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Pinellas police union head pushes debunked paid-protester theory

There’s no evidence Florida’s protests were “coordinated by well-organized donors with deep pockets.” That’s the assertion made by St. Petersburg police Officer Jonathan Vazquez in an Orlando Sentinel column.
Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association president Jonathan Vazquez talks at a Gov. Ron DeSantis press conference in St. Petersburg in September 2020. On March 26, Vazquez published a column in the Orlando Sentinel that proposed without evidence that anti-racism protests around Florida were "coordinated by well-organized donors with deep pockets." One expert said Vazquez's writing advances a widely debunked conspiracy theory.
Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association president Jonathan Vazquez talks at a Gov. Ron DeSantis press conference in St. Petersburg in September 2020. On March 26, Vazquez published a column in the Orlando Sentinel that proposed without evidence that anti-racism protests around Florida were "coordinated by well-organized donors with deep pockets." One expert said Vazquez's writing advances a widely debunked conspiracy theory. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Apr. 2
Updated Apr. 2

ST. PETERSBURG — The leader of Pinellas County’s largest police union advanced a widely debunked theory in an op-ed column arguing in favor of HB 1, the controversial “anti-riot” legislation that passed the Florida House along partisan lines.

In the March 26 column published in the Orlando Sentinel, Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association president and St. Petersburg police officer Jonathan Vazquez said the protests against racial injustice and police violence across Florida were “coordinated by well-organized donors with deep pockets.” He offered no evidence to support the assertion.

PolitiFact has debunked claims about paid protesters numerous times, including rumors spread by elected officials, bloggers and Facebook posters, and notorious disinformation transmitters like Alex Jones and Candace Owens. As early as 2016, the New York Times described a rumor amplified by former President Donald Trump as “a nationwide conspiracy theory.” Though Vazquez’s article doesn’t name an alleged donor, many rumors center on liberal philanthropist George Soros, leading the Washington Post to call these conspiracy theories anti-Semitic.

“Ideas like that tend to undergird most conspiracy theories — that there’s some shadowy group somewhere that has a lot of power and a lot of resources, and they are the ones pulling strings from behind the scenes,” said University of Miami professor Joseph Uscinski, who studies conspiracy theories and why people believe them. “And that’s essentially what he’s intimating.”

Such rumors have abounded in recent years during moments of social turmoil. According to Google Trends, searches for “paid protesters” spiked amid protests of Trump’s election in 2016; the deadly far-right riot in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017; and last year’s racial justice protests after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Vazquez, a canine officer who joined the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2007, wrote that protests in the city and across Florida were “anything but peaceful” and said protesters “infiltrated the city.”

He cited St. Petersburg police confiscating guns, Molotov cocktails and bricks — though none of these weapons were used during the protests — and referred to destruction elsewhere in the state, but he did not cite specific examples. He did not point to any incidents of violence at protests that failed to result in arrests.

The actions he broadly outlined are already illegal, and that wouldn’t change under HB 1.

Related: Florida House Republicans vote to pass controversial ‘anti-rioting’ legislation
Protesters gather outside of the St. Petersburg Police Department, Sunday, May 31, 2020 to protest the death of  George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Protesters gather outside of the St. Petersburg Police Department, Sunday, May 31, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Many protest leaders are local residents, and some have traveled to join other protests in the Tampa Bay region. Vazquez offered no evidence of protests being driven by anyone from outside the region or state, or who were motivated by profit. HB 1 does not address paid or out-of-state protesters.

It’s theoretically possible that someone could pay people to protest, Uscinski said. But the idea remains in the realm of misinformation so long as Vazquez presents it without evidence.

“Who are those shadowy interests?” Uscinski said. “Who do they pay? What were they paid to do? Unless you can answer those questions, you’re engaging in conspiracy theory.”

Vazquez agreed on March 26 to answer written questions about the column from the Tampa Bay Times but had not responded to questions as of Friday. St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez declined to answer questions about his column or the assertions he made.

When asked whether the department investigated reports of protesters being paid, she responded: “Donations would not be a criminal matter.”

