TAMPA — It was meant to be a call to prayer, a moment of remembrance for lives lost and an act of solidarity organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in response to more than 100,000 deaths nationwide from the coronavirus pandemic.
But after demonstrations devolved into lawlessness during the weekend, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, no one among the 300 people who gathered Monday at Lykes Gaslight Square Park even bothered with social distancing.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor had worked nearly four months to keep people in her city apart, but she echoed the voices of leaders throughout the region in calling for communities to come together.
“George Floyd’s murder brought to the surface all of these issues within our community that have just been there, simmering just below that surface and these are systemic problems,” Castor said. “Education, lack of health care, workforce development, affordable housing, inferior transportation. All of those issues that individually and cumulatively hold down segments of our community.”
The coronavirus memorial turned into a prayer for racial equality, just minutes after a news conference next door at Tampa Police Department headquarters where Castor announced a citywide curfew would continue a second night Monday. She also said the 100 national guardsmen called in to help maintain order over the weekend were sent home Monday.
Police Chief Brian Dugan asked for the 7:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and said he hoped one more night would be enough. The curfew was needed, in part, to get foot traffic and cars off the street so police can respond to hotspots quicker, Dugan said. This was a problem Saturday evening when law enforcement was dealing with a crowd of hundreds at University Mall, Dugan said.
Those responsible for destroying local businesses, slashing squad car tires and burning buildings throughout the weekend typically did so after the larger, peaceful gatherings were over, using the crowd to make it more difficult for police to get to their location.
The curfew, Castor said, is "a slight inconvenience (that) pales in comparison to our ability to keep all of our citizens safe. We don’t anticipate any incidents, but this is in an abundance of caution.”
The move follows a weekend of demonstrations in the Tampa Bay area and nationwide over Floyd’s death while in police custody May 25. More than 70 people were arrested in the Tampa area and dozens of businesses damaged or destroyed, most in and around the University Mall on Fowler Avenue.
Castor and Dugan spoke of the danger police officers and others faced from the spread of COVID-19 during confrontations over the weekend. The chief said five officers that he knows of were exposed to the coronavirus.
Dugan also blamed some of the weekend violence on agitators who do not live in the neighborhoods where the destruction occurred.
“They were not necessarily causing damage but agitating crowds,” he said. “It appears these agitators vanish after getting everyone else going.”
Castor said she regretted the damage caused by arsonists and looters to businesses important to their communities, including University Mall, now being “transformed into an asset” after falling on hard times, and Hope’s Food Store, relied upon by people in East Tampa. She spoke of a single mother who lost her job when Champs sporting goods burned down Saturday.
“These are the businesses that are suffering from this,” she said.
Castor pledged to work with communities across the city to address concerns about police violence against people of color and to find “long term solutions to these systemic issues.”
“Voices have been heard over the weekend," Castor said, "they’ve been heard loud and clear.”
Castor was joined in the park after the news conference by speakers including Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes, whose district includes African-American neighborhoods, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
The Rev. Larry Roundtree of New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church spoke of the former NFL quarterback who divided the sport with his demonstration against police violence toward blacks.
"Colin Kapernick took a knee on Sept. 1, 2016, and 1,362 days later, an officer took a knee on the neck of a black man,” Roundtree told the crowd. “But our knees today will be knelt in prayer and in power.”
Infamous downtown disrupter Tony Daniel, known for signs that target blacks and use racist language and images, shouted over the speakers during much of the gathering. Daniel, 65, an African-American, took issue with the claims about outside agitators, saying Tampa can work up its own fury over racial oppression.
Still, the hourlong gathering was mainly about prayer, songs of peace and impassioned speeches about coming together as a community to stop the spread of encroaching sicknesses — one viral, one human.
“It’s a powerful thing when we start to pray,” council member Gudes said, "and we start to realize that healing brings love and it brings about change. Change is what we’ve got to have.”