ST. PETERSBURG — After midnight on Sunday morning, in a darkened police station that sat quiet for the first time since the prior morning, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Police Chief Anthony Holloway reflected on a day that brought hundreds to demonstrate in the city’s downtown streets.
Both men were proud, they said, of what had been, considering the possibilities, an uneventful day in the Sunshine City.
Despite hours of demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after he was pinned to the ground under a police officer’s knee for more than eight minutes, local protesters remained calm and nonviolent. The emotionally charged yet peaceful gatherings drew a stark contrast to what played out in Tampa, where a sporting goods store burned down, tear gas was fired and businesses were looted.
There were no rubber bullets or bean bag rounds fired in St. Petersburg on Saturday. No property was damaged. There were only two arrests that officers knew to be connected to the demonstrations. Of the hundreds of demonstrators, the most provocative individuals, the city leaders said, were from out of town.
“I’m proud of the men and women who serve us and do such a great job. They did a great job all day long, incredible amount of professionalism, restraint.” Kriseman said. “I’m proud of the protesters for protesting peacefully. If you’re going to protest, if you protest peacefully, you’re more effective, your message gets heard. When it starts getting violent, your message gets lost. And the impact of it isn’t there. So I’m proud of them.”
It was clear early on that the city sought to police the protesters with a light touch. What became 10 hours of demonstrating began at 2 p.m. at City Hall, where the crowd of hundreds spilled into the street and blocked traffic. There was not a uniformed police officer in sight.
When the crowd marched west to the police station along First Avenue North, officers stopped traffic behind the demonstrators but did not shepherd them. And once they arrived at the city’s brand-new, $79 million police headquarters, not a single officer kept them from congregating right outside the front door. Nor did any of the congregants attempt to get into the building or break the lobby glass.
It was a different tack from Tampa, where on Saturday morning a line of officers with bicycles blocked off the entrance to Tampa’s police headquarters.
“We knew that people wanted to be heard, so we wanted them to be heard," Holloway said, explaining the hands-off approach. “We just want to make sure that they were safe, that the community was safe. ... We decided to stay back, stay out of the way and, again, as long as no one broke the law that they had a right to demonstrate.”
Both men attributed Saturday’s peaceful demonstrations to steps the city and police force have taken to build trust within the community. The 1996 race riots — which broke out after St. Petersburg police shot and killed unarmed teen TyRon Lewis, who was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle that lurched toward an officer during a traffic stop — compelled the police department to more actively engage the city’s ministers. It also spurred the creation of the city’s Civilian Police Review Committee, which reviews complaints and high-profile cases. The city’s social programs like Men in the Making, Cohort of Champions and Not My Son, Kriseman said, which all cater specifically to boys and men of color, has been part of a concerted effort “to try and form that bond with the community that really didn’t exist before.”
“Building a relationship before an incident happens, not trying to build a relationship during an incident," Holloway said.
On Sunday afternoon, the pair reiterated their pride for how the city handled the demonstrations during a news conference inside police headquarters, while a gathering grew outside. Holloway said he wanted to make sure the community knew that an officer kneeling on someone’s neck — which is how former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who now faces a murder charge, subdued Floyd — would not be tolerated within his department.
“We want to tell our people out there that that type of activity, or that type of tactics, will not be used here in the city of St. Petersburg, and that person will be fired if we heard anything about it," he told reporters. "And second thing, if an officer witnessed anything like that, he or she better come forward, and if not, we’re going to find a reason, if I can, to fire that person also.”
“Our job is to keep our community safe, and to make sure the officers understand the tactics that they can and cannot use in the city of St. Petersburg," added Holloway, who was flanked by the mayor and City Council members.
The mayor on Sunday afternoon said his pride didn’t amount to a “victory lap.”
“We recognize that if there’s going to be victory, and something will be won, it’s justice for George Floyd,” he said. "It’s that we don’t have any other incidents similar to George Floyd in our society. Then we can declare victory, when we have true equity. When the color of someone’s skin isn’t how they’re judged, then we have victory that starts happening here.”
Saturday wasn’t without its tense moments. After walking through downtown and along Beach Drive, the crowd, which by 9 p.m. had thinned to several dozen, marched south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street South. Police tailed them, blocking traffic behind them until about Sixth Avenue South, at which point officers parked and let the march go on. Soon after, the officers pulled away.
But the march turned around at around at about 15th Avenue South and headed north. When the crowd, tailed by a cadre of honking cars, reached Ninth Avenue South where King Street South becomes a one-way road, traffic was allowed to flow. The result was that marchers walked against traffic, and cars ended up nose-to-nose.
“We just started looking at where they going and how much resources we’re going to put into this,” Holloway said early Sunday, acknowledging it was his decision to have the officers stop trailing the march at Sixth Avenue South. “Because we weren’t going to follow them all around the city because after a while it was going to go bananas.”
And later that night, when the marchers returned to the police station, they were met by a much heavier police presence, including about two dozen officers standing in formation on the landing in front of the door, wearing helmets and face shields — though they did not have full riot gear. In the back, one officer held what appeared to be a rifle with an orange tip that an officer later said likely fired bean bag rounds.
Holloway, who stood among his officers on the landing, at one point tried to reason with the group. Some in the crowd were receptive to his address, while others — whom Holloway told to “shut up” — tried to shout the chief down.
“You know who we are,” he told the crowd Saturday night. "We’re here for safety. You know how we roll.”
Minutes later, in what felt like a particular moment of tension, officers in patrol vehicles inched closer, the cruisers’ sirens wailing with each creep forward. The maneuver effectively boxed the crowd in. The action drew the crowd in front of the cars to prevent further advance, and demonstrators chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The crowd left at about midnight, by then just two or three dozen, and walked into the night down 16th Street South.
In total, two faced arrest — one person was taken into custody after jumping on a car, while an intoxicated man was arrested after he accosted a demonstrator who was heading for their car. Police also said there were some commercial burglaries late at night that they can’t confirm were related to the demonstrations.
Holloway said his strategy for Sunday — with more demonstrations promised — will be the same as Saturday, so long as things stay peaceful. But, he warned: “If someone wants to try to cause property damage, or try to hurt someone, we’re going to do what we need to do as a law enforcement agency.”