ST. PETERSBURG — Friday morning, when Gov. Ron DeSantis was set to speak in a Beach Drive ballroom, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s right hand man, Kevin King, sent out Facebook messages asking for protesters to appear outside the the event.
“Governor apparently coming to St Pete around noon at Birchwood to cause trouble if you feel like secretly getting a group together,” he wrote to Susan McGrath, former chair of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.
“Could use some Wear a Mask signs," wrote King, whose title is chief of policy and public engagement and who said his job is to run the day to day operations of the Mayor’s Office. “Or Fix Florida First."
DeSantis was in St. Petersburg that day to announce he was moving the state into phase three of its reopening plan, effectively eliminating all measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, including statewide capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars. Kriseman, a Democrat, has criticized the Republican governor’s leadership during the coronavirus, including his inaccessibility and often confusing executive orders.
That King would call for demonstrators, while the administration is also grappling with how to respond to heightened tensions surrounding the ongoing protests of racial injustice, incensed Rev. Andy Oliver, the progressive pastor at Allendale United Methodist Church.
Oliver regularly marches with the St. Petersburg protesters. He included a screenshot of the messages in a Saturday morning email to Kriseman, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway and the eight City Council members.
“I want to point out a bit of hypocrisy from the administration that wants restaurants on Beach Drive to be off limits to protests unless said protest involves a Republican governor,” Oliver wrote.
Reached by phone Monday, some council members said they too were irked by King’s messages. As was Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association President Jonathan Vazquez, who commented Tuesday.
News of King’s Facebook messages were first reported by Politico. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday, King referred to his Politico comments.
"We mobilize advocates for causes all the time,” King told Politico writer Matt Dixon. “We wanted people to remind the governor it’s important to wear a mask.”
“It was policy focused,” King told Dixon. “We would never encourage political activity from city hall.”
Nonetheless, the messages landed King in hot water with his boss, who said he did not direct King to ask for demonstrators.
“It was not an official message representing the city, and he’s been counseled accordingly,” Kriseman told the Times. “We’ve had a discussion about that, and it’s made very clear that that’s not to happen.”
McGrath could not be reached for comment. Politico reported that she said King’s attempt to draw protesters to the DeSantis event wasn’t newsworthy.
For Oliver, the context around King’s messages is key.
On Wednesday, after officials in Kentucky announced that a grand jury had declined to charge any officers in the death of Breonna Taylor — fatally shot by Louisville police when they initiated a “no-knock” warrant on her apartment — the St. Petersburg Peace Protest marched in outrage.
While the marches, which have been a fixture in downtown St. Petersburg since after the death of George Floyd, have with few exceptions been entirely peaceful, Wednesday’s protest made national news. Video captured by a Times reporter went viral, showing a confrontation between protesters and diners on Beach Drive. The groups exchanged harsh words, but nobody was hurt and no property was damaged. The following day, Kriseman tweeted that he supports peaceful protesters but that “We will never support or tolerate lawbreakers who wish to dishonor the life of Breonna Taylor or anyone else.”
That’s the hypocrisy, said Oliver, who added that he believes DeSantis' handling of the pandemic is a valid reason to protest.
“When I saw that the administration was trying to promote people to get out and protest Gov. DeSantis and less than 24 hours earlier had spoken out against a protest by young people for Black lives, the blatant hypocrisy was disgusting," Oliver said by phone Monday.
DeSantis' office echoed Oliver’s concerns, saying the mayor “decried” the protests on Beach Drive the night before. “So it’s curious his own chief of staff would be trying to gin up the same thing,” said spokesman Fred Piccolo.
King on Tuesday told the Times he sought to “get a couple people together to remind the governor to wear a mask, it wasn’t to organize a protest.”
About 15 protesters did show up to demonstrate in North Straub Park across the street from the Birchwood. Some held signs that said “DeSantis Lies, Floridians Die.” Neither Oliver nor King knew if they were there in response to King’s callout.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Ed Montanari said he was “mad” about the messages, asking “Is this what the chief of staff does, organize protests?”
He added that King’s messages were unfair to the city’s police department.
“If Kevin is out there organizing protests, and we have to have officers out there putting their lives at risk, it’s just not fair at all," said Montanari, who had not spoken to King. "I don’t like it, I don’t like it one bit.”
Holloway, the police chief, declined to address Montanari’s comments, referring them to King: “He put it out there, that’s something he needs to address."
But Vazquez, the union president, said he agreed with Montanari. Vazquez said the department deployed more officers to the Birchwood upon seeing demonstrators across the street. He didn’t know either if they were there because of King’s request.
“I don’t see why it was something that someone out of the mayor’s office should be calling for,” Vazquez said.
City Council member Robert Blackmon said King’s callout “muddies the message” of the ongoing protests, which seek racial equity and are not organized by city officials. King said he has not tried to organize demonstrations before.
“The effectiveness of the protest is their organic nature," Blackmon said. "I think it takes away from the messaging when you have outside influences.”
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.