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Calm returns to streets of St. Petersburg, Tampa after weekend of protest

Tampa police on Sunday clashed with protesters but avoided a repeat of the previous night’s destruction. That night, St. Petersburg police broke up a tense protest outside HQ.
Published May 31, 2020
Updated Jun. 1, 2020

UPDATE, 1 A.M.: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was “disappointed” that after two days of mostly peaceful demonstration, it ended with a brief clash between officers and the crowd.

“You know last night there was peaceful protest,” said the mayor, wearing a face mask. "But you can’t have peaceful protest when people are throwing bottles and chunks of concrete and other items at police officers.

“You lose the message. It stops being about the justice for George Floyd and it becomes about violence against police officers and the community, and that’s disappointing.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that group of demonstrators had spent the day marching and block intersections without incident. But when the group returned to police headquarters, he said, and “it was no longer peaceful.”

“They got violent, they started throwing stuff at the officers and deputies, rocks, bottles, glass, all kinds of stuff. We weren’t going to tolerate that. It was just an out of control situation for a short period of time and we quickly got it under control."

Kriseman said the protesters who took part in Saturday’s calm demonstrations were not those who showed up on Sunday.

“I think there were different people here then yesterday, from what I’ve heard," the mayor said.

Kriseman reiterated that he heard the voices of the protesters, and said he and St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway both condemn the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“This senseless violence against men of color, against people of color, has to stop in this country,” the mayor said. "But that’s not how you do it. You don’t stop it by throwing bottles and chunks of concrete. You do it peacefully.”

• • •

UPDATE, MIDNIGHT: St. Petersburg police officers quickly moved to disperse the protesters from their front doorstep.

A line of Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Pinellas Park Police Department vehicles — emergency lights activated, no sirens — appeared on one end of First Avenue N and started slowly moving east on the westbound road.

Then deputies and officers formed lines between the vehicles and the protesters, and slowly moved in unison to disperse the crowd.

The protests headed toward Central Avenue. Officers also fanned out along 13th Street N and started breaking up the crowd.

A few protesters remained around Ferg’s Sports Bar, but St. Petersburg officers and Pinellas sheriff’s deputies bearing riot shields walked along Central Avenue and cleared them out.

A 30-year-old man who would not disclose his name showed Tampa Bay Times reporters his right side covered in powder and a right welt on his hip. He said a deputy fired something at him.

St. Petersburg police said 14 people were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly.

Downtown St. Petersburg quickly calmed down.

• • •

UPDATE, 11 p.m.: St. Petersburg police started using flash grenades against a large group of protesters that had spent the past hour demonstrating in front of police headquarters.

The crowd demanded that police show some kind of solidarity with their cause. St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway came outside and said they “stand with you.”

But he waved off the crowd when someone said actions speak louder than words and that he should take a knee.

Then the crowd tore off the water meter covers and threw them at officers, police said, then followed by rocks and bottles.

Police responded by firing nonlethal rounds and flash grenades.

One officer suffered a minor injury, and a police vehicle window was damaged.

• • •

UPDATE, 10 p.m.: After two days of relatively calm protests in St. Petersburg, tensions started to rise late Sunday.

A group of protesters who had blocked Beach Drive NE earlier in the evening elected not to go up the Interstate 375 ramp at Fifth Avenue N and attempt to block the interstate.

Then they moved toward a group of about 100 protesters outside St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters at 1301 First Ave. N. Now a crowd of up to 200 has gathered outside the building.

Police stepped up their presence. Police vehicles blocked the vehicles that were trailing the marchers. Officers in helmets and shields who have been stationed there all day also lined up in formation outside headquarters.

This appears to be the most protesters who have gathered in one spot in St. Petersburg in the past two days.

The crowd has been vocal, and wants the officers’ attention.

“Take a knee,” the crowd chanted toward the police line.

The squad, however, remained standing behind a row of shield-bearing officers.

• • •

UPDATE, 9:45 p.m.: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor imposed a citywide curfew that started at 7:30 p.m. and is supposed to run through 6 a.m.

However, Tampa police don’t appear to be enforcing it.

At E Lake Avenue and N 22nd Street, which is near where police and protesters had several confrontations early Sunday, people were still driving through the intersection and gathering in the area.

“Police are encouraging people to go home on their own, if not they will be subject to arrest,” said Tampa police spokesman Eddy Durkin.

The decision whether to arrest someone for violating curfew will be made by the commander in the field, he said.

Tampa police cleared Curtis Hixon Park in downtown, but haven’t enforced the curfew. Some are even using the Riverwalk.

“You guys might want to leave, 7:30 curfew," a marine officer using a loudspeaker aboard a Tampa police boat in the river told the Riverwalk stragglers.

A handful of people are also still walking around Ybor City.

The last burst of rubber bullets was fired at about 9:30 p.m., in response to someone setting off fireworks at N Tampa Street and E Twiggs Street. The intersection quickly cleared.

• • •

UPDATE, 9:15 p.m.: There is no curfew in St. Petersburg, where dozens of protesters continue to march around downtown.

