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A Tampa protest trial: Was it free speech or was it a crime?

A looming trial underscores the tensions between last year’s protests and police.
Police deploy pepper spray and begin to detain people during a protest on N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa.
Police deploy pepper spray and begin to detain people during a protest on N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 10
Updated Sep. 10

TAMPA — All across the nation last summer, people on city streets decried the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops. In Tampa, demonstrators marched daily, denouncing systemic racism, inequality and calling to defund police.

One event, on the Fourth of July, would become a local flashpoint in the broader movement. Seven people were arrested that day when police broke up a march along N Dale Mabry Highway. It happened after a crowd blocked traffic for about an hour along the busy six-lane stretch.

More than a year later, a trial looms for two who were arrested that day.

Lawyers and supporters of Jamie Bullock and Chukwudi Uche say the pair did nothing wrong. Their case has become emblematic of the tensions at the core of the protest movement.

On one side are police and state prosecutors, who seek to focus on the actions of the two, whom they’ve accused of striking officers, resisting arrest and engaging in an unlawful assembly.

On the other side are the protesters, their lawyers and supporters, who say that what happened that day was a peaceful act of civil disobedience that only turned bad when officers intervened.

Last month, the state asked a judge to bar the defense from mentioning certain things in the trial, among them: the “right to free speech” and public assemblies, the peaceful nature of the protest, and the general police response to protests locally or elsewhere.

Those issues are expected to be argued in a court hearing set for later this month.

Still to be seen is how much a jury will be able to see of the protest — much of which was captured on video. The videos, recorded by both protesters and police and which a defense attorney released to the Tampa Bay Times, offer the clearest view so far of what occurred that day.

The view from above

The police helicopter took off from Tampa International Airport just after 12:30 p.m. It was hot, the temperature topping 90 degrees, with mostly sunny skies.

A video recording from the helicopter shows its ascent, the city streets floating into view. In the distance, the video shows the downtown skyscrapers, Interstate-275, International Plaza, the West Tampa water tower.

Within two minutes, the video shows the intersection of N Dale Mabry Highway and Spruce Street. Cars sit parallel to crosswalks. Eight of them block the north side of Dale Mabry, four more block the south. A few others block Spruce Street on the east and west.

About 100 people stand in the gaps between vehicles and move about the barren pavement. A few wear yellow vests. A few carry umbrellas.

Some work together to raise banners. One sign is black with white letters reading “Defund Police.” A brown sign reads “Defund TPD.”

Protesters block N Dale Mabry and Spruce Street on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa.
Protesters block N Dale Mabry and Spruce Street on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Lines of commuting cars snake through corner lots near a PNC Bank, a Marathon gas station and a Denny’s restaurant. Some drive over grass and sidewalks to get around the roadblock. A fuel tanker truck approaches from the south on Dale Mabry, stops, then later rolls over the concrete median to make a U-turn.

For much of the next hour, the police helicopter circles the intersection from a height of about 1,500 feet, at times observing from afar, at other times zooming in on people and cars. The pilot and officers on the ground can be heard talking on radio.

A few minutes in, they mention setting up an LRAD — a Long Range Acoustic Device — a contraption designed to broadcast messages and noise with the aim of dispersing crowds. There is talk about finding “a victim, willing to prosecute.”

“Any units that are available, start giving us descriptions of the agitators and et cetera,” someone says.

Later, there is word of complaints.

“We’ve got the manager of the McDonald’s,” someone says. “She wants to be a complainant. She had to close down her drive-through. Will that fly? Or do they actually gotta be stuck in traffic?”

“She can be another complainant, by all means,” someone replies.

About 13 minutes in, a car heading south on Dale Mabry drives through the crowd and moves briskly through the intersection. Protesters chase as the car speeds away. (The driver, Noah Armstrong, would later plead no contest to a reckless driving charge).

After more than 20 minutes, more LRAD messages are announced. The roadblock persists.

“We need to start identifying the people who are on megaphones,” someone says, “the people who are giving direction, and the people who we are going to move in on when we do.”

“First target,” says someone else, “is going to be an individual with a microphone and red clothing on with khaki shorts.”

There is later talk about a man in orange who holds something in his hand as he skips around the intersection.

“That guy needs to go,” someone says. “He’s an agitator.”

The cops start referring to the man in orange as “agitator 2.” Another man is deemed “agitator 1.”

After about 40 minutes, the crowd begins to gather on the northbound side of Dale Mabry. Traffic starts to move through the southbound side.

“If they’re going to march, we need to stand down for a minute,” a cop says. “That means they’re following the LRAD.”

Slowly, the group heads north, flanked by two lines of cars. Five people take the lead, toting the “Defund Police” banner.

An image for a Tampa police helicopter video shows a protest march July 4, 2020, on N Dale Mabry Highway.
An image for a Tampa police helicopter video shows a protest march July 4, 2020, on N Dale Mabry Highway. [ Michelle Lambo ]

Cops describe a “rolling roadblock.” They watch “agitator 2″ in the front of the crowd, and “agitator 1″ near the rear. They talk about getting tag numbers from the cars. Someone says a police bicycle team is assembling.