Protests or riots?

Vazquez wrote the column in response to a March 22 Sentinel guest column written by Dan McDonald, a former Tampa police officer. He wrote that the changes proposed under HB1 would “criminalize free speech and shut down Floridians’ right to peacefully assemble.”

A Tampa Police Department spokesman said McDonald retired on March 12, 10 days before the Sentinel published his column. McDonald emphasized in an interview that his opinions are his own, not those of his former employer.

McDonald disagreed with Vazquez’s stance on HB1, he told the Times, but he didn’t think that the union president crossed a line by writing the column, even if it included unsupported statements.

“In writing a guest column, he’s not in a court of law presenting evidence,” McDonald said. “He’s presenting the point of view of his membership.”

The response column did not originally identify Vazquez as a union leader, but it was updated with that detail after the Times sent questions to the Sentinel’s opinions editor. Neither that editor nor a spokesman for Tribune Publishing Company, which owns the paper, responded to multiple requests for comment, including questions about the fact-checking process.

Vazquez opened the column by describing himself as “an active police officer in a city that has seen its fair share of riots and violent protests.”

The city endured riots in 1996, after a St. Petersburg officer fatally shot TyRon Lewis while he was driving a stolen car that lurched at the officer during a traffic stop. Vazquez joined the police force 11 years later.

Related: Pinellas officials will not prosecute 35 demonstrators arrested in June protests

The early days of last summer’s protests did see arrests. Charges were eventually dropped against 35 people arrested on unlawful assembly charges outside police headquarters.

Police arrested four people after an undercover officer was led to a car, parked near police headquarters during the protests, that contained bricks and materials for Molotov cocktails; charges were dropped against three of them, and the fourth is awaiting trial.

On June 3, police arrested another man after they said he threw a foam baton round at police Chief Anthony Holloway and was found to be carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. Police later found Molotov cocktails and a rifle in the man’s car, they said, though not at the protest, as well as videos on his phone of him with the weapons. He now faces a terrorism charge. A charge against the man’s roommate was dropped in February.

‘A model city’

As protesters continued to march for the next three months, though, confrontations between them and police were rare. Jabaar Edmond, a father of four who became a fixture at protests last summer, said he didn’t know anything about protests being funded by wealthy donors. He said focusing on isolated incidents ignores the bigger picture.

“The St. Petersburg protest situation ended up being one of the best in America, as far as how the protesters carried themselves, and the St. Pete Police Department,” he said. “It’s a win for law enforcement and for the protesters, because we had one of the most civil and long-standing marches for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor.”

Jabaar Edmond marches with protesters in St. Petersburg Friday, June 5, 2020.
Jabaar Edmond marches with protesters in St. Petersburg Friday, June 5, 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Ben Kirby, a spokesman for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, said the mayor had “no interest in responding to this opinion piece, except to say that he believes people know that St. Pete was largely a model city last year as it relates to demonstrations around social justice.”

Mayoral candidate Ken Welch, a former Pinellas County commissioner, said Vazquez should avoid painting protesters with a broad brush.

“I know, having been there,” Welch said. “I can tell you those folks were so disciplined and on-message and not at all violent.”

City Council Member Darden Rice, who is also running for mayor, declined to comment on Vazquez’s specific assertions, but she condemned HB 1 and said she saw the protests differently.

“It’s a cynical dog-whistle piece of legislation,” she said. “Our protests were largely peaceful in St. Petersburg, and they are an important part of the process.”

Related: Council member felt threatened by message from St. Petersburg police union chief

A third mayoral candidate, former state representative and city council member Wengay Newton, said he hadn’t read the article.

Vazquez also made news during the St. Petersburg protests. In early June, he texted City Council members that police officers know who is “standing with and supporting the police and those who are NOT supporting the police.”

Rice called it a “political warning.” Vazquez said officer morale was low at the time, and officers wanted to know if city leaders supported them. He was upset, he told the Times last summer, that protesters were “yelling untrue things.”

He didn’t say anything about violence.