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Fire, looting and violence reported as Tampa Bay protests escalate

Police at one point used rubber bullets to disperse a crowd, which caused the protests to dissipate, but activity picked up as dark began to fall.
Published May 31, 2020
Updated May 31, 2020

Editor’s note: The scene Sunday morning was quiet, but more demonstrations are planned. Keep up with Tampa Bay Times coverage.

Protests that began in Hillsborough County on Saturday turned more violent after night fell, with reports of police vehicles being damaged, looting and fires at businesses.

Around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, the Champs Sports store near University Mall became engulfed in flames as cars jammed Fowler Avenue and people were seen crossing the street carrying boxes of shoes. Other businesses were looted as well, and a small SunTrust bank branch in the mall parking lot was heavily damaged.

Fire crews came to fight the Champs blaze and the scene began to quiet shortly after 1 a.m.

Just before 2 a.m. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister tweeted, “We are better than this, Tampa Bay. Violence and looting is not the answer, and will not be tolerated.” Two deputies suffered head injuries and were taken to the hospital, the sheriff’s office said.

More local demonstrations were planned for Sunday over the killing of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of police officers on May 25.

There were reports of shots fired around 10 p.m. near University Mall, though deputies said it appears to be unrelated to the protests.

Law enforcement used tear gas to try to disperse a crowd of about 300 people gathered at the mall, but that location seemed to be the place where people were gathering as midnight approached. The crowds swelled through the night despite law enforcement’s efforts to disperse them with tear gas.

Our reporter on scene says there was a constant cycle between protesters and police at the mall. For over two hours, starting just after 9 p.m., hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the mall’s north entrance, where some hurled projectiles and fireworks at officers in riot gear. In response, officers fired back tear gas — repeatedly. The gas would only temporarily disperse the crowd of hundreds, however, and the cycle would begin again.

Starting around 10:45 p.m., protesters picked up and threw the tear gas projectiles back at officers. The protesters would erupt each time a successful throw-back was completed.

Hillsborough sheriff’s officials reported in separate tweets that two deputies were taken to the hospital with head injuries.

At about 11 p.m., the scene at Busch Boulevard and 30th, which had at times been tense, seemed to stabilize as police broke a barricade they had established.

As of 11:30 p.m., that did not at all appear to be the case at the mall, where people are continuing the gather.

There also was this crazy situation with an armored police vehicle.

As for the earlier reports of shots fired near the mall, deputies said it was on Fowler Avenue around 10 p.m.

Some protesters, the sheriff’s office said, broke exterior glass doors to the mall in an attempt to loot stores.

Another protest, outside a Walmart on Fletcher Avenue, dispersed, the agency said.

Deputies arrested three protesters Saturday night. Tampa Police also made numerous arrests for looting and vandalism along Busch Boulevard. Officers remained near the intersection of 30th Street and Busch, where the agency said some protesters were still throwing fireworks, rocks and bottles at officers. Among the stores that were looted, the agency said, were a CVS pharmacy on Fowler Avenue and Cricket and AT&T cellular stores.

Earlier in the night, a Mobil gas station on E Busch Boulevard was on fire at about 8: 45 p.m. Saturday. Fire rescue responded and the fire was put out.

This happened hours later.

Earlier Saturday, hundreds of people gathered Saturday at three separate demonstrations across Tampa Bay to protest George Floyd’s death.

Demonstrations in downtown Tampa, downtown St. Petersburg and Temple Terrace each drew hundreds of people. Read the full story here.

The protests began in downtown Tampa, and though at times intense, were peaceful. A protest in Temple Terrace became more tense when protesters blocked a roadway. Protesters eventually made their way to a police station and tensions escalated.

The tone of the protests changed. Earlier in the day, hundreds of people passed through a barricade of police vehicles one by one encouraging each other not to touch the vehicle.

“This is like some Biblical s---," one said.

But police cars were later damaged by protesters. Police used rubber bullets to disperse a crowd, which caused the protests to dissipate, but activity picked up as dark began to fall.

At least three people were put in handcuffs after police asked protesters to disperse via a loudspeaker.

Looters streamed out of the CVS on the corner of Bruce B Downs Boulevard and Fowler Avenue for nearly 30 minutes before police arrived in full and shut the building down. Once there, officers stood shoulder to shoulder in riot gear, with non-lethal rifles slung over their shoulders. The building would remain locked down for over an hour until people were allowed in to begin cleaning up the mess that was left behind.

Fowler was shut down by the CVS for over an hour and a metroPCS off of Busch was completely ransacked, nearly every item stolen, an officer at the scene told the Times.

A Cricket store and a jewelry store also had been broken in to.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan issued this statement: “While we understand the anger and frustration people in the community have for events that took place halfway across the country, we will not condone the actions of those who seek to injure others or damage property. We will work to ensure the safety of those who protest, but they should not confuse that with being an opportunity to break the law."

Chronister, the Hillsborough sheriff, also was critical of the protesters. He said he was upset by what happened in Minnesota, too, but didn’t think violent and destructive protests were an appropriate way to respond.

This man told one of our reporters that he didn’t care for what the protesters were doing.

Tampa police also were blocking all road entrances to International Plaza and West Shore with vehicles. A few of the officers have riot shields, but are also casually half-sitting in cars or standing nearby, as no protesters can be seen at either mall.

In St. Petersburg just before 10 p.m. several dozen people were walking north on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street south of Newton Avenue South. A man was using a megaphone to yell ‘No Justice No Peace’ as northbound traffic was being backed up.

The group later made it to the police station.

Police Chief Tony Holloway tried to talk to the protesters but they shouted him down.

Here are more photos and videos from a team of Times journalists who are covering the protests.

A Cricket Wireless store is seen Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Tampa.
A Cricket Wireless store is seen Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]