ST. PETERSBURG — After days of protests and confrontations between law enforcement and demonstrators, police leaders changed their tactics Wednesday night, inviting a small group of community leaders and protesters into their headquarters.
The 2-hour conversation — the pre-selected group included about 15 residents, police leaders and city leaders, including Mayor Rick Kriseman — ranged from the protesters’ goals, to the conduct and tactics of demonstrators and officers alike, to larger issues of racism and the criminal justice system.
That is according to participants who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. No journalists were invited to the meeting, and the police department did not release a full list of participants.
Those participants told the Times that the conversation was a good first step, but it needs to continue with a more diverse coalition.
“We have a window of opportunity to make historical steps in this city,” participant Jabaar Edmond, vice president of the Child’s Park Neighborhood Association, told the Times. “These protests are making people feel uncomfortable. In discomfort is when there’s growth."
The conversation took place during the fifth day of largely peaceful protests against police brutality being held around St. Petersburg, Tampa and across the nation. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. An officer who kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes was arrested on a murder charge last week. Three other officers at the scene were arrested this week, facing charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.
Protesters in St. Petersburg have repeatedly rallied in front of the police headquarters at 1301 First Ave., in between marches through downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, after several nights in which police deemed the gatherings unlawful assemblies and broke up crowds with smoke bombs, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway vowed to come outside the police station to talk to protesters every couple hours. But none of the sessions appeared productive, and some demonstrators criticized the talks as staged photo opportunities.
So Holloway tasked his command staff with reaching out to community leaders and protesters to bring the conversation inside the department, and away from the demonstrators, said Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam.
“The chief has tried every day to start a dialogue, and there are some members of the crowd that have been amenable to the conversation," Gilliam said, "but their words have been drowned out by louder, more aggressive individuals.”
Officers started off the conversation by introducing themselves, Gilliam said, then opened the floor to community members. Here’s what the participants told the Times:
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Much of the conversation focused on the protests, particularly on demonstrators marching along city streets and shutting down intersections, despite requests by the police to stay off the roads and use sidewalks.
Edmond, who has also been participating in the protests, pushed back. He said the dozens to hundreds of people who have turned out each day can’t fit on sidewalks. He suggested closing off a block around the police headquarters. There was also discussion about using larger public spaces, such as the Pinellas Trail, as a protest venue.
Two participants said police leaders complained their officers are exhausted. Edmond said that pales in comparison to the decades of racism that black Americans have endured at the hands of police.
“You complain about 18-hour days," said Edmond, 41, "and people are complaining about a lifetime of racial despair.”
Another participant, Temika Vaughn, said she expressed frustration with how police officers have treated peaceful protesters in the streets, compared to how police leaders conduct themselves at news conferences and on TV.
Police leaders voiced a similar frustration with protesters. They complained that demonstrators have thrown rocks and bottles at police, and taunted black officers as sellouts, said Gilliam, who is black. There have also been several arrests on charges of carrying bomb-making materials, throwing firecrackers at police headquarters and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.
However, Gilliam said, at the end of the night officers did a heed a suggestion to avoid using loudspeakers or a bullhorn to address the crowd. Instead, they went into the crowd to tell them to move onto sidewalks — but he said the effort went haywire Wednesday night when a man threw a foam baton round at the chief and an officer spotted a gun tucked into his waistband.
Edmond said he brought up policy changes he’d like to see. Instead of body cameras that only start recording once an officer pulls their gun — a program St. Petersburg police plan to fully implement later this year — he wants cameras that are always recording. He also wants to see an equity audit throughout the department, and city money redirected from the police budget to community social programs.
At least one conversation participant wondered why there weren’t more representatives from the group of young activists who have emerged as drivers of the protest movement.
“More young people who have been out protesting, particularly young black people who have been out protesting, need to be in that room, and I think their voices need to be heard more than the law enforcement officers that were in the room," said Anthony Close, 26, who attended as a protester but who also runs the urban development blog St. Pete Rising.
Gilliam said police have not been able to identify a clear leader of the protests, or even determine what they’re trying to accomplish. He said attempts to invite younger protesters were not successful.
One leader who has emerged is Terron Gland, 31, who has led marches and chants every day and is working on organizing a group called St. Pete Peaceful Protesters. He made contact with police Wednesday when he was detained during a traffic stop. He said he was given summonses to appear in court on a charge of interfering with a traffic stop and was cited for not wearing a seatbelt.
Gilliam said Gland hasn’t been receptive to their overtures. But Gland said Thursday that he didn’t know about the meeting.
“Someone should have contacted me," he said. "I should have been involved.”