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As Florida ‘anti-riot’ bill looms, St. Petersburg protesters return to the streets

Protesters fear the legislation sitting on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk will make it harder for them to exercise their rights.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality on Friday. About 100 people gathered to march.
People listen while several organizers speak outside St. Petersburg City Hall ahead of a march in solidarity against racism and police brutality on Friday. About 100 people gathered to march. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 18

ST. PETERSBURG — With controversial “anti-riot” legislation sitting on the governor’s desk, local activists marched downtown on Friday night, expressing solidarity in the wake of the latest deaths at the hands of police — and wondering what comes next.

The St. Petersburg protest movement had been mostly off the streets since the fall. But the killings of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minnesota, who was shot by an officer during a traffic stop, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, who was shot by an officer while raising his hands, brought about 100 people out again.

“Reparations are owed, not just for the assault on Africa that happened hundreds of years ago, but for the assault on African people that happened five minutes ago,” said Jesse Nevel, a member of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement and former mayoral candidate.

Related: Florida Senate approves ‘anti-riot’ bill, heads now to DeSantis

Florida’s “Combatting Public Disorder Bill,” a priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis, loomed over the evening. It passed the Senate Thursday and was expected to soon be signed into law. The protesters had little clarity over what it would mean for them, and feared it would effectively stifle their ability to organize on the streets.

Under the Republican-supported measure, if a protest becomes violent, anyone who “willfully participated” could be charged with a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. It enhances penalties for crimes committed during a riot, like a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot.

It also includes misdemeanor penalties for “mob intimidation,” defined as two or more people trying to compel another person “to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”

The bill specifies that protesters obstructing a public street or hindering traffic during a protest should be charged with a pedestrian violation. It shields from civil immunity anyone who drives through protesters blocking a road.

Related: What did and did not change in Tampa Bay after the 2020 protests

Many of the St. Petersburg protesters marched in the streets of downtown last year, often moving from City Hall to Beach Drive. They sometimes faced angry counter-protesters and impatient motorists.

Protest leader Ashley Green spoke of reaching a breaking point.

“I don’t have anything left by my anger and my fury,” Green told the crowd. “There aren’t many options left, what else are we supposed to do?”

People march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in St. Petersburg on Friday.
People march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in St. Petersburg on Friday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Organizer Jalessa Blackshear urged protesters to stay peaceful during the march.

“As I am one of the organizers of this event, I am liable, I feel like, for everything,” she told the crowd. “I am a mother, I am a student and I have a lot to lose.”

Blackshear said organizers gathered Tuesday to plan the march. Then on Thursday, they learned the bill pushed by DeSantis had passed the Senate.

“It’s been chaotic,” Blackshear said of planning Friday’s protest while reacting to the bill. “For me as an organizer, I don’t want anyone to get a felony. I don’t want anyone to go to jail.”

Protests also returned to Tampa, where a rally was held Saturday calling for justice in the death of Daunte Wright at downtown’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

In the past, when protesters marched on St. Petersburg’s streets the police kept a low profile and did not stop them. But on Friday evening protesters stayed on the sidewalks as they marched to Beach Drive NE in silence, with fists raised. Members of the protest group’s de-escalation team, dressed in reflective green vests, stood in rows to briefly block cars when the protesters walked through intersections.

After the group passed by sidewalk diners at Cassis and made their way into South Straub Park, they erupted into chants: “Black Lives Matter” and “This is what democracy looks like!”

Blackshear said she hopes protesters will remain civically engaged beyond marches.

“We just want to keep people accountable,” she said. “And we have to come together.”

Related: DeSantis' protest bill questioned by Tampa Bay’s top cops, not just ‘far left’
People march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in downtown St. Petersburg on Friday.
People march in solidarity against racism and police brutality in downtown St. Petersburg on Friday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]