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Across Tampa Bay, protesters send a peaceful message in the rain

Former Bucs coach Tony Dungy was among those participating in Saturday’s peaceful demonstrations against police violence and the murder of George Floyd.
Eritha "Akile" Cainion, front, leads protestors from the Uhuru House as they begin their march Saturday, June 6, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
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Eritha "Akile" Cainion, front, leads protestors from the Uhuru House as they begin their march Saturday, June 6, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 6, 2020
Updated Jun. 7, 2020

UPDATE: 11 p.m. Across the Tampa Bay region and the nation, protesters took to the streets in what may be the largest single day of demonstrations yet calling for an end to police violence.

Nationwide demonstrations started soon after the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was killed while being restrained by Minneapolis police officers.

Related: Photos: Rainy day protests Saturday in Tampa Bay

Like protests across the country on Saturday, Tampa Bay’s marches were peaceful and determined.

The rain did not deter people from marching in the University area, in downtown Tampa and in St. Petersburg.

UPDATE: 10:20 p.m. Days ago, Emadi Okwuosa was a graduate of the University of South Florida, ready to move back to his native Connecticut.

Now the 22-year-old is one of the leaders of the protest movement in Tampa.

His fast rise during the protests may have led to his arrest Thursday on a charge of inciting a riot. Tampa police say he was “yelling through a megaphone inciting the crowd to throw objects.” Okwuosa vehemently denies the allegations.

Three bay area protest leaders have been arrested or cited by police in recent days, and there is a long history of the authorities targeting such leaders.

But Okwuosa was back out there on Saturday, helping lead the peaceful demonstrations while wearing a GoPro to document everything in case of another encounter with police.

Okwuosa shared his story with Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson, which is told in this Twitter thread. One correction: His minor was criminology, not criminal justice.

UPDATE 10 p.m. The Times caught up with Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan during Saturday’s protests. Here’s what he had to say:

"It’s been seven days since we had the protests and then had some major civil unrest a week ago tonight. Things are starting to slow down ... there is still the energy, the intensity.

"We have been trying to give the protesters, demonstrators, whatever word we want to call them, we’re giving them a lot of space. Still a lot of passion out there, which is a good thing. But I think we’re starting to realize that as a country that things are starting to slow down and people are really working on peacefully getting the word out.

“Unfortunately we’ve had thousands of people here that are peacefully protesting and we’ve had a very small number that have created a lot of chaos in our city.”

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Q: The Black Lives Matter movement has focused national and international attention on American law enforcement policies, especially in the use of force. Where does the Tampa Police Department go from here?

A: “I think as we move forward we have to listen more. I think our police departments and law enforcement across the nation, we have to be better listeners. But I think our entire country, everyone needs to look at themselves in the mirror and become better listeners ... I think right now we’re not listening to each other. So many people are talking. There’s probably not a lot of listening going on.”

Q: It can take just one incident for a community to lose trust in law enforcement. What are you doing to prevent that from happening in Tampa?

“We’ve had a long history of good community relationships in Tampa. We’re not a perfect department, by no means. But we take action on our officers when we need to. We have a very good relationship.

"The biggest concern I have is, has the last seven days wiped out all those relationships? I think when people calm down and everyone is able to listen and have those conversations … I think it will make us better.

“I don’t think we’re as far apart as people think right now. But it’s going to take some time and I think we’re ready to move forward.”

UPDATE 9:13 p.m. The St. Petersburg march has ended. Organizer Terron Gland thanked marchers and noted that today’s events had no violence and no arrests. He said they’ll be back again at City Hall to march tomorrow at 2 p.m. and again at 7 p.m.

Protesters will keep marching every day, Gland said, “until we get justice.”

UPDATE 8:34 p.m. About 60 protesters regrouped at St. Petersburg City Hall at 7 p.m. for another rainy walk through the city. Passing cars leaned on their horns to cheer on the protesters.

UPDATE 7:22 p.m. Hard rains didn’t deter large crowds in Tampa.

Marchers endured drenching rains before returning to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, where they lingered even after the official end of the protest.

UPDATE 5:10 p.m. Black Lives Matter postponed their protest scheduled to start at Fred Ball Park in South Tampa due to the weather.

They will host the event next Saturday, June 6, in the same place at 3 p.m. Organizers were concerned the heavy rain that had been forecast could cause flooding and this safety issues.

