The march began at the heart of the criminal justice system, outside Pinellas County’s courthouse and jail.
Nearly 70 people, including public defenders from Pinellas and Pasco counties and their supporters, set off down 49th Street, past the bus stop where formerly jailed people or court visitors often wait on benches. They marched by bail bonds businesses, and one protester carried a sign challenging the existence of the industry: “END CASH BAIL.”
They were the latest group to join ongoing demonstrations against racism and police brutality in the Tampa Bay area and across the country, ignited by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protests also continued in downtown St. Petersburg and around Tampa Monday, the 10th day of local protests that show no signs of stopping.
“We fight for you in court, and we’re going to march with you on the street, too,” said Allison Miller, one of the assistant public defenders who helped organize the march.
She and a group of colleagues planned the march in response to a national movement organized by the National Association for Public Defense. Chief Public Defender Bob Dillinger was not in attendance because he’s on doctor’s orders to stay away from crowds due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But representatives from his office showed up in droves with their own reasons for participating.
Miller pointed to Florida Department of Corrections statistics that show the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit sends more people to prison than any circuit in the state. That figure rose to 2,268 people between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019. The circuit that covers Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties was second, with 2,154 prison admissions. Hillsborough County, which has roughly the same population as Pinellas and Pasco combined, was fourth, with 1,898.
A disproportionate number of prison admissions statewide are black, according to the data. It shows racism doesn’t occur just within police departments, Miller said. It infiltrates the entire criminal justice system. And too often, that systemic racism isn’t called out in the moment.
“This is a time for momentum," she said. “I’d like to see all of the momentum transition into actual change.”
Willengy Ramos, who set the plan for the event in motion, carried a small megaphone, leading chants such as “Whose lives matter?” “Black lives matter!” Her fiancé, Yohance Wicks, marched with the crowd beating a drum with “BLM” taped across the drumhead.
The five-year public defender said that, as an Afro-Latina woman and first-generation American, she’s especially passionate about her job. Her mother is from the Dominican Republic and her father from Puerto Rico.
“Especially as a woman of color, just being able to be a voice for people who can’t advocate for themselves especially is a blessing for me,” she said.
Assistant Public Defender Erin Domaracki held a sign with a message to police: “Why do body cams scare you?” The Tampa Bay area has been slow to adopt the technology.
After nearly five years of waffling, the St. Petersburg Police Department is undergoing a pilot program with the plan to roll out an agency-wide body camera program before the end of the year. It would become the second agency in Pinellas, after the Gulfport Police Department, to adopt the technology. Meantime, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been, and remains, steadfastly against them.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced last week that the city plans to purchase 650 cameras for Tampa police.
“It’s a transparency issue,” Domaracki said, adding that her clients often give different accounts than police.
Joining the march from the 12th Judicial Circuit — just south of Pinellas-Pasco and representing Sarasota, Manatee and De Soto counties — Public Defender Larry Eger said his hope is that the protests are a starting point, not an end point.
Eger said he’s been optimistic for change before but has been let down. He pointed to criminal justice reform bills that failed in the Legislature, or Amendment 4, which was intended to allow formerly incarcerated people to vote but is still undergoing legal challenges by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“It does lend itself to wonder,” Eger said: “What does it take?”