ST. PETERSBURG — Spaced out among the 13 metal red chairs of a public art installation called “Face the Jury,” more than 100 Pinellas County attorneys gathered Friday to call for equal justice under the law.
It was Pinellas’ answers to a rally lawyers held last month in Tampa. Most of the Pinellas attorneys wore green T-shirts bearing the message “Lawyers for equal justice."
“We want the community to know that the attorneys in our community stand for justice, and stand for them to be equally served in our system,” said organizer and St. Petersburg defense attorney Lucas Fleming, standing behind a lectern at the corner of Fifth Street N and Second Avenue N. “Hopefully, they’ll get the message that we do care.”
The event was held on the lawn of the St. Petersburg Judicial Courthouse’s 501 Building on Fifth Street N, across from City Hall. The public artwork there has served as the launch point for many of the protest marches against racial injustice that have criss-crossed St. Petersburg in the past two months.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pointed out why the location was so significant to him: He said picketers stood there in 1981 to object to his decision to join the State Attorney’s Office and become the circuit’s first Black prosecutor under former State Attorney Jimmy Russell.
“I wanted to learn how they made a case so I could break a case,” Rouson joked to the crowd.
The senator spoke after St. Petersburg Mayor and attorney Rick Kriseman and police Chief Anthony Holloway, who once served on the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors.
Rouson characterized the moment — as protests calling for an end to police violence continued nationwide since the May 25 death of George Floyd — as opportunity borne from tragedy. He said it was a test for lawyers, to expand their comfort zones by challenging their colleagues and taking on new causes.
They should be fighting against discrimination and for voting rights and environmental justice, he said.
“We must each show up, walk through this portal of opportunity, with our minds stayed on greatness," Rouson said.
Kriseman, who practiced law before before entering politics, quoted the Florida Bar oath — “I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility ...” and “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”
He credited the progress he said his administration has made, and the predominantly peaceful nature of St. Petersburg’s protesters, with avoiding the tense standoffs that have disrupted other cities.
“The arc of the universe does bend toward justice,” Kriseman said, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while encouraging the lawyers to see Friday as a “rededication of their commitment to justice.”
Holloway said the police need defense attorneys, too, to fight unjust laws and to “Figure out what we’re doing wrong so we don’t make those mistakes.”
McCabe told the Tampa Bay Times afterward that he “never heard of” the event. Fleming said he believed the prosecutor’s office had been invited.
Bay Area Legal Services attorney Lisa Brody, whose organization provides free legal counsel for low-income residents, said it was important “to show the community that we truly believe in access to justice and equal justice for all.”
Derek Bernstein, a lawyer who has been advising protesters of their rights, invoked the wisdom of Spider-Man’s late uncle, Ben Parker:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
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.