About 100 people followed a man who yelled “Let’s march anyways” and proceeded down Bayshore Boulevard. A smaller group of about 50 people stuck around.

Black Lives Matter Tampa organizer Donna Davis stressed the importance of safety and having an organized protest with the support of legal observers, doctors, etc.

Sheridan Murphy, 56 and Wici Tok Oab Iyanke, 47 both of St. Petersburg and both part of Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Inequality, spoke about the shared struggle against established authority.

They performed the “American Indian Movement” song, an honor song originally for the family of Raymond Yellow Thunder, who was beaten and killed by white men in 1972. The song is used to honor native people killed by police.

Murphy told the group that Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with killing George Floyd, was previously among the group of officers present when Wayne Reyes, a member of the Anishinaabe nation, was shot and killed by police in 2006.

“We understand the struggle,” Murphy said. “It’s all one struggle. It’s all the same thing.”

Tati Orengo, of Washington D.C., and Lilia Orengo-Belizaire, of Tampa, introduced their new organization Sis Se Puede, working to support Afro-Latinas.

UPDATE 4:30 p.m. Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa hosted yet another protest. And the 3 p.m. event drew a big crowd despite the rain.

Protestors are seen at Curtis Hixon Park in this aerial drone photo Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Tampa.
Protestors are seen at Curtis Hixon Park in this aerial drone photo Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Emadi Okwuosa, 22, an organizer who was arrested by Tampa police earlier this week, told the crowd: “Please don’t put my life on the line by starting to cause havoc.”

He said the police’s actions with tear gas and arrests prove they “don’t care about us.” Said that he brought a lawyer today, and encouraged peace.

Another protester with a megaphone was reminding people to stay on the sidewalks and out of the streets. Police ordering protesters to stop blocking streets has been one source of tension and clashes.

On Saturday, however, police presence was minimal.

By 4:15 p.m., the march was sizable.

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

The rain was so hard that marchers were soaked and the writing on signs were running by 5 p.m.

UPDATE 3:15 p.m. A protest at St. Petersburg City Hall meant to show unity between marchers and the police got confusing Saturday afternoon when a top police official asked reporters to leave.

Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam asked the media to “depart" during a drizzly beginning of the protest march.

“Please depart for right now,” Gilliam said, referring to the media in the crowd, which included Times reporters and a photographer. “This is going to be us with dialogue. Is that cool?”

Some in the crowd cheered as Gilliam made his request.

“To the media: No more photos,” Gilliam continued.

Related: St. Pete police, residents talk protests. But where is the new protest generation?
Tampa Bay Times reporters Mark Puente, left, and Tracey McManus report while speaking with St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway just prior to a protest march Saturday, June 6, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Mark Puente, left, and Tracey McManus report while speaking with St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway just prior to a protest march Saturday, June 6, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Some in the crowd spoke up in favor of the media remaining.

Minutes later, Chief Anthony Holloway said the media was hampering efforts to relate with protesters, but that reporters could stay.

“(The protesters) felt we were using this as a media opportunity," Holloway told a Times reporter. "What we’re trying to create is unity.”

That wasn’t possible with the media there, Holloway said.

When the reporters mentioned the media had a First Amendment right to be there, Holloway said “You have every right to be here.”

Some of the confusion was because of miscommunication between the protesters and police.

Police had been in talks with one organizer about coming, but not all knew of the plans. So when police arrived to take part in the 2 p.m. event outside City Hall, some protesters said they felt had come without communicating.

The idea for police to walk with protesters was born from a conversation outside the police station yesterday, Gilliam said. He talked to Josh White, a 29-year-old musician and filmmaker, for more than an hour in the rain.

At least before the protest on Saturday, hopes were high.

Gilliam told a Times reporter that St. Pete police were yielding completely to protesters, specifically to protest leader Terron Gland.

The 31-year-old had a run-in with police earlier this week when his aunt’s pick-up truck was pulled over by an officer and Gland refused to show is ID. He received summons to appear in court and became one of three protest leaders to be arrested or cited in recent days by Tampa Bay law enforcement.

Related: Are Tampa Bay police targeting protest leaders?

All the officers here volunteered to come, Gilliam said. They are all different ranks - chiefs, sergeants, etc. More volunteered (about 30) but the department didn’t want to “inundate the march with police,” he said.

But other protesters objected on Saturday, with some questioning if was an elaborate photo opportunity.

