ST. PETERSBURG — In some ways, the scene outside St. Petersburg City Hall on Thursday evening was familiar.
About 30 people gathered on the steps and nearby sidewalk, preparing to march through the city demanding police accountability and racial equality. A few protesters clutched Black Lives Matter signs. Others wore T-shirts with slogans like “No Justice, No Peace.”
But before they picked up their signs and shouted in the streets, they logged in to Zoom. It was time to exercise their voice in a different way, by speaking during public comment for the city’s 2021 budget hearing.
One hundred days after people in Tampa Bay joined thousands of others across the nation in protesting police brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, organizers here are finding ways to keep the movement going while stretching into new forms of action.
“If you’re going to yell in the streets, you damn well better yell at City Council so they can do something about it,” community organizer Ashley Green shouted to the group from the open door of their car.
Protesters throughout Tampa Bay are adamant that there continues to be a need for regular marches to bring awareness to issues of injustice and inequality. But after three months of nearly daily gatherings, some local leaders and protesters have questions about sustainability and efficacy.
Though there have been some violent episodes of police and protesters clashing, largely in the first few weeks, the demonstrations have settled into a more peaceful hum.
The response shouldn’t be to abandon marches, Tampa community organizer Jae Passmore said, but to build upon them with other actions.
“The important part to understand is though protests are the most visible forms of advocacy, it’s only 2 percent of the work,” Passmore said. “And what we’ve been able to do is channel people’s anger, people’s frustration and people’s willingness to change to other forms of advocacy.”
While early protests in May and June saw participation swell to hundreds of people at daily events, the size of the groups has dwindled on both sides of the bay. That can be attributed to a number of factors, including hot weather and people returning to school and work. But organizers say fear of police retaliation, abuse and arrest also plays a role.
It’s difficult to compile a comprehensive number of how many people have been arrested and charged while participating in protests.
But high-profile events have peppered the news since May. Some stores were looted and burned during a protest at University Mall on May 30. More than 120 people were arrested in the first week on a range of charges, including battering police, vandalizing property and inciting riots.
Tampa police fired less-lethal rounds and tear gas at crowds in downtown and East Tampa in the first week of protests, and St. Petersburg police used smoke bombs and stinger balls after they said a crowd threw rocks and bottles at officers.
More than 20 protesters were arrested the first week in St. Pete, though charges against some were later dropped. Tampa police arrested 67 people for unlawful assembly in a single June night. The state attorney later dropped the charges,
But many of the events of the last 100 days occurred without incident. A crowd of about 2,000 marched down Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on June 13 without arrests or police action. St. Petersburg had weeks of twice-daily protests without violence as participants formed a bike and safety crew to block streets and de-escalate confrontations with bystanders.
Though tensions haven’t reached the levels of the first week, Passmore said in some ways it feels more dangerous to be out on the streets now. Passmore, Green and other protesters said the threats now also come from other people.
Demonstrators have clashed with restaurant and bar patrons in the past few months, including while marching through St. Pete’s new Pier. Videos recorded by bystanders show heated arguments, cursing and shoving.
Multiple protesters in Tampa and St. Petersburg have been hit by cars while marching. Passmore was hospitalized with a concussion and an injured ankle and pelvis when a pickup hit her in Hyde Park. A Tampa protester was arrested after a black Volkswagen slowly drove through a demonstration and sped off with him clinging to the hood.
A similar clash between a driver and crowd happened in St. Pete on June 17, when a motorcyclist drove into a march, stopped and revved his engine. Protesters grabbed his backpack and pulled him to the ground.
There have been multiple incidents of cars nosing around protesters on bikes and skateboards who try to block interactions. One happened Thursday in St. Pete as a delivery driver pushed forward slowly into a bike and person before driving through an intersection.
Despite these interactions, Jabaar Edmonds, 40, said St. Pete protesters have done an “amazing job of keeping it peaceful, keeping it civil.”
Edmonds and 13 others from the protest group went to the March on Washington last month, which he said felt much less peaceful. “When you come back home and experience this peace protest, you value it more.”
Green, who has been part of protests in both Tampa and St. Petersburg, said the experience is “night and day.” Green criticized Tampa police for being too aggressive, creating a dangerous environment, and said St. Pete police have taken a mostly hands-off approach.
