ST. PETERSBURG — Thursday’s City Council meeting was interrupted by a series of online trolls who hurled hate and racial epithets at council members.
They took over the meeting during a public comment period, forcing the meeting into a two-hour recess after it had barely begun. When council members returned, Chair Ed Montanari decided to defer all business except for updates on the racial equality protests that have persisted in the city for almost two weeks and the state of COVID-19 within the city.
It was the first time a virtual public meeting in St. Petersburg has been subject to this kind of trolling, sometimes called Zoom bombing. And it came while St. Petersburg and cities across the country are confronted with protests, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, seeking racial justice and equality, particularly as it relates to policing and the police department.
The trouble began about 1:45 p.m., after the Pledge of Allegiance and while council members were discussing the consent agenda. A number of people indicated on Zoom that they would like to speak, as is their right. Most often, consent agenda items are not controversial.
The clerk began calling speakers, including one person who said he lived in Tennessee and another who said he lived at 11 Beetlejuice Ave., which is not a real address in St. Petersburg.
“I just want to comment on the racial violence going on in your city …” the person from Tennessee said, before using the n-word, a racial slur against black people.
“F--k you f--k you, you can’t mute me, bitch. Kill all —" and then he was cut off from speaking.
There has been little violence in St. Petersburg related to the ongoing protests, which began May 30. There were instances last week of protesters lighting fireworks and throwing objects at the police station and officers. One night, police said they found a gun on a protester who was taken into custody. Yet, protesters in St. Petersburg have not engaged in rioting or property damage, and almost all of the demonstrations have been peaceful.
The outbreak at Thursday’s meeting caused City Clerk Chan Srinivasa to remind people that obscenities are not permitted during public comment. He tried to ask people about which particular consent agenda item they wished to speak. But his efforts did little to quell the barrage.
Someone who identified themselves as Jacob Henderson spoke third. He said he wanted to kill all black people, using the racial slur.
The outbursts appeared to deeply affect council members, including Robert Blackmon, who was in tears.
“We need to get this under control,” Council member Darden Rice said after Henderson spoke.
Blackmon and Rice are both white. Two City Council members, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders, are black.
Council Chair Ed Montanari asked the city’s attorney, Jackie Kovilaritch, if she had any guidance. Kovilaritch said that anyone who wanted to speak on an agenda item has a legal right to be heard. They can only be cut off once it’s apparent they’re not on topic.
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At that point, 12 people had raised their hands to speak.
The council decided to take a recess, during which Mayor Rick Kriseman weighed in on Facebook, referencing a threat against him he perceived during the meeting. It was not immediately clear that any of the speakers threatened the mayor.
“Today’s virtual city council meeting was crashed by racists who attempted to use their allotted time to spew hateful and repulsive words and call for individuals, including African Americans and the mayor, to be killed,” he wrote. “Those who broke the law will be held accountable. Those attempting to agitate and be hurtful should feel shame and know that they are not welcome in the City of St. Petersburg. This is a time for peace and healing and moving toward a better and fairer society for African Americans. Anything less is unacceptable here.”
Police officials said they are looking into whether any laws were violated.
The incident was similar to something that played out on Tuesday at a Providence, Rhode Island budget meeting, which was also held on Zoom, according to upriseri.com. Public commenters lobbed hateful rhetoric in the meeting, including someone who identified himself as “Brian Paterson” and also claimed to be from Tennessee.
And later Thursday evening, A Zoom meeting that Pasco County School District superintendent Kurt Browning held with about 230 parents to talk about returning to school campuses was Zoom-bombed with racist rants and pornographic images. The meeting was quickly shut down.
St. Petersburg’s council meeting resumed at about 4:30 p.m. Montanari announced all business planned for the meeting would be deferred, except for the two reports, and that because there were no votes, public comment would be suspended. Council member Amy Foster objected, noting that there had been legitimate people on the call since 1:30 p.m. who wished to speak.
Kriseman hopped back on the Zoom call as the meeting wrapped up, “just to express my outrage and disgust by what went on."
Figgs-Sanders said she was disappointed that City Council allowed the Zoom trolls to disrupt the meeting.
“You can’t move us. We’re here to do a job. We’re going to make sure that we serve our constituents, regardless of the hate,” she said. "Let’s move forward, because they were irrelevant, we have work to do.”
Times staff writers Kathryn Varn and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.