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Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

Three organizers were arrested or cited by police this week. They believe they were targeted because they’re helping lead demonstrations against police brutality.

A peaceful protest march through Tampa erupted into chaos Thursday, landing a lead demonstrator in jail on a charge of inciting a riot.

But the defendant, Emadi Okwuosa, tells a different story, this one of police escalation, junk charges and an attempt by Tampa police to squash the protests against police brutality that he and a handful of others have organized and led over several days.

“They’re tired of us,” said Okwuosa, 22. “They just want to go back to their normal lives and ignore all the problems that we’re bringing up.”

Okwuosa was the third protest organizer in Tampa Bay to find himself arrested or cited by police this week. Joining him were Anthony Koedel and Terron Gland in St. Petersburg.

All three organizers told the Tampa Bay Times that they question the justification for their charges and poked holes in the official police account of events.

They believe they were targeted because of their leadership roles in the now week-long demonstrations, which join protests nationwide in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“Maybe they felt like if they could take me,” Gland said, “they would take power from the people.”

Related: Tampa Bay agencies say they urge officers to report, stop police brutality when they see it

Koedel was the first. The 29-year-old Tampa resident was arrested Tuesday on a felony charge of inciting an affray or riot. A St. Petersburg officer wrote in an arrest report that protests he organized devolved into demonstrators throwing projectiles at police and driving past barricades.

His arrest report also mentions a traffic stop in which three people were found in possession of Molotov cocktail-making materials. Police have repeatedly declined to say whether there is evidence tying Koedel to the trio. But Koedel denied any involvement.

In a text to the Times, he said police arrested him “because I was the organizer of St. Pete’s protest ... They were trying to build a case against me by lying.”

Anthony Koedel was arrested on a charge of inciting a riot while leading protests this week. A screen grab from his Facebook Live stream shows him at a recent protest in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Anthony Koedel ]

Then came Gland. In recent days the 31-year-old has emerged as a leader of St. Petersburg’s peaceful protest movement. He said he is not affiliated with Koedel.

During Wednesday’s demonstrations, Gland said he was riding with his aunt and niece on their way to a dinner break. He was in the passenger seat and others rode in the pickup bed. They were headed west on Central Avenue, Gland said, when a St. Petersburg police car sped east toward them. They stopped and Gland said he got out and grabbed his niece, fearing a collision.

Related: St. Pete police, residents talk protests. But where is the new protest generation?

The officer stopped, ran up to him and ordered him back into the truck, Gland said. He said he put his hands up and got on his knees. The officer asked for his identification. Gland refused, saying it was in his pocket and he didn’t want the officer to mistakenly think he was reaching for a weapon.

Gland ended up with a notice to appear in court on a charge of resisting police without violence — and a citation for not wearing a seatbelt.

St. Petersburg police declined to answer questions about why the vehicle was pulled over. Gland said he was told that it was because there were people standing up in the bed of the truck.

But he said he was the only person the officer addressed during the encounter.

“You could tell: He didn’t want nobody but me,” Gland said.

Terron Gland, 31 of St. Petersburg, stands Monday at the intersection of Central Avenue and 16h Street S and 18th Avenue South in St. Petersburg as he helps lead a protest against police violence. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

And then there was Okwuosa, who has repeatedly called for protesters to use peaceful tactics of civil disobedience. His arrest report states that “the protest became violent when items were thrown at police officers” and Okwuosa was “yelling through a megaphone inciting the crowd to throw objects.”

Okwuosa didn’t know what his arrest report said until a Times reporter read it to him on Friday.

“What?” he said, then took a moment to compose himself.

“It’s baffling to me that they can lie so bluntly. It’s baffling to me that they can literally create stories against us.”

Related: Here’s how police are charging protesters, when they’re charging them at all

A Times reporter asked Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan at his Friday news conference whether his officers were targeting protest leaders.

"I don't know that part,” he said. “I know we arrested one who had a bullhorn who maybe he made himself an organizer."

University of South Florida assistant professor David Ponton III, who is an expert on race and police brutality, said protest leaders have long been singled out by the authorities.

“It’s no longer a matter of debate among historians whether police target protest and movement organizers during periods of unrest,” Ponton said. "The evidence of abuse of power by police in these instances is overwhelming and harrowing.”

Okwuosa was one of three arrested when officers moved on protesters as they headed toward Tampa Heights on Thursday. Stephanie Sanchez, 21, and a 17-year-old were also arrested, each on two misdemeanor counts of assault on a law enforcement officer.

The arrests were made as the protest group walked toward an interstate exit ramp. Okwuosa said the plan was to go only as far as the ramp — and not onto Interstate 275 — and pause for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the duration that a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck.

Then the teen was swarmed by officers and arrested. A viral video shows the teen, who the Times is not identifying because of her age, on the ground with four officers surrounding her and others quickly dispersing the demonstrators with pepper spray.

Related: A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests

The teen was “thrusting the metal tip of an umbrella toward the face of a police officer who was on a bicycle,” according to Tampa police. Sanchez tried to hit two officers, police said.

Okwuosa and Sanchez both challenged the police narrative, saying the scuffle with the 17-year-old started because an officer on a bike tried to grab the teen’s umbrella out of her hand and she refused to let go.

“And that’s when the protest turned into chaos, at that very moment when it was aggravated by them,” Okwuosa said.

From there, he tried to reorganize the group, directing them first to a Burger King parking lot nearby, then, as the chaos intensified, to return to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

As he was yelling, he said three police cars surrounded him and officers arrested him. He yelled at his friend, Sanchez, to start recording. A video she shared with the Times shows Okwuosa face down on the ground as three officers handcuffed him.

“Emadi!” she screams, as an officer walks up and tells her, “Get back.”

She told the Times she was kneeling while recording the video, then an officer put his knee to her back and pushed her down before cuffing her.

She was also flabbergasted by the police account of her arrest and denied she tried to hit any officers.

“I just saw my best friend right in front of me and knew I had to document it,” Sanchez said, “because God knows what would have happened.”

Times staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.