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Ambulance drives latest wedge between protesters, St. Petersburg officials

Police admonished protesters for failing to make way for an St. Petersburg Fire Rescue vehicle. Protesters said they would have if it had its lights or sirens on.
Published Jul. 10, 2020
Updated Jul. 11, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — A blocked ambulance is at the center of the latest flare-up between protesters and city officials over safely demonstrating and blocking traffic.

Police on Thursday also released video of a a St. Petersburg Fire Rescue paramedic ambulance that appeared to get stuck late Wednesday as demonstrators blocked traffic on First Avenue N and 13th Street N, outside St. Petersburg Police Headquarters. Police officials publicized the video of the incident, saying it shows protesters “refusing” to allow the emergency vehicle through and that it had to “re-route” to reach its destination.

Protesters have been continuously pushing the button on the lighted pedestrian crossing there and marching back and forth through the crosswalk. In response to that and other tactics, police officials on Tuesday announced they will start fining demonstrators who block traffic, in response to what they describe as hundreds of complaints from residents.

At a Thursday news conference to discuss the city’s new plan to let social workers handle certain nonviolent calls instead of officers, St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway addressed the ambulance issue, saying it “was possibly going to a call or somewhere.”

Related: Police in St. Petersburg to step back from nonviolent emergency calls

However, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue officials said the vehicle had not activated its emergency lights or siren. The vehicle was actually low on fuel, fire officials said, and was heading to a city gas station to refuel.

After waiting for about 30 seconds behind another vehicle that had stopped, the ambulance eventually turned onto 13th Street N and drove off. Fire officials said only one fire vehicle responding to an emergency has had to be redirected because of the protesters, and that did not delay its response time.

St. Pete Peace Protesters sent a text to the Tampa Bay Times saying the group was “frustrated by these attempts to paint our movement as uncaring.”

“The St. Pete Peace Protest has maintained a practice of safety not only for our protesters but the public and certainly all emergency response vehicles,” the text message said. “An indication of emergency has always been the sounds of sirens and flashing lights. There has been no such occurrence where we didn’t respond with a sense of urgency.”

Tensions between demonstrators and the city have been rising this week. Protesters spent two nights marching through the recently opened $92 million St. Pete Pier district. Police officials on Tuesday announced plans to start issuing $62.50 tickets to demonstrators blocking traffic in response to what the department says have been 413 complaints to police, 79 complaints to the mayor’s office and 15 complaints to City Council lodged by residents in recent weeks.

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

The ticketing tactic came up during Thursday’s City Council meeting after at least four people denounced the strategy during public comment. One speaker said jaywalking laws are rooted in racism, while another, Ashley Green, said forcing protesters to the sidewalk puts them in direct confrontation with business owners and patrons.

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Pastor Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church, known for his progressive stances, said he and other faith leaders will be among those receiving tickets or getting arrested.

“You should be able to see the humanity in the protester without people in collars being on the front line,” he said.

Some council members asked the mayor to hold off on ticketing protesters until after he meets with leaders, which he said he hopes to do soon, perhaps as early as next week. Kriseman did not commit to that.

“In St. Pete, we have no fight with peaceful protesters,” Kriseman said.

• • •

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.