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Violence and confrontations hurt Tampa Bay protesters’ cause | Editorial

What's the goal: Police reform and social justice, or sparking confrontation?

Memo to the protesters who barged into the St. Pete Pier’s rooftop restaurant Thursday night: Take your skateboards and go home. You’re hurting the cause. Sparking a physical confrontation and a barrage of F-bombs hardly bolsters public support for those demanding social justice. Worse yet, the ugliness was a sharp contrast with real achievements taking place down the street the same day, as St. Petersburg police responded to the reform movement by agreeing to a new method for handling nonviolent emergency calls.

Protesters marched from City Hall on Thursday night to the newly opened Pier, a frequent protest destination this week given its inaugural crowds. On arriving, the demonstrators presented their admission tickets to Pier employees and were ushered in, chanting on the Pier lawn before heading to the rooftop bar. Some protesters who arrived on skateboards and bicycles took them upstairs and into the restaurant, ignoring requests from management and security to leave. The confrontation began when a patron said one of the bikes struck his wife. Amid the noise and chaos, blows were exchanged and a torrent of curse words erupted between a protester and a diner. Police said one patron required medical treatment.

We’ll let the authorities sort this out. But it’s a long way from the scene only weeks ago when Beach Drive diners stood and applauded the protesters, in communion with their peaceful methods, if not their cause. The big question since George Floyd died after being pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer in May has been whether this outcry over police brutality had any staying power. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support the demonstrations that have mushroomed nationwide. And that broad support by people of all races, ages and partisan identity has already produced real gains and the groundswell for further reform.

On the same day that protesters at the Pier were trading in harassment and obscenities, St. Petersburg city and police leaders announced that nonviolent calls to police would soon be handled by social workers rather than uniformed officers. That’s a key concession to critics in the Tampa Bay area and nationwide who believe that counselors are better suited than law enforcement for dealing with people who are intoxicated or undergoing a mental health crisis.

The Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association supports the move, which union president Jonathan Vazquez said would free up officers to handle more traditional calls and lead to “better outcomes to the most vulnerable citizens that we serve.” Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan praised St. Petersburg’s plan, calling it a “great idea” and vowing to follow up on what could become a model for the region. St. Petersburg also announced it would double deescalation training for officers, expand cultural awareness programs for recruits and civilian employees and add a representative from a local civil rights group to its hiring board.

Thursday produced two very different outcomes on different ends of town. The protests have undeniably nudged St. Petersburg in a better direction — as they have in Tampa and countless other communities. But public support can evaporate overnight if demonstrators forget the end game and make the protests a spectacle by themselves. The leverage of social justice is working. There’s no sense in becoming the problem or overplaying one’s hand.

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