The crowd passes the 2001 Odyssey nude club, its silver-domed spaceship gleaming in the sunlight.

Just as they reach Palmetto Street, a line of four officers on bicycles comes into view from the east. The bikes move swiftly west. They turn onto Dale Mabry. The first two cops plow into the crowd. They drop their bikes. At least one protester appears to fall backward. The Defund Police banner crumples. Someone drags it away.

Scuffles ensue. The crowd gathers near the officers. It becomes hard to see what’s happening amid a tangle of people.

“Get our guys up there,” the pilot says. “They’re attacking our officers.”

More police appear as officers grapple with two people on the ground. An officer shoots pepper spray, forcing the crowd back.

A protester appears to yell at another officer. The officer pushes him over.

Amid the chaos, a figure with an umbrella can be seen standing on the median. It is Jamie Bullock. She approaches the police from behind.

“Arrest team, watch your back,” the pilot says.

Then comes another voice: “Try to get charges on somebody, if you can.”

On the ground

The aerial video does not show Bullock’s arrest. But other videos, recorded by people on the ground — and Bullock herself — caught snippets of her interaction with police.

Bullock’s video begins as she stands on the median eyeing the officers from behind while they arrest two people. As the camera moves closer, Bullock can be heard saying “let him go!”

Officers approach her.

“What did I do?” she says.

“Get out!” an officer yells. “Back off!”

“Please let them go,” Bullock says. “What did I do?”

An image from a video of a protest on July 4, 2020, shows Jamie Bullock's interaction with police moments before she was arrested.
An image from a video of a protest on July 4, 2020, shows Jamie Bullock's interaction with police moments before she was arrested. [ Michelle Lambo ]

In other videos, she’s seen clutching her umbrella. A police lieutenant, wearing a dark shirt and tan pants, stands between her and the man being arrested. One short clip shows the lieutenant raising his right arm, gesturing toward the roadside. He later appears to grab Bullock. She appears to pull away. Other officers move in as she is tackled to the ground.

A police report would say that she slapped his arm. But it is unclear from the images if Bullock or anyone else hit the lieutenant.

In Bullock’s video, her voice becomes panicked as officers come between her and the man being arrested. As sirens blare, the camera view begins to turn rapidly, showing spinning images of concrete, police uniforms and blue sky.

“Don’t touch me,” Bullock screams. “Let me go!”

Police arrest Jamie Bullock during a protest that blocked N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa.
Police arrest Jamie Bullock during a protest that blocked N Dale Mabry on Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A run through traffic

The police helicopter began to trail a man who ran toward the area where officers were grappling with the protesters. On radio, someone said he threw something. An officer would later write that someone hurled a water bottle at his chest. But it is not clear from the video if the man tossed something.

The helicopter followed as the man dashed south. He eventually got into a blue Toyota Corolla. Officers on foot approached the car. The driver kept moving, winding through the heavy traffic. Police cars eventually surrounded the Toyota, stopping it.

They arrested the driver, Jordan Wright. She pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor charges of disobeying a police officer and resisting arrest and was sentenced to time served.

Uche was in the back seat. He’s accused of battery on a law enforcement officer. In the car, police said they found a backpack with a gun inside, leading to another charge of carrying a concealed firearm.

Preparing for trial

Lawyers for the accused have scrutinized the police response.

“They wanted to arrest somebody that day,” said Tampa attorney Michelle Lambo, who represents Bullock. “Honestly, I think they wanted to start a fight with them.”

Supporters contrasted the treatment of the protesters with the way cops and court officials handled the case against Armstrong, the driver who earlier drove through the blocked intersection. Records show he received a three-month probation sentence with a requirement to complete a defensive driving course.

Bullock, 22, and Uche, 23, each could get as much as five years in prison if they’re found guilty of the most serious charges they face. Neither of them has a history of trouble in Hillsborough County.

Supporters of the protesters filled a set of long wooden benches in a Tampa courtroom when the cases had a pretrial hearing last month. Defense lawyers argued that much of the aerial video may be relevant to the case. The footage, they argued, may go toward potential arguments about “reasonable fear.” That phrase relates to state laws regarding the justifiable use of force to protect one’s self, which can be used as a defense in criminal cases.

“I do think there are portions that are relevant to the purpose, why they were out there, why they were protesting,” said Tampa attorney Maria Pavlidis. “I think it goes to the heart of the defense.”

Assistant State Attorney Danielle Villamil countered that much of the footage is irrelevant to the allegations against the pair. She said the defense is trying to bring into the case issues that have nothing to do with the alleged crimes.

The office of State Attorney Andrew Warren, who has expressed support for the right to peacefully protest, last year declined to prosecute more than 60 people who were arrested on unlawful assembly charges in a similar demonstration in downtown Tampa. But prosecutors aren’t backing down from this one.

“One of these defendants put their hands on a police officer, and the other threw an object at an officer—and those are things you just can’t do,” said Grayson Kamm, a spokesperson for Warren’s office. “As the case proceeds, we will continue to seek a fair and just outcome for everyone involved.”