TAMPA — Dozens of masked speakers, black and white, young and older, came to Thursday’s Tampa City Council meeting to give impassioned speeches about racism and change.
One by one, they stood before elected officials to object strongly to police tactics in recent protests. They brought up incidents in Tampa’s black community spanning back years. They called out Mayor Jane Castor and Police Chief Brian Dugan. They demanded defunding the police and redistributing the money for transportation, housing, education and health care.
Connie Burton told council members the protests haven’t only been about the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
“It has been all of our sons and daughters caught up in this justice system that is racist and unjust,” she said.
“Don’t look at the color of my skin, look at the intelligence of my brain,” said Frank Williams. “Good God almighty, y’all have been messing with us too damn long.”
“Do your job,” said Johnny Johnson. “That’s all we ask for, and now we’re demanding it.”
The public speaking portion of the meeting — held at the Tampa Convention Center with participants seated apart and lecterns disinfected between speakers because of the coronavirus threat — was in some ways a departure from your standard city council meeting.
Though speakers are generally asked to state their names for the record, some who took the podium gave only a first name or no name at all. When speakers used strong language, no one objected.
“I wanted everyone to be heard. I didn’t want to be disrespectful,” Council Chairman Guido Maniscalco told the Tampa Bay Times during a break. “People are furious and they’re rightfully furious, and we’re the elected body they can come and speak to.”
“I know there was cursing, but I believe in the First amendment and freedom of speech,” Maniscalco said. “Let the people speak.”
And when speakers thought a council member wasn’t paying attention, they said so.
“You look like you’re just tolerating this inconvenience until you can get back to your regularly scheduled agenda items,” said a young man who did not identify himself.
Burton told the council the movement is far from over.
“We’re going to march all the way through the damn Super Bowl ... to let America know what Tampa’s about,” she said.
In response to a speaker’s question on whether council members had attended the ongoing protests, Councilman Joseph Citro said he had been to four. Asked if he held up a sign, Citro said he held up his fist. Asked what that meant, Citro said, “power to the people.”
Citro later said that council colleagues Orlando Gudes, Luis Viera and Maniscalco had also attended protests, “just to mention a few.”
There conflict early in the day when speakers, because of distancing concerns, had to wait outside the meeting room while an unrelated presentation was taken up inside and took longer than intended.
“We should not make 100 people wait,” Council member Bill Carlson said later. “If I was a member of the public and I was stuck out there, I would be angry too.”
Carlson made a motion to put public comment at the beginning of their meetings. It passed unanimously.
Speakers also were not allowed to bring their signs into the meeting room — a longstanding council rule — though someone did bring a roll of toilet paper that said “Dump Dugan,” which sat on the podium.
The council was also scheduled to hear a report about an incident involving an unarmed black man and allegations of use of police force at Tampa General Hospital earlier this month.
That incident was one of three referenced by seven local and state African American elected officials who recently called for the mayor and police chief to immediately end what they called police use of force on peaceful protesters.
Gudes, seconded by council member John Dingfelder, had requested a report on the Tampa General incident for Thursday’s meeting. But Chief Dugan sent a letter to city council saying “the matter is currently pending an investigation” and therefore confidential. The two officers involved will remain on administrative leave until the investigation is complete, Dugan wrote.
Dugan also noted the city has received notice that “the aggrieved person” plans a lawsuit, so on advice of lawyers, “there should be no further comment or discussion of this item.”
Gudes, the council’s only black member, has tested positive for the coronavirus and did not attend Thursday’s meeting. He sent a message thanking well wishers and encouraging everyone to “wear a mask and please, please get tested.”