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Topher Morrison, who championed pedestrians in run for mayor, gets pepper-sprayed by driver

He could use his mouth if not his eyes after he was pepper-sprayed by a driver so Topher Morrison took to Facebook live in a plea for civility. [Facebook]
He could use his mouth if not his eyes after he was pepper-sprayed by a driver so Topher Morrison took to Facebook live in a plea for civility. [Facebook]
Published Jul. 12, 2019

TAMPA — Standing on the sidewalk as pepper spray stung his eyes, Topher Morrison decided to turn his attack into a teachable moment.

Moments earlier, the 50-year-old business consultant and former Tampa mayoral candidate was riding his motorized, single-wheeled board through the Channel District when he got into an argument with a motorist and it escalated.

The driver sprayed Morrison with pepper spray and sped off.

As he waited for police to arrive, Morrison started streaming live on Facebook to relay the experience and expound on the "battle between cars and pedestrians."

"We can always disagree, but we don't need to be trying to violently hurt people just because they don't share the same use of transportation that you do," Morrison says into the camera, his eyes squeezed shut.

Going live on Facebook might not be everyone's next move. But this is a former candidate for Tampa mayor who put forth a 23-page plan on how to improve transportation by, in part, making city streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists and people using alternative modes of transportation like electric scooters.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to remind people that it doesn't have to get this out of hand," Morrison said in an interview.

The incident unfolded about 6 p.m. Wednesday as Morrison was crossing Meridian Avenue at Kennedy Boulevard, according to an account he gave Tampa police. He was riding his Onewheel, a battery-powered device with one wheel that operates like a Segway — lean forward to go forward, lean back to slow down.

READ MORE: Topher Morrison asks Tampa to do the "impossible": Elect him mayor

Morrison, who hasn't owned a car in nearly a decade, got the board a few months ago to zip back and forth to work and to make other short trips around downtown.

"They're pretty addictive," he said. "You feel like a teenager when you're on one."

The Onewheel has a top speed of nearly 20 mph, but Morrison said he never goes that fast. He moves especially slowly when he's crossing streets.

When the traffic light changed and Morrison got the "walk" signal, he started to cross Meridian. The driver of a black sedan approached the intersection to turn south from Kennedy onto Meridian. Morrison made eye contact with the driver — a white, muscular, bald man in his 30s or 40s — and held up his hand.

"He just kept going and came within two or three feet of me and I immediately started shouting," Morrison said. "He immediately started shouting back at me."

READ MORE: Topher Morrison was a big-time hypnotist. Now he's running for Tampa mayor

Morrison stopped to avoid colliding with the driver's side of the car, then glanced at the walk signal. At that point, the signal was counting down the seconds remaining before the light would change. It was in the high 20s, Morrison said.

The driver shouted that the countdown meant Morrison shouldn't have been crossing. Morrison shouted back that he had the right of way, then maneuvered around the back of the car and headed south on the sidewalk along Meridian.

The driver followed alongside him. The two men exchanged more swear-laced shouting.

As Morrison approached Jackson Street, the man pulled over and said something like, "Come here, I have something to show you," Morrison said. Morrison ignored him and headed west on Jackson.

As he crossed the railroad tracks, he realized the man had also turned onto Jackson, driving the wrong way on the one-way street. Morrison remembers hoping the guy didn't have a gun. The man raised a large can and shot a stream out of his passenger window.

"Before I even inhaled it, I knew what it was," Morrison said. "Thankfully, it wasn't a direct hit in my eyeballs. As soon he sprayed it, he just sped off. By then I was already going blind and choking."

Morrison tried to use the facial recognition feature to unlock his phone but it didn't work, likely because he couldn't open his eyes.

READ MORE: Tampa election 2019 Results: Mayor, City Council and amendments

Scott Laval was walking along Meridian when he caught a whiff of chemicals in the air, then turned the corner onto Jackson and saw Morrison covering his eyes with hands. Morrison was trying without success to get his iPhone Siri to call 911, Laval said.

Laval offered to help. Once Morrison introduced himself, Laval said, he wasn't surprised when the former candidate asked for help setting up a Facebook Live session.

Laval, 43, told the Times he liked what he heard from Morrison about his pedestrian-friendly ideas. He said he might have voted for Morrison in the mayoral elections earlier this year but was out of the country. Morrison finished last among seven candidates.

"I wanted to help him do whatever he wanted to do," Laval said.

Morrison described his ordeal in the two-minute video and gave some advice.

"Listen, folks, I get it," he said. "You may not like micromobility, you may not like the scooters, you may not like Onewheels, you may not like skateboards, you may not like people just walking their dogs. But you don't have to spray them with pepper spray," he said. "Let's all just take it down a notch."

A Tampa police officer drove Morrison home and took a statement. Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said the department is investigating the incident.

Morrison said his eyes are fine. He wants his assailant caught, but he also hopes the story serves as a cautionary tale for motorists at a time when more bikes, electric scooters and pedestrians are competing for space on the road.

"We're not asking drivers to do anything they're not already supposed to be doing," he told the Times, "which is drive slow, be cautious, look out for pedestrians and give the right of way."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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