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Free speech and public safety on display in Tampa Bay | Editorial
“They’re not anti-cop; they’re anti-police brutality, as we all should be,” Tampa’s police chief said.
Demonstrators use hand signals while marching near Cyrus Greene Park Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa, Fla. Protesters took to the streets of Tampa and St. Petersburg over the weekend to express anger over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Demonstrators use hand signals while marching near Cyrus Greene Park Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa, Fla. Protesters took to the streets of Tampa and St. Petersburg over the weekend to express anger over the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP) [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 1, 2020

The demonstrations on both sides of Tampa Bay this weekend remained largely under control, thanks to the discipline of most protesters, restraint by police and sound crowd-control and preparation. The violence that broke out was the exception, and unlike in other parts of the country, residents here made their voices heard without the spectacle of mass arrests, serious injuries or a crackdown on lawful, peaceful assemblies.

Whether luck and level heads prevail in the uncertain days ahead remains to be seen. But it’s important to reflect on what went right in the first weekend since protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who died last week after a white Minneapolis police officer was recorded kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer was charged Friday with murder and manslaughter, preceding a new round of demonstrations against police brutality across the country.

Locally, violence erupted overnight Saturday when rioters burned and looted a north Tampa strip mall. At least 40 businesses in Hillsborough County were burglarized and five were set on fire. Late Sunday, St. Petersburg police clashed briefly with protesters who threw water meter covers, rocks and bottles at officers outside police headquarters. But in both cities, the police gave demonstrators a wide berth to march and assemble. Protest organizers policed their own ranks, trying to corral provocateurs who sought to hijack the demonstrations to incite a violent reaction from the police.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor made the right decision Sunday to impose an overnight curfew, which will last until at least Tuesday. Curfews are not aimed at criminals; they are tools for keeping innocent people from becoming victims by unknowingly stumbling into harm’s way. Law enforcement in Tampa also did a wonderful job Sunday in keeping protesters from rushing onto Interstate 275. Demonstrators have breached the interstate ramps in other cities, causing huge and dangerous traffic jams, damaging cars and terrorizing motorists. In general, authorities have responded to these local safety threats with proportionate force. And they have not abused their arrest powers.

These smart policing tactics and a continued show of restraint will help tamp down any flash points that could lead to violence in the days ahead. Officers across the area have threaded the needle by balancing their duty to protect public safety with their twin obligation to enable protected speech. The footage of looting and burning businesses has provided the public with a clear distinction between those engaged in political protests and those indulging in criminal behavior. Just as the police must enforce professionalism in the ranks, protesters should not allow the few spoiling for a fight on national TV to overtake their nonviolent call for racial justice. This righteous cause should not come at the expense of laying waste to minority neighborhoods.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan sent the right message Monday by vowing to uphold order but also validating the core concern of the protesters. “They’re not anti-cop; they’re anti-police brutality, as we all should be,” Dugan said. That’s the mindset that thankfully was on display throughout Tampa Bay this weekend, and it’s the one that will help the region weather this unrest.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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