ST. PETERSBURG — Protesters, bolstered by religious leaders and civil rights groups, held a vigil and silent march Saturday where they condemned white supremacy and vowed to continue demonstrating against racism and police violence.
Banding together as “Movement St. Pete,” they were focused on delivering their own message — and not responding to the counter-protesters who gathered nearby to demonstrate in opposition. The smaller group of counter-protesters waved American flags and pro-police “thin blue line” flags, and many wore gear in support of President Donald Trump.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” the Rev. Louis Murphy Sr. of Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church told the Movement St. Pete crowd.
Police officers, at times, stood between the two sides. The result was a tense but peaceful evening as a light drizzle fell on downtown.
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As Saturday approached this week, the anticipation and anxiety grew.
The St. Petersburg Peace Protest, marching consistently since after the May 25 death of George Floyd, helped plan the anti-hate rally and vigil at South Straub Park and the St. Pete Pier. It was organized in response to a disturbing encounter last weekend between the protest movement and a smaller group of counter-protesters who sought them out in repeated confrontations on Sept. 26.
A man brandished a gun that night, racking the firearm’s slide and pointing it at the marchers during a Facebook Live broadcast.
St. Petersburg police later said they were looking for that man and two other protesters who they believe were brandishing knives.
Police have since found the man with the gun, but have not commented on the investigation into the incident. The protesters' attorneys say the other men were not carrying knives and released photos that they say better depicts the incident than the photos police released.
St. Petersburg’s leadership expressed fear that Saturday’s events would erupt into violence reminiscent of what has occurred in other cities during a summer of protests across the nation. Police Chief Anthony Holloway on Thursday promised a more visible police presence while Mayor Rick Kriseman implored everyone to “turn the temperature down.”
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Saturday’s events began in two places. Counter-protesters, bearing flags, some dressed in camouflage, gathered first in Williams Park starting about 4 p.m. Movement St. Pete started organizing at South Straub Park at 5 p.m.
The Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church, told the 300 or so at South Straub Park that white supremacy is “insidious," that it cuts across the political spectrum and is present even in St. Petersburg, a progressive city still grappling with racism and inequality.
“We came here to say, ‘No more,’" Oliver said. “No more to white supremacy, whether it takes shape on the right or the left.”
Shortly thereafter, the counter-protesters arrived, arguing with photographers taking their photos. Movement St. Pete’s “de-escalation team,” wearing neon safety vests, moved in. St. Petersburg bicycle officers, who had remained out of sight until then, rode in and created a barrier. Nearby, counter-protester Gary Snow arrived with a megaphone and addressed Movement St. Pete.
“Let’s see how peaceful you can keep it today,” Snow said. “No looting, no burning down buildings, no breaking the windows.”
None of that has happened during the St. Petersburg protests.
Movement St. Pete then silently marched to the pier, holding signs that read, “Speak up for Black lives,” “Your silence is violence," and, “Matter is the minimum." They gathered in a circle under the “Bending Arc” net sculpture.
There, organizer and activist Ashley Green told the crowd that the counter-protesters — who put out a statewide call for participants — had entered “a community that they know nothing about." Green mentioned Snow, saying that his words were "just so ridiculous. ... I knew he had never stepped foot in this city before today.
“He said, ‘How peaceful are you all going to stay? You going to burn things, you going to tear something up?’ " Green said, imitating Snpw. “We have marched for 120-something odd days, with no damage to anyone’s property except for our own, and no injuries to anyone except for ourselves.”
Then a series of religious leaders addressed the crowd. Murphy talked about growing up in segregated Florida and his confusion as a boy over why he couldn’t sit at the counter in Woolworth’s and eat a hot dog like white people. He spoke about saying the Pledge of Allegiance at a segregated school, then recited it to the crowd through the megaphone.
“'With liberty and justice for all,'” he said. “What a big lie that was. We are all created in the image of God. It’s only the hate (that) constantly tries to divide us.”
The counter-protesters followed Movement St. Pete to the pier, their numbers growing. But the police again stood between the two groups. Green and others tried to keep attention focused on a circle listening to the speaker inside. One speaker, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, told protesters he was proud of them.
Movement St. Pete marched off the pier, walking past Snow, who held up a Nazi flag and attempted to light it on fire.
“I am not a white supremacist,” he said. “I don’t believe in Nazis.”
The flag, wet from the rain, wouldn’t catch fire. So he used a knife to tear it apart.
Back at South Straub Park, Green led a series of chants, each of which overshadowed competing chants from the nearby counter-demonstrators.
“Power!” Green yelled.
“Four more years!” counter-protesters yelled back.
Marchers yelled, “No justice, no peace!”
Counter-protesters chanted, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” and, “Back the blue.”
Movement St. Pete wrapped up its event shortly after 7 p.m. The counter-protesters group — by then, grown to include members of the Blue Thunder Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club and more Trump supporters — meandered along city sidewalks with participants stopping occasionally to check their locations on their phones.
They stopped just short of City Hall before returning to Beach Drive Northeast, where they weaved through restaurant patrons and servers.
The night ended when about two dozen counter-protesters sat down around a large table at Tryst Gastro Lounge.
A St. Petersburg police spokeswoman said there were no arrests among the groups gathered downtown.
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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.