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Protesters, don’t block roads; drivers, don’t hit protesters, says Tampa police chief

Police Chief Brian Dugan tries to defuse tensions after another incident involving protesters and a driver this week.

TAMPA — The woman in the Jeep told the 911 dispatcher that protesters were blocking the road in South Tampa and she needed help.

Then she made a threat.

“I need the police here now to move these cars because if I have to I’m going to run over them,” the woman said.

Moments later, she tried to drive away, prompting at least two protesters to jump out of her path. At the same time, a protester in a Kia that had been blocking the road hit the gas, striking the Jeep on the driver’s side.

This incident from Tuesday is an example of what protesters and drivers should not do when they encounter each other in the city’s streets, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said.

Related: Two arrested in another encounter between Tampa protesters and drivers

In a two-minute video posted Thursday on the police department’s Facebook page, Dugan said the confrontation on S Howard Avenue two days earlier “shows just how quickly things can turn on both sides."

“The Tampa Police Department believes in everyone’s First Amendment right and right now we’re asking for everyone’s cooperation and to respect each other so that no one gets hurt,” Dugan said.

Chief Brian Dugan talks about safety for drivers and pedestrians during marches.

Posted by Tampa Police Department on Thursday, September 17, 2020

Just before the incident, Black Lives Matter protesters were making their way north on Howard near W Azeele Street. Protesters in cars followed behind the marchers to keep traffic from getting close to the group.

In a voiceover, Dugan said the woman in the Jeep was driving home when she became “stuck behind the crowd.”

“A bunch of people have blocked my car and they’ve blocked me in so I cannot move,” the Jeep driver said in the 911 call. “I need the police now. I’m in trouble.”

Dugan’s video then cut to a clip showing the Jeep trying to drive away and the white Kia striking the Jeep.

“It is illegal to block the roadway and especially use your car to hit another driver trying to get by,” the chief said. “If you’re in your car please be patient, find a different route and stay in your car. If you feel you’re in trouble or in danger, please call 911.”

“Here’s what you don’t do,” Dugan continued, and then another clip from the Jeep driver’s 911 call played:

“Like I said, if I have to now, I’m going to run over them,” the woman said.

“It is against the law to drive purposely into a crowd of people,” Dugan said. “We’d ask that protesters please stay out of the roadway and stay on the sidewalks where it is safe. If you feel you’re in trouble, please call 911."

“These are trying times in our country,” Dugan said at the end of the video. “We need to be respectful of each other, we need to be patient, and if we all stick together, we can get through this."

Though the Jeep driver said she was blocked in, a video streamed live on Facebook showed she had plenty of room to back up and turn around, and protesters offered to guide her.

This screengrab from a video posted on Facebook shows an unidentified protester backing out of the way of a Jeep on South Howard Avenue on Tuesday. Seconds later, a protester behind the wheel of the white Kia Soul partially visible in the right of the frame pulled forward, striking the Jeep on the driver's side. Police arrested the Kia driver. [ Facebook ]

No one was injured in the incident. After the crash, police arrived and arrested the Kia driver, 24-year-old T Munoz of Tampa, on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment.

Police did not release the Jeep driver’s name due to the department’s interpretation of Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters in 2018 that’s meant to protect crime victims but deprives the public of information that had previously been available under the state’s public records law.

“I’m very concerned that someone’s going to get hurt, whether it be someone in their cars or a protester,” Dugan told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. “We’ve had too many close calls during these protests.”

Dugan and the department have drawn criticism from various sides for its handling of street protests.

Many Facebook commenters on Dugan’s video said police were failing to do their job to clear protesters from the street and make arrests if necessary. Some of the comments reflect the violent anti-protester rhetoric that has permeated social media since activists protesting policy brutality and systemic racism began taking to the streets since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

“If you try to block me in my vehicle it outweighs you and you will become a SPEED BUMP!” one Facebook commenter wrote on Dugan’s video post.

In the interview, Dugan said his department tries to give protesters some leeway as they spread their message, “but at some point you have to get out of the street.”

“We’re trying to give them as much space as possible because whenever we show up," he said. "It becomes a flashpoint but we have an obligation when someone calls 911 to respond.”

A screen grab from a video released by the Tampa Police Department shows the moment a Kia struck a Jeep during a protest on Howard Avenue in South Tampa on Tuesday. The driver of the Kia was arrested on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment. [ Tampa Police Department ]

Protesters, meanwhile, have accused the department of targeting activists instead of arresting drivers who put lives at risk by driving through demonstrations.

Shelley Reback, a retired Tampa attorney who has attended recent protests as what she called a “neutral legal observer,” said Dugan’s message to drivers is long overdue.

“I think it’s the first time that a city official has come out and said ‘don’t run into people’ and has admonished drivers not to drive through a protest even if they’re in the middle of the street,” Reback said.

But she said Tuesday’s incident shows how police are also failing to hold drivers accountable.

Though Reback was farther up the street when the encounter with the woman in the Jeep happened, she said video clearly shows the Jeep coming into contact with one of the protesters who then has to jump out of the way, which prompted the Kia driver to try to intervene. The protester and other witnesses at the scene reported the same to police, which should have led to the Jeep driver’s arrest, Reback said.

“It appears they won’t arrest these violent vigilante drivers, and that encourages and emboldens others to do the same,” she said. “Some protester is going to get killed or hurt badly soon and (Mayor) Jane Castor and TPD are going to share the blame for that.”

Tampa police spokeswoman Jamel Laneé said the incident remains under investigation.

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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.