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Demonstrators march, chant through downtown to support Blackout Tampa

TAMPA — He had some words prepared, but he couldn't look at his speech and speak into a microphone, so Gazi Kodzo just winged it.

"Black lives ain't gonna matter until black power matters," Kodzo, 25, of St. Petersburg shouted to the ring of protesters gathered catty-corner from the Tampa Police Department headquarters.

Nearly 80 people assembled Saturday afternoon at Curtis Hixon Park before marching through downtown for Blackout Tampa, a national event that highlighted police treatment of black Americans and other civil rights issues.

"I'm here because we're demanding our freedom," said Jayson James, 31. "I am tired of every day seeing another black person who is murdered, unarmed, by the police."

The protesters, mainly black but including some whites, wielded signs that read, "Straight outta patience," "They choose if we live or die," and "Don't apologize for your blackness, or your fear."

As they marched single-file toward the police station, the occasional car sounded its horn, eliciting waves of cheer that rose above the city din. "I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win," chanted Crystal Wilson, an activist and University of South Florida student.

She weaved through the crowds with fellow activist Ashley Green, a 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident, sparking small bursts of protest songs.

The overwhelming message? Change comes from the bottom, not the top.

Nia Knighton, 19, the event's main organizer, said it's essential to discuss institutional racism. "But a lot of the time, we forget to talk about the changes we can make after the protests," she said, which include equipping children with black history books and providing after-school programs.

Many of the black protesters said they had not been victims of police brutality. "But I know several friends who have been," said James, of St. Petersburg. He recalled how one of his three brothers was stopped because his windows were "too dark."

Nothing happened, James said, but these minor events continue to inspire a deep fear in the wake of Sandra Bland, a black Texas woman who died in jail shortly after a routine traffic stop.

Outside the police station, the chanting reached a fever pitch, with protesters denouncing the entire American justice system as "guilty as hell."

No one came outside.

After a few minutes of demonstration, they crossed through the green light at Kennedy Boulevard and Franklin Street, disrupting a small line of traffic. The cars idled while throngs of black-clothed protesters crowded the intersection, waving flags and jumping up and down.

"Whose streets?" one protester screamed. "Our streets!" came the hearty reply.

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368. Follow @zackpeterson918.

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