomfortable. They also want to call attention to the city’s decision to spend tens of millions on a new attraction when so many other critical needs have gone unfulfilled. And their demeanor has been much more confrontational than in weeks past.

“This our pier, too” a protestor yelled through a bullhorn during Tuesday night’s Pier protest. “Our money paid for this. It could have gone to affordable housing, but instead, it’s here.”

Related: Meet St. Pete’s accidental protest leader, who found he has something to say
A protestor holds a sign outside of the St. Pete Pier on Tuesday while stopping traffic at the intersection of Second Avenue N and Bayshore Drive NE.
A protestor holds a sign outside of the St. Pete Pier on Tuesday while stopping traffic at the intersection of Second Avenue N and Bayshore Drive NE. [ Josh Fiallo ]

The city on Tuesday escalated its response to the protesters. The St. Petersburg Police Department announced earlier that day that officers will start enforcing pedestrian traffic laws and fine protestors $62.50 for blocking street traffic.

The escalation continued. The protesters stopped blocking traffic that night and instead marched through the packed sidewalks of Beach Drive NE, walking through diners.

“When the police come and say we can’t stop traffic, then we’ll mob the sidewalk cafe,” said protest leader Spencer Cook, 44. “We’ll go and interrupt them. It’s a tactic by police and it’s a tactic by us.”

• • •

The protest game plan in St. Petersburg throughout June and the start of July has been to meet at City Hall twice a day, hold discussions or read poetry, then march through neighborhoods and downtown. The numbers have varied from a few dozen to hundreds.

Recent events forced a change in that strategy. After less than 10 people appeared for Sunday’s 2 p.m. march, organizers announced Monday that there would now be one daily march starting at 7 p.m.

The city inadvertently offered a new target: The 26-acre Pier district opened Monday. It is packed with family amenities, dining options and a view of the city skyline and Tampa Bay. It is the latest iteration of St. Petersburg’s 131-year-old waterfront tradition, and the mayor has spent considerable time, energy and money to get the project from conception to reality.

More than a thousand people, each with a reserved ticket and time slot, lined up along Bayshore Boulevard NE to visit it on Monday. So did about 30 protestors.

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More than twice that participated in Tuesday’s demonstration. They marched from a nearby park to the top level of the Pier, chanting “We don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace” and “Who’s pier? Our pier!” along the way.

“We’re going to do what we did last night,” Cook said before the march. “This our plan now — to march in the front and shut down traffic in and out of the pier. We’re going to stand there and chant, really get people roused up. We need to be seen.”

The group grew in size as they moved from a nearby park to the pier’s entrance. They then formed a blockade around the intersection in front of the pier for nearly 20 minutes, shutting down all traffic on Bayshore Drive NE.

That led to some tense moments as drivers yelled from their vehicles. Some pleaded with protestors to let them through. Others rolled their eyes or made comments under their breath as they walked past protestors to get to their cars.

The march then moved inside the Pier gates and along the long walkway toward “The Point,” where hundreds of other pier-goers pulled out their phones and recorded — or scoffed as they passed. Once they got to The Point, the protesters had swelled to about 80 and piled onto the stairs to reach the fourth level. Then they spent nearly 15 minutes chanting inside the restaurant Teak.

Then the protesters hit the sidewalk cafes — pretty crowded on a weeknight, despite the rising pandemic — and marched north toward the Vinoy resort, going through every establishment on Beach Drive NE until they ran out of sidewalk.

• • •

St. Petersburg police announced the new ticketing policy on Tuesday, saying it has received “numerous complaints” about protestors blocking traffic for the past five weeks.

“Recent national incidents of vehicles striking protesters who were blocking roadways highlight the importance of following the law and staying clear of traffic,” the release said.

Police officials on Wednesday detailed how many complaints the city has received about protesters blocking traffic: There were 413 complaints called in to the police emergency communications center through Tuesday. That does not include emails, calls and messages to individual officers, or complaints made on police social media platforms.

The mayor’s office has received 79 phone calls and emails complaining about protesters blocking roads in the past three weeks, police said. City Council has received at least 15 such complaints in the past 10 days.

Officers will hand out flyers to first-time offenders. Each offense after will carry a $62.50 fine. The department did not say how it plans to enforce the new policy, as officers have been rarely seen around protesters.

Related: St. Pete police will fine protestors for blocking traffic

The Tampa Bay Times asked the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Tampa Police Department if they plan to enact similar policies. The Sheriff’s Office said “it would be inappropriate ... to comment on another agency’s policy.” Tampa Mayor Jane castor said her officers would continue to “protect” First Amendment rights during the protests.

But both said they would take steps to maintain public safety. Tampa officers on Saturday arrested a handful of protesters to break up a blockade of N Dale Mabry Highway.

St. Petersburg’s new policy did not dissuade protesters. And no tickets were issued during Tuesday’s protest, during which they shut down Bayshore Drive NE and parts of Second Avenue N.

Demonstrators did not visit the Pier on Wednesday night, however, and instead returned to an old pastime: blocking traffic on First Avenue N outside St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters. A Times reporter did not observe any protesters get ticketed, however.

“We are prepared to take the ticket,” Cook said Tuesday. “And to anybody here who is like, ‘Ah, I can’t do $62.50 right now,’ let us know and we got you. Don’t even worry about it. We’ll pay it.”

Times staff writers Anastasia Dawson and Monique Welch contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of complaints made to the city about protesters blocking roads. The city sent the information on Wednesday, but due to a technical issue it was not received until Thursday.