“Take off your badges and guns because I don’t feel safe with a cop walking behind me,” one protester said.

Gland said only high-ranking officers were in attendance and that most were black. “Where are those officers that have that bad hate in their heart that are out here doing police brutality?" Gland said. "We want those nasty officers.”

Still, Gland said the march with officers was worthwhile.

"If you don’t want to walk with the officers, we have our evening walk,” Gland said.

Abruptly, however, officers decided to leave.

“There aren’t going to be any press any of that,” Holloway said. "We love y’all. We’re going to leave.”

Holloway said they had to leave to “prove we aren’t here for a photo opportunity.”When asked if the media would be welcome for later conversations with protesters, Holloway said he will “set up a time with protesters when they know the media will be present.”

“They want to make sure we’re genuine,” Gilliam added. “We didn’t come here to bring cameras with us,” Holloway says before talking about the importance of the press “spreading the message.”

Before the protest, Holloway told reporters that he's spoken with protesters. He said many of the reforms that they want are already in place in St. Petersburg and that it was unfortunate that the public didn't know that.

“It’s our fault for not giving that information,” Holloway said.

A group leader is spoke around 2:30 p.m. after a couple chants of “no justice, no peace.” She said this has to be about more than chanting “f--k the police.” It’s about questioning the “idealogoes of the city of St. Pete."

Daryn and Heather St. Pierre are here to be allies, they said.

Daryn and Heather St. Pierre
Daryn and Heather St. Pierre [ TRACEY MCMANUS | Tampa Bay Times ]

“It’s important not to be on a pedestal and take the voice away,” Daryn said. “And we have to sustain the effort, it’s more than just now.”

Holloway also told reporters that the Florida Police Chiefs Association will create one use of force policy for the state.

Holloway said the association selected him to pick a committee of eight chiefs and eight community leaders from across Florida.

He said he didn’t think it would be hard to get the departments on board.

“The use of force is the use of force,” he said.

UPDATE 2 p.m. Dressed all in black — slacks, shirt and tie ― KJ Sails slipped on a black mask and raised his voice to request quiet before leading a procession of several hundred.

“We’re walking in peace,” said Sails, a University of South Florida senior cornerback and father of a 2-year-old son. “This is a unity walk to show the world what unity looks like.”

Amid a steady afternoon drizzle, the silence resonated across several city blocks: down N Franklin Street, east across E Harrison Street, past murals and statues of local African-American leaders, and down Central Avenue.

Related: ‘This is the generation to make change,’ says USF Bulls cornerback KJ Sails

In front of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Sails addressed the waterlogged throng again. First, he asked people to repeat the names of a handful of African Americans killed by police, ending by saying “the list goes on and on and on.”

“Watching 46-year-old George Floyd cry out for his mother made me feel hopeless,” said Sails, who grew up singing in the choir of the church where he stood. “All I could think was that that could’ve been me. It could’ve been you. What if it was your daughter or your son? I looked at my son, and it made me think, are we doing enough to help our community to make it a better and safer place for our children?”

With that, Sails closed with a prayer, pleading with God to hear the cries of his country, before breaking down in tears. Local philanthropist Thaddeus Bullard — aka WWE superstar Titus O’Neil ― approached Sails and wrapped him in his arms.

O’Neil was among dozens of dignitaries in the group, which also included several USF athletes, new Bulls football coach Jeff Scott, athletic director Michael Kelly, men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory, women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez and University of Tampa women’s basketball coach Tom Jessee.

Former Bulls football players Marquez Valdes-Scantling (now a receiver with the Green Bay Packers) and Mitch Wilcox (tight end with the Cincinnati Bengals) also walked.

“When I thought about coming down from Clemson to be your head coach, I thought I was coming to share the knowledge,” Scott told the group, his voice mildly cracking. “What I’m finding out now is, I came down here so I could learn.”

UPDATE 12:30 p.m. A group of St. Petersburg police officers will join protesters at 2 p.m. at City Hall on Saturday to march for unity, said department spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Chief Anthony Holloway will likely be there, as well as two assistant chiefs and other command staff members.

Officers agreed to march with the group after a conversation with protesters Friday, Fernandez said.

“We agreed that officers could march with them against racism,” she said. “As long as it’s pro-unity and anti-racism and not an anti-police march.”

