NAACP continues to question police presence at Martin Luther King Jr. Day after-party

The local chapter of the NAACP held a meeting Saturday to discuss the police presence during the MLK Jr. Day parade after-party. (Facebook)
The local chapter of the NAACP held a meeting Saturday to discuss the police presence during the MLK Jr. Day parade after-party. (Facebook)
Published Feb. 3, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — More than two dozen community members packed into a room at the Enoch Davis Center agreed: The feeling at the Martin Luther King Jr. parade after-party in Midtown was more "police state" than celebration.

It had been just more than two weeks since the parade, since the blur of police lights and confusion as streets that had historically remained open for post-parade neighborhood parties were closed to traffic.

But time had only tempered frustrations so much.

Local NAACP chapter president Maria L. Scruggs led the three-hour emotional discussion Saturday that spanned perceived missteps of the police department, broader issues of institutional racism in the city and what could be done to ensure MLK Day 2019 would be a celebration representative of the man for which it's named.

Jan. 15, 2018, Scruggs said, was not that. Instead, she said, her community was left feeling disenfranchised, belittled and baffled.

Next, she said, she would be working on a summary of the meeting for the NAACP's legal defense fund, which will determine if any civil rights were violated and a lawsuit is warranted.

Ultimately, much of the room agreed, some kind of community group should take ownership of the celebration and its block parties, which have no single sponsor or representative.

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway and City Council members Amy Foster and Steve Kornell sat among the frustrated residents.

Emotions grew as multiple residents questioned why, after three years without major incidents, police closed streets and had so many visible patrols.

"It came without warning," said Trinia Cox, another NAACP leader. "It also came without justification. The changes were in response to what? .?.?. It created a feeling for me that I did not want to feel in 2018."

Holloway, who is black, took the microphone and echoed sentiments he has maintained since the controversy erupted.

"I take responsibility," he told the group. "My staff made the plan and I looked at the plan."

He said that the staffing for the "parade, the after-party and the after-after-party" had been the same for 20 years — something with which much of the room disagreed.

He said the traffic changes were in response to some residents who didn't like the all-night party going on in their streets when they have to work the next day.

While officers have usually been out until 1 a.m. during the block parties, this year Holloway said the area was cleared by 9:30 p.m.

He regretted that the traffic changes were not announced to the community. He also responded to claims that officers asked for IDs before allowing people on closed streets to get home, saying that shouldn't have happened.

"I'm looking for some people to correct what we did do wrong," Holloway told the crowd. "We have been doing the same thing for 20 years. Guess what? We've been doing it wrong."

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Before the meeting, Holloway told the Tampa Bay Times he thought community members were doing the right thing by holding the debriefing. He hoped that a group willing to take ownership of the event — the way it's done for other big events such as St. Pete Pride — would come from it. Local leaders have expressed interest in forming a task force to explore organizing the after-party.

Scruggs wanted to know what the city and Police Department's plans are for handling major events, and if what they did on MLK Day is consistent with that.

"If there was a variation, why?" she asked. "What was the justification for it?"

She was disappointed that no representatives from Mayor Rick Kriseman's office participated in the discussion.

Kriseman did attend an explosive City Council meeting Jan. 18, when residents said they felt like officers were at the after-party to provoke — not to protect and serve.

Holloway said he would be having his own meeting with his staff on Monday to relay what he learned Saturday and continue his conversations with the NAACP.

After the meeting, Scruggs said she thought the conversation was productive.

"Today allowed people whose voices wanted to be heard to have been heard," she said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.