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Somber St. Pete Pride parade shows resilience after Orlando shootings (w/photos, video)

ST. PETERSBURG

It was a few days before Saturday's St. Pete Pride when Johnathan Alicea stopped and reconsidered his favorite tradition.

He and friend Patrick Eisele of Tampa celebrated Pride Month in Orlando hours before a gunman opened fire in the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and injuring 53 in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Alicea said he was sipping a vodka and cranberry at Pulse's bar and dancing with Eisele until they decided to visit another club around 11:30 p.m., less than three hours before the shooting began around 2 a.m. June 12.

Pure chance kept him from the massacre at a place where he had always felt safe being himself. Was it too soon to chance it again at Florida's largest celebration of gay pride?

But on Saturday morning, Alicea, 52, pulled out the face paint and rainbow board shorts, grabbed Eisele, who lives a floor up, and headed downtown.

"We had to come here just to show that we're not alone, that we can be free, that they can't win," Alicea said.

St. Pete Pride showered downtown with dancing, music, glitter, color and a robust parade on Saturday despite the sweltering heat, against threatening rain clouds and in the face of worldwide heartbreak felt weeks earlier. The shooting's undeniable undertone was evident in the sea of "We are Orlando" T-shirts, the notable police presence and the counselors set up on Central Avenue ready to talk.

This year was just different, said Dwayne Shepherd of St. Petersburg. But it was empowering.

"This is about gay rights and human values," Shepherd said. "We celebrate every year. We celebrate every day."

Positive Valere chose Pride weekend to open his Island Vibz shop on Central Avenue to show his support for the community. A message was draped over Brian Barker's First Avenue N law office parking lot sign as a gesture: "In honor of the Orlando victims, parking is free during Pride weekend."

Even the handful of token protesters seemed more insignificant this year to Bret Freeman, 37, of Tampa.

About four men stood on 27th Street, one holding a "The end is near" sign, and screamed into a microphone, "You are not good people, you are wicked, you are evil!"

Freeman stopped across the street with his husband, Tim Hembree, and a few friends to listen for a minute. He sipped a mango smoothie from a whole pineapple, tapped his foot to the radio music nearby that almost drowned out the protests and wondered how they could spew hate, especially after the shock of Orlando.

"I feel sad for them," Freeman said. "The gay community has been very good for a very long time at deflecting that type of negativity. Look at how our world has changed in 30, 40 years. Now we can be married. We never would have been able to do this before. We have to show our strength as a community."

Although the daytime block party and evening parade went on with no major disturbances or arrests, St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said officials prepared like never before.

The area was under surveillance from three skywatch towers, extra trailers of cameras borrowed from Tampa Police Department, an undercover officer operation and help from the FBI, Homeland Security, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Our security is highly unusual for a parade event," Fernandez said.

The risk was on the minds of Paul Zullo, 32, and Pitut Suwanasung, 38, of Palm Harbor, but they felt the need for solidarity was more important. Dressed in matching rainbow sunglasses, beads and T-shirts declaring "love always wins," they attended Pride for the first time because of the Orlando massacre.

"We felt like we have to do more to support the community after we saw what happened in Orlando, but we couldn't tell our family we came here," Zullo said. "They were very nervous about it for our safety."

About five blocks were converted into a daytime block party with food trucks, and restaurants and shops draped rainbow flags and banners along storefronts, turning the city streets into a place to dance and lounge. Around sunset, the parade began solemnly.

People silently carried signs with names of each of the victims killed at Pulse. Some raised their cups to the names as they watched them pass by.

A mass of people raising candles to the sky followed, waving to the crowd of thousands.

But it didn't take long for the parade to pick up tempo.

Rainbow flags twirled and horns beeped as the crowd ushered in the next wave of pride.

Bubbles floated above motorcyclists' heads as they revved their engines and pressed on their horns.

Marchers threw beads to the loudest screams in the crowd.

"It's important for everybody to come out because if people don't come out, they win," Tom Dibenedetto said. "Everybody has to come out and show we're not afraid."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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