Counter-protesters confront St. Pete demonstrators on busy Saturday night

At one point, a man aimed a gun at protesters, video broadcast on Facebook shows.
Published Sept. 28, 2020|Updated Jan. 28, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Demonstrators protesting racial injustice marched down Beach Drive Saturday night, as they have almost every evening since May.

This time, counter-protesters came to meet them.

The counter-protesters arrived waving American flags and wearing “Defend Police” t-shirts. At least one had a weapon, according to Facebook Live broadcasts.

They reminded protesters they knew their names and personal information. In one instance shown on video, a counter-protester told a man he knew where his mother lived. In another, he told protesters Child Protective Services would be called on them.

At one point, a man brandished a handgun and pointed it at the protesters, according to two different videos that were posted to Facebook. No shots were fired.

Shortly before, protesters say and video shows, the man shoves a woman to the ground.

The incident reflects a new chapter for the St. Pete Peace Protest, which has marched for more than 120 days since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody.

“The protesters deal with this level of intimidation and aggression at all times, but this is the first time that they’ve faced physical violence,” said Bryan Wombough, an independent documentarian who broadcast part of the encounter last night on Facebook Live.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is investigating.

In a press release Sunday, the agency said social media videos showed a protester pulling out a small knife before the counter-protester pulled the gun. The department did not provide any video evidence in support of the claim, citing the ongoing investigation.

The situation unfolded while downtown was packed with people crowding into bars and restaurants the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted all remaining statewide coronavirus restrictions — allowing bars and restaurants to return to normal capacity.

It is unclear whether the counter-protesters are affiliated with a larger group.

A Facebook Live video posted by counter-protester Jonathan Riches shows them walking by people dining at restaurants, telling them they are there to protect them from harassment and to stop protesters from blocking traffic.

Riches, who has more than 2 million followers on Facebook and is well-known for filing thousands of lawsuits, many of which were deemed frivolous and dismissed, could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

Some demonstrators said counter-protesters have been attending Black Lives Matter protests in New Port Richey.

They showed up in St. Petersburg days after the Tampa Bay Times published a video of a tense exchange between protesters and a couple dining at an outdoor table at Parkshore Grill on Beach Drive.

Aaron Gilmore, who has been protesting in St. Petersburg for months, said seeing the counter-protesters on Beach Drive put him on edge.

“It freaks me out,” he said. “We’ve never had a riot, never had guns drawn in a protest. During this whole process this year, none of this happened.”

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Another protester, Kimberly Cox, said she ended up in the hospital after one of the counter-protesters shoved her to the ground. Her arm was already in a sling. She said she suffered a concussion and additional soft tissue damage.

Cox plans to press charges, she added.

In the video posted by Riches, a counter-protester — who appears to be wearing the same clothes as the man who later pointed a gun at protesters — can be seen reaching for a gun in the back of his pants while talking to a Black man getting out of his car.

The man gets back in his car and the counter-protester leaves his gun where it is.

“Seeing him so ready to grab his gun at different points, that is the most frightening thing,” Wombough said, after watching the video.

After the man pointed a gun at protesters, Riches continued to follow and film protesters. As protesters took a knee for a moment of silence, Riches shouted out the name of someone he recognized.

“Where’s your kid?” he asked, threatening to call Child Protective Services.

A St. Petersburg police officer, whose badge could not be identified on the video, arrived.

“We need everybody to just relax here,” he said. “We have been watching this.”

The counter-protesters shouted questions at the officer and pleaded with him to stop the protesters from blocking traffic.

The officer asked if they had been paying attention to the national news.

“Everybody has been protesting,” he said. “Does that really disturb you all so much?”

He calmly asked them to disperse.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not include Bryan Wombough’s full name. At the time, he did not provide it to the Times.