The crowd moved to Beach Drive NE and lay down on the street between Flute & Dram and the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

“I can’t breathe,” the crowd chanted, repeating the last words George Floyd spoke as a Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee against the back of the handcuffed man’s neck.

It was also the last words of Eric Garner, another unarmed black man who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer placed him in a choke hold.

UPDATE, 9 p.m.: The crowds in East Tampa appear to have dispersed, but a large group of police officers are still blocking the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N 22nd Street.

The situation in downtown Tampa is still volatile. Protester Jordan Coury, 24 was struck with a non-lethal round to the head. Blood soaked the front of his shirt, as Jakob Cuomo, 22, pressed gauze against the wound.

“I’m here to keep this s--- from ... going,” said Coury, who said he served with the Marines. “That s--- clocked me to the ground.”

A group of officers broke from one of their lines at N Ashley Drive and E Polk Street and said they would take Coury to get medical treatment.

• • •

UPDATE, 8:40 p.m.: The crowd of protestors out past curfew in downtown Tampa has grown to around 100 now. Bean bag rounds have been fired again without a clear cause — the rounds came from across the street from where protestors gathered.

A woman just walked around handing out plastic gloves through crowd. Chants of “I can’t breath” and “George Floyd!” have begun.

• • •

UPDATE, 8:30 p.m.: The scene in downtown Tampa has grown more volatile. Protestors rushed incoming police cars, kicking them. Bottles have been thrown at police, and more rubber bullets and pepper spray have been directed at the crowd.

• • •

UPDATE, 8:24 p.m.: Back in downtown Tampa, people just blocked some of the street again. Before, a man came to the front and said “let’s not forget why we’re here ... this is a peaceful protest.” But more police cars are arriving and about 50 people have gathered again.

• • •

UPDATE, 8:12 p.m.: The situation at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard E and 22nd Street N in Tampa has gotten worse, with police advancing on protestors, some firing what appear to be bean bag rounds.

• • •

UPDATE: As of 8 p.m., only a few dozen protestors remain in downtown Tampa and they have moved to the sidewalks. The curfew is not being enforced currently.

• • •

It was a tense Sunday on both sides of the bay as protesters gathered in Tampa and St. Petersburg to continue demonstrating against the toll police violence has taken on African-Americans.

But while they clashed in Tampa and marched in St. Petersburg, there was no repeat of the destruction and arson that marred the previous night.

By 1 a.m. Monday, law enforcement officers on both sides of the bay had broken up the last of the protests and dispersed the crowd.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan promised during a Facebook Live address earlier Sunday afternoon that his officers would take a harder line against the looting and violence of the previous night, and they did. They spent Sunday using tear gas and non-lethal rounds to disperse crowds in East Tampa and downtown.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor also imposed a 7:30 p.m. curfew. Gov. Ron DeSantis dispatched the Florida National Guard. But police appeared to be more focused on dispersing protesters, not enforcing the curfew.

“Police are encouraging people to go home on their own, if not they will be subject to arrest,” said Tampa police spokesman Eddy Durkin. But it was up to field commanders to decide whether to arrest anyone, he said.

While Tampa seemed calm at about 10 p.m., tensions rose a bit in St. Petersburg. The largest group of protesters the city has seen in two days — up to 200 — were gathered outside St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters at 1301 First Ave. N.

The crowd chanted “take a knee” at a row of officers with helmets and shields.

While St. Petersburg has not seen the destruction and confrontations that Tampa has this weekend, that city did see the weekend’s last standoff between officers and protesters.

• • •

Early Sunday, protest organizers in Tampa worked to keep things calm.Black Lives Matter Tampa and 12 other Florida-based civil rights organizations were involved in planning the East Tampa rally. They brought dozens of trained legal observers, safety marshals in orange and yellow vests, and a team of medics to help with crowd control.

“We don’t condone any lawlessness,” the group said in a statement.“You marched here for solidarity work in the black community, which means that if you’re here, you’re not centering your feelings on you,” marshal M. Jose Chapa shouted through a megaphone in Rainbow Heights. “It is a hot day. Please stay hydrated. But if anybody needs help, look to us, and we’re there. We are trained in de-escalation tactics.”

People gathered before noon in Cyrus Greene Park, where clergy members prayed for change and a peaceful day. Organizers encouraged people to register to vote and handed out water bottles and snacks to help people cope with 90-degree weather. Some marchers stopped to fan themselves and others with their signs. Paramedics took one person away on a stretcher who collapsed from the heat.

The organizers also issued a warning to white people in the crowd: If they were here from out of town and looking to cause trouble, they were in the wrong place.

“This is a rebellion against this injustice we’ve been plagued with for 438 years,” said Jarvis El-Amin, vice chair of Masjid An-Nasr mosque in Tampa. “We want equality, love and fairness.”

Johnny Johnson, a protester, moved among crowds reminding people to stay calm and to remember that the day was about uniting and making their voices heard.When asked about the Saturday mayhem, Johnson said: “They can rebuild that, but we can’t bring back lives.”

Many people were wearing masks at the rally, but it was hard to maintain social distancing and stay 6 feet apart. The heat was also a problem.At about 1:45 p.m., they started marching south along N 21st Street chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” By 3 p.m., along N 15th St., it turned to “No justice, no peace!” and “F--k the police!”

