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Activists protest symbols of oppression in Tampa, burn American flag

TAMPA — Surrounded by nearly 50 activists, Crystal Wilson steadied a small American flag in one hand, and a lighter in the other.

"The American flag holds as much hatred, as much oppression, as much blood as the Confederate flag," said Wilson, 25.

She sparked the lighter, guiding the small flame to the red, white and blue cloth. It caught fire, and burned away the flecks of fabric.

Another activist raised two smaller flags to the fire, and a third raised a full-sized American flag to the conflagration.

Together, the emblems of freedom withered into tiny black bits on the sidewalk.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning an American flag in protest is a form of political speech protected under the First Amendment.

Protesters gathered Friday evening at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to stand in solidarity with the Charleston, S.C., victims and to denounce monuments they say commemorate white supremacy.

"Who's ready to take the flag down on I-4?" Alekos Zambrano shouted into a bullhorn. The 24-year-old activist and former journalist represented Raíces en Tampa, an organization that focuses on empowering Latino immigrants. "Who's ready to change the name of the Robert E. Lee school?" he continued. "Who's ready to burn some symbols of hate?"

The circle of activists cheered, then broke into a chorus of "Black lives matter! Black lives matter!" Several speakers passed the bullhorn to share their thoughts on racism, oppression and Charleston. They also burned Confederate flags.

The flag burning comes in the wake of the racially motivated shooting at a famous Charleston church that left nine black men and women dead. Since then, debate has reignited over whether to remove the Confederate flag, long considered a controversial symbol.

The debate has touched down in Hillsborough County, one of the latest Southern governments to confront it. For two decades, a version of the flag has hung in government headquarters. When they next meet July 15, county commissioners will consider removing it.

For the activists gathered Friday night, the message was clear: Eradicate all symbols of oppression, and be forthright about each act of violence.

"Dylann Roof murdering black people in a black church is racism," Danya Zituni, a 19-year-old University of South Florida student, said during her speech.

Wilson, a USF student who is black, said she wished to be freed from symbols of oppression because she's tired of being scared, tired of watching people being frisked in Sulphur Springs.

"Are we really free?" she asked the crowd.

"No!" they shouted.

"And are we really brave?" she asked.