ST. PETERSBURG — Police chief Anthony Holloway said his officers should have found and questioned the man seen aiming a gun at protesters on Saturday night.
“We made a mistake,” Holloway told the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce during a Zoom call on Tuesday. "That officer in the area should have at least stopped that suspect that night and got his information. That subject shouldn’t have gotten away from us.
“We were there, and we should have taken action.”
The chief said there will be an increased police presence this coming weekend. He also had a message for the counter-protesters who repeatedly sought out the St. Pete Peace Protest members as they marched through downtown Saturday:
“We don’t need those people coming into our city with their guns or whatever trying to take control of our streets,” Holloway said. “We have control of our streets.”
Attorneys for St. Pete Peace Protest called the counter-protesters members of the “alt-right.”
St. Petersburg’s police chief said his department is now searching for the man with the gun, and two other men who police said were carrying knives. St. Petersburg police on Tuesday released video footage and grainy screenshots of the encounter and asked the public for help identifying them. The images were taken from Facebook Live videos, which broadcast the gun incident and several other run-ins between the two groups.
“We want to talk to all those subjects: What happened that night?” Holloway said. “I don’t want to see that happen again in our city.”
St. Pete Peace Protest’s attorneys issued a statement Tuesday saying the two people seen in the video were not carrying knives. They also released their own screenshots.
“In the footage, the man wearing the red plaid shirt is holding a black flip phone in his hand, and the shirtless man is holding his belt,” attorneys Megan Fernandez and Johnny Bardine said.
They said they reviewed multiple videos and spoke with witnesses at the scene. They plan to file police reports on behalf of protesters, they said, including a woman who says she was shoved to the ground by the same man with the gun.
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During the call, Mayor Rick Kriseman and the chief addressed business leaders about last week’s incidents. Chamber president and CEO Chris Steinocher said he’s received calls about travelers wondering if it’s safe to come to the city and canceling hotel reservations out of concern for their safety.
“They woke up learning that we are on fire,” Steinocher said. “Please don’t believe the narrative that this is not a safe city and we don’t care about each other.”
Holloway emphasized that police officers were on the ground monitoring protests last week, including Saturday, but weren’t always visible. That will change, he said, and police will be better prepared if both groups return to downtown this coming weekend.
“We’re no longer going to be in the shadows waiting for a call,” he said. “We’re going to be posted up on the street so you can see us.”
Protests against racism and police brutality have been a regular occurrence in St. Petersburg since the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, including marches through city streets and side events such as community clean-ups and yoga sessions.
As the summer wore on, the size of the group dwindled, and marches were reduced to three nights a week. But larger crowds have been showing up since Sept. 23, when a grand jury opted not to indict any Louisville police officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. In the wake of her March 13 death, the city has fired an officer, paid her family a $12 million settlement and promised police reforms.
Hours after the grand jury’s decision, protesters had several tense exchanges with diners while marching along Beach Drive NE. In one encounter, a couple dining at Parkshore Grill gave a thumbs down and flipped off protesters. A few of the protesters responded by sitting down at the couple’s table. Part of the encounter was shown in a video posted to Twitter by a Tampa Bay Times reporter that went viral.
Then Saturday, a group of counter-protesters waving American flags confronted the demonstrators. Some threatened to post protesters' personal information online or report them to authorities. One of the counter-protesters posted a video on Facebook Live questioning where St. Petersburg police were when demonstrators blocked roads or confronted diners.
Holloway said Tuesday that allowing the protesters to march in the streets was his choice in order to keep sidewalks clear for outdoor diners
Kriseman said that those who consider themselves pro-police should not disrupt protests in St. Petersburg.
“If the police department tells them — the people that they are supposedly supportive of — ‘Please don’t come. We don’t need you here’… and they still come,” Kriseman said, “then you have to ask yourself: ‘What’s their real motivation?’”
But the mayor also said the St. Pete Peace Protest movement should keep their own members in line: “We didn’t hear the protesters who have been peaceful speaking out against those who weren’t.”
The protesters' attorneys said the movement rejects violence.
“St. Pete Peace Protest is committed to peaceful assembly, as their name connotes,” they said. “The organization has members trained in de-escalation to ensure this mission, and that team was present and active during the protest. The only aggressors on Saturday night were the members of the alt-right.”
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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.