UPDATE Noon In St. Petersburg, a crowd gathered around 11 a.m. at the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave.S for a march to Tropicana Field.

The event, sponsored by the African People’s Socialist Party, was organized “to symbolize how the system of white power capitalism destroyed and buried the black community in the Gas Plant area and now Minneapolis police have murdered yet another Black man.”

Before the march, Eritha “Akile” Cainion, the party’s director of agitation and propaganda, and others called for a peaceful protest and told the protesters not to speak to the media. Only Cainion could distribute the message, to keep it unified.

Cainion, 23, grew up in south St. Petersburg and was born just two days before police shot and killed TyRon Lewis, an 18-year-old black man, in 1996. Her father, Bruce Cainion, was putting out fires during the race riots that followed even as his newborn daughter lay in the hospital. She run unsuccessfully for City Council, on a platform of Make the Southside Black Again.

Saturday, she wore a camouflage romper and wielded a bullhorn as she led about 100 marchers. African Americans in the protest went first, followed by whites. Cainion chanted, “No justice, no peace.” Cars passing by honked horns in support.

“Jail the killer cop," Cainion yelled.

“Now,” the protesters responded as they headed up 16th Street S.

As the group approached Tropicana Field, marchers chanted the names of people killed by police.

Why stop there? “This dome represents colonialism,” Cainion said.

Two African-American communities, Methodist Town and the Gas Plant District, were razed in the 1980s to build the dome. She said 100 black businesses once stood there.

Cainion pointed toward the stadium and protesters cheered when she said: “All we have is an eyesore and a bad baseball team.”

Related: 'I say let them go.' St. Petersburg's black community is indifferent to Rays' fate.

UPDATE 11:10 a.m. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy was among those who marched from Crossover Church to University Mall and back again on Saturday morning.

At the Tampa mall, Pastor Tommy Kyllonen of Crossover Church said the crowd was there for peace and prayer.

He said he hoped that the day “won’t just be a hash tag” but lead to systemic change.

Gift baskets were distributed to employees of looted businesses.

“I thought it was a powerful message that we’ve got to come together, and we can only come together in Christ,” Dungy said.

Dungy said the march included parishioners from many places, including his own Grace Family Church. He said he was glad to be part of the solution.

Kevin Carr, 51, marched Saturday to help change perceptions of black men, who are too often suspected as potential criminals.

Carr, who owns a consulting firm, had his own moment about four months ago when he was stopped by police at the Whole Foods in Carrollwood. They thought he might be in a stolen car, he said.

Carr moved to Tampa six years ago after working as an NBA vice president for player development. Part of his job was to train players in how to react if they were stopped by police.

“What’s the most important thing," he would say to them. "Stay alive.”

Related: Fire, looting and violence reported as Tampa Bay protests escalate

UPDATE 10 a.m. A prayer walk that began at Crossover Church on E Fowler Avenue in the University area drew a healthy crowd Saturday morning despite the steady downpour.

Hundreds walked east from the church to University Mall, which was the scene of chaos and destruction when the protests started on May 30.

Júlio Martinez, 34, and Natalie Bota, 47, both of Wesley Chapel, came to show support for the protests. In Tampa Bay, demonstrations kicked off last weekend and have been held every day since. Several are planned today in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

“It’s the first thing I’ve done beside sit behind a computer,” Martinez said.

Marching along Fowler was ⁦Tampa police Officer Richelle Fertig.

Fertig, 32, has been on the force for four years and was working during several protests this past week. On Saturday, she said the atmosphere was peaceful and not as charged.

She said she had gotten permission to participate. “I’m a believer,” she said.

Tampa police Officer Richelle Fertig joins the marchers Saturday morning.
Tampa police Officer Richelle Fertig joins the marchers Saturday morning. [ CHARLIE FRAGO | Times ]

An early-morning protest, to “Wake Up Bayshore” in Tampa, was delayed by rain before a small crowd took up a march.

Emaline Taylor, 21, a stay-at-home mom, said she would be back next weekend. “That’s okay," she said. "Gives me another week to advertise.”

Emaline Taylor, 21, leads a small group on a march down S Delaware Avenue, a block off Bayshore Boulevard.
Emaline Taylor, 21, leads a small group on a march down S Delaware Avenue, a block off Bayshore Boulevard. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

The weather will be a factor all day. Widespread rain and isolated thunderstorms are forecast across the region, according to the National Weather Service.