“I wish other departments reflected on what the city of St. Pete is doing and how it has created a more just and safe environment for us to exercise our rights as opposed to the culture of fear we’ve seen in Tampa and other places,” Green said.
The Times emailed questions about concerns raised by protesters to Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan.
His press office sent the following response: “We have had numerous protests with no arrests and no problems. We choose not to focus on the negative but on the future.”
Three months after Floyd’s killing, protests continue to happen across the country, some violent.
Apart from the first weekend of events, Tampa Bay has avoided the destruction and injuries some other cities have experienced.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway hesitated to call the protests in the city peaceful, saying it’s been a mix, with some groups using non-peaceful tactics, like blocking traffic.
“There is a small group that is doing peaceful protesting,” Holloway said. “They’re not blocking traffic and not (doing) graffiti and not getting in people’s faces. They just want their message to be heard, and people to hear them, so there can be some change.”
When asked his thoughts on Tampa’s protests in light of what’s happened in other cities, Dugan said the violence of the first night was “just heartbreaking.”
“I’m disappointed that some of the protests ended up where we had to arrest people,” Dugan said. “We normally don’t have that here. I’m disappointed that it turned to that point.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said she thinks the demonstrations there are peaceful, and she applauded protesters in the beginning for raising awareness. But she said the time has passed for shouting in the streets.
“I don’t know that there is anybody in the nation that hasn’t gotten that message,” Castor. “I think their time would be much more productive if it was spent on working toward changing those issues that they’re protesting.”
Protesters on both sides of the bay have taken up other forms of advocacy, including participating in public hearings, meeting with elected officials, joining nonprofits, registering people to vote and helping clean up neighborhoods. But organizers insist that marching continues to play an important role.
The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s show that people taking to the streets for weeks or months can be successful, said Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He pointed to the Montgomery bus boycott and Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins as examples.
“It helps signal to others how deeply committed you are and underlies the significance of the cause,” Wasow said. “You tell the world, ’I care so much about this, I’m willing to endure a long-term cost.’ ”
Protesters have started using other routes to connect with leaders. City council members during budget hearings in both Tampa and St. Petersburg on Thursday heard from protesters about spending less money on law enforcement and directing those resources into the community instead.
In St. Petersburg, Green briefed two dozen participants on the steps of City Hall about the budget process, what millage rate is for and who the deputy mayor is.
“I know some of this is boring, but this part is actually worth listening to,” Green said when a pie graphic about the general revenue fund appeared on their screens. “This is what we care about.”
The day before, Green led a Zoom call with about 25 people so they could go over the slides and be prepared for public comment.
Several protesters called in, including Hailey Oswalt and Jake Geffon. Oswalt has spoken at public meetings before, but said she gets nervous every time. Thursday was Geffon’s first time addressing the City Council. He talked about hurricane preparedness, segregation in neighborhoods and schools, and community investment that he said is sorely needed. When he finished, his fellow protesters whooped and clapped.
“We love you Jake!” one woman shouted.
Green said experiences like that show people are not only finding their voice in the streets, they are learning other ways to affect change.
“It’s really exciting to see people step into that power and understand that they have just as much of a right as anybody to determine what the city looks like and what the people who are elected are actually going to do,” Green said.
After the group moved to marching only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, protester Carla Bristol said they dedicated the other days to other forms of activism, like studying the history of racial inequality in St. Petersburg, cleaning up trash in neighborhoods, feeding the homeless, preparing for city meetings and engaging with elected officials.
It hasn’t been without some bumps. Both protesters and city leadership in St. Petersburg say they have tried to schedule conversations to build trust and address issues. With the exception of one early on, those meetings haven’t taken place. Each side points to the other, saying dates have been canceled or the proper people weren’t contacted.
Similar efforts to expand beyond just protests are happening in Tampa, Passmore said.
“We’re trying to show people engagement doesn’t stop just by showing up at a protest,” Passmore said. “That was where they started, but now we’re taking them to City Council meetings, we’re taking them to the ballot box, and we’re advocating for marginalized people.”
It can be a challenge for any protest movement to not only mobilize people but also change policies that matter, Wasow said. Both are important, with the people on the street creating a sense of urgency around an issue while others can negotiate on behalf of the community for a policy change.
“They’re often very different kinds of skills and tactics,” Wasow said. “But they work together.”
Times local government editor John Martin and staff writers Charlie Frago, Margo Snipe and Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.