If you are reading this on our mobile app, this story will not fully load. Click here to read it in your browser.
ST. PETERSBURG — Javon Cloud crouched in front of City Hall, listening as the protest leader spoke.
“Please pay attention to your surroundings,” she cautioned. “There are literal fascists out here trying to start a conflict.”
Cloud, shirtless on a September night, wasn’t worried as he surveyed the gathering crowd. He’d always felt safe with the group.
But it was three days after a grand jury in Kentucky had announced no officers would be charged with Breonna Taylor’s killing and two days since videos had gone viral of protest confrontations in St. Petersburg. For the first time, a group of counter-protesters had advertised plans to stop Black Lives Matter demonstrators from marching in the streets.
Soon, scuffles and threats filled Beach Drive’s restaurant row. Diners gawked from sidewalk tables. A woman leaned out her car window and screamed over and over into the night.
As the march reached a boiling point, a white man named Laurence Davis ran up to protesters, looking to disrupt them. He shoved one so hard, she ended up in the hospital for head trauma. Then, he drew a gun on Cloud, who is Black.
When an officer arrived, Davis was not stopped. He walked back into the crowd, where he shoved others. All of it was captured on video.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway would later say that failing to detain Davis was a mistake.
But Davis will face no criminal charges for his actions that night.
Instead, police relied on blurry images to blame Cloud and another Black protester for provoking Davis. Prosecutors agreed Davis acted in self-defense.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed hours of footage, spoke with eight people who were on the scene that night, examined investigative records and interviewed the police chief, the prosecutor who oversaw the case and criminal justice experts to understand what happened that night and in the aftermath.
Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, faulted the investigation for bias. She also drew a straight line from the case to the Capitol insurrection, where white Trump supporters streamed videos while attacking police and ransacking the building.
“Prosecutors by and far do not prosecute white people the same way they prosecute Black people,” she said. “Police do not intimidate and try to harass white protesters as they do Black protesters — and the white people know it.”
Davis declined multiple requests to speak with a reporter, but the men accused