ST. PETERSBURG — Discussions of the ongoing protests for racial equality during Thursday’s City Council meeting drew out strong emotions from all those who participated, including from public comments, council members and the mayor.
The meeting was the first time the council met as a body and accepted public comment since Saturday, when a group of counter-protesters waving American flags and wearing “Defend Police” t-shirts followed and confronted the St. Pete Peace Protest march.
The march, save for a few incidents, has proceeded peacefully through city streets for more than four months, beginning after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The most serious of the altercations Saturday included a counter-protester who pulled out a handgun, racked the slide to put a round in the chamber and pointed it at marchers. Police on Thursday announced they identified the man, captured on multiple videos with the gun, but offered no additional information about him. Two other men who police believe were carrying knives were also being sought for questioning.
And looming over the meeting was the possibility of another tense night in downtown St. Petersburg, as the same group of counter-protesters promised to “take back” St. Petersburg this Saturday.
The meeting began with impassioned public comment, including from Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church who regularly marches with the Peace Protest. He accused St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman of failing to adequately call out and condemn the counter-protesters as white supremacists.
“The fact that you continue to equivocate people on both sides is absolutely shameful," Oliver said. “Condemn white supremacy full stop. You don’t need to equivocate.”
Aaron Gilmore, an active member of the protest marches, told council members through a wavering voice how his mother has been threatened because of Saturday’s events, and that the protesters have lost all trust in the city’s leaders.
“There is a group of people who have organized nonviolently in your city for months, who have had nothing but violence done to them, and yet have remained vigilant in trying to protect each other and even protect this city," said protester and activist Ashley Green. "And yet, you have another force, outright courting violence, that you equate as the same.”
Kriseman addressed those who spoke during the public comment, defending his record on inclusion and tolerance. He said he doesn’t support white supremacy and reiterated comments he made Tuesday that the city’s police department does not need help from anyone coming in from out of town.
“I find it offensive that the comments I made during my press conference on Tuesday have been twisted to fit the needs and means of certain people,” Kriseman said. "We all need to turn the temperature down.”
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Later on in the meeting, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway briefed council members on the protests, assuring them officers would be more visible this weekend. He said he has coordinated with Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and other local chiefs, should they need help.
Council member Robert Blackmon spoke first, calling St. Petersburg a “powderkeg." He made a motion to encourage police to enforce all laws against blocking traffic. That would have affected protesters and counter-protesters.
“There’s one commonality with all the people who were out there on Saturday night,” Blackmon said, arguing for the motion. "They were all breaking the law.”
The motion died because no council member seconded it, a necessary procedural step to initiate a vote. Council member Brandi Gabbard called it “grandstanding,” arguing it would send the message that the police force had been asked to “stand down.” Council member Darden Rice called it “gimmicky.”
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she supported marchers, whom she called “changemakers,” pointing out they have been going nonviolently for more than 100 days. She implored them to remain peaceful.
Blackmon grew agitated by the lack of support from his colleagues, at one point saying that labeling his motion as grandstanding "is ludicrous, it’s embarrassing, and if I don’t get a second on this motion, it’s made clear that this body does not support the rule of law.”
Blackmon, who along with Figgs-Sanders is the newest member of council, drew sharp condemnation from Gabbard. He looked at the ceiling while she rebuked him.
“I won’t stand for that," Gabbard said of Blackmon’s assertion that unless the council supports his motion, it doesn’t stand for law and order. “This body does stand for law and order. This body also stands for the morals our peaceful demonstrators have been out on the street putting forth to our community.”
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin tried to wrap up the conversation on a hopeful note, calling the work of the marchers “righteous.”
“What we need right now are words that will soothe and be a salve for the soul of our city,” she said.
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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.