• • •

It wasn’t until about 4:15 that the first confrontation ensued at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N 22nd Street.

The crowd chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”Police with shields and riot gear marched to meet them. A loudspeaker declared it an “unlawful assembly.” They were ordered to disperse. When the tear gas and bean bag rounds hit, protesters scrambled into an adjacent cemetery.

Protester Marissa Holloman, 31, said she saw a man in civilian clothing, standing near some officers, unzip his jacket and display a badge. Later, she said she saw that man throw a water bottle into the crowd.“When everybody rushed, that’s when they started with the tear gas,” she said. “These are the same places my grandma had to do bus boycotts. Thirty-one years later, I’m here doing the same thing. It’s got to stop.”

Chaikirah Parker, a leader of the African American Muslim Alliance of Tampa Bay, said that about 20 people who looked like white anarchists showed up as the East Tampa protest was winding down and started antagonizing the police. Organizers tried to lead them to the middle of the intersection and usher them back to the park, but others in the crowd followed their lead in yelling at the police. She told the Tampa Bay Times:

“It’s so disheartening because the whole event was exactly what we expected — which was very well-organized and the protesters were able to protest peacefully and express their outrage and show their solidarity with each other.”

• • •

In downtown Tampa, hundreds marched up the N Ashley Drive ramp onto Interstate 275 at about 6 p.m. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and keep them from blocking the interstate.

They tried again, marching in unison down E Tyler Street and onto N Orange Avenue to reach the interstate.

Tampa police mobilized to stop them. The protesters pulled trash cans into the street and threw water bottles and anything else they could at police vehicles. One protester used a baseball bat.

So it went at the I-275 on-ramp near the Burger King on E Scott Street. Despite protesters’ best efforts, officers beat them to the interstate, blocking their way with police vehicles while wearing riot gear.

Then officers got in formation and, moving shoulder-to-shoulder, forced the crowd to disperse by firing tear gas and non-lethal rounds.The protesters took off in a stampede. Some, who were hit in the legs, hopped their way to safety.The will of the crowd seemed to break. A few tried again, only to be met with more tear gas. One officer used a message to broadcast a message heard over and over again in Tampa:

“This is no longer a lawful assembly ... Force that could cause serious injury could be used if necessary.”

As the protests continued downtown, at about 8 p.m. police in East Tampa moved to retake the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and N 22nd Street after protesters had blocked it with burning tires.They fired bean bag rounds as they marched through the intersection and pushed demonstrators away.

In downtown Tampa, police continued to pressure protesters and had broken up most of the crowds by 9:30 p.m.

• • •

In contrast to Tampa, St. Petersburg experienced peaceful protests on Saturday and Sunday afternoon started no differently.

There, dozens of demonstrators gathered at police headquarters downtown and marched against traffic on First Avenue N, kneeling for a beat at each intersection. The march looped past City Hall and headed south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S.

“I got black sons growing up,” said Turquoise McClendon, 28, of St. Petersburg. “I’m tired of having to explain to them why we can’t do the things other people do.”

While most cars stopped each time the marchers kneeled — some even cheering their support — one driver didn’t heed, inching closer and closer until protesters moved. No one was injured.

When they returned to police headquarters, about two dozen officers in helmets and face shields poured out of the station in formation — an increase in security measures from Saturday. As protesters walked onto the landing at the entrance, police briefly retreated before moving them back toward the street. St. Petersburg police did not want a repeat of what happened in Tampa.

“We saw what’s happening around the Tampa Bay area,” St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Antonio Gilliam said. “We want to maintain peace in St. Pete.”

Protesters handed a bullhorn to Alexandra Asberry, 27.

“When you all were a child, this is what you dreamt of?” she said, then chanted to the crowd: “They got to do better!” she chanted. They backed her up.

That night, they returned to St. Petersburg police headquarters on First Avenue N and demanded that officers show their solidarity with their protest against police brutality and the taking of African-American lives.

Police Chief Tony Holloway came outside and said they “stand with you.”

But he waved off the crowd when someone said actions speak louder than words and that he should take a knee.

Then the crowd tore off the water meter covers and threw them at officers, police said, then followed by rocks and bottles.

Police responded by firing nonlethal rounds and flash grenades.

One officer suffered a minor injury, and a police vehicle window was damaged.

Then St. Petesburg and Pinellas Park officers and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputies started moving on the crowd, marching ahead of a row of police vehicles, emergency lights flashing.

Officers also fanned out along 13th Street N and headed down Central Avenue to break up the crowd The last few were chased away outside Ferg’s Sports Bar by officers carrying riot shields.

St. Petersburg police said 14 people were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the demonstrators threw "rocks, bottles, glass, all kinds of stuff."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was “disappointed” that after two days of mostly peaceful protesting, it ended with a brief clash between officers and demonstrators.

“You know last night there was peaceful protest,” said the mayor, wearing a face mask. "But you can’t have peaceful protest when people are throwing bottles and chunks of concrete and other items at police officers.

“You lose the message. It stops being about the justice for George Floyd and it becomes about violence against police officers and the community, and that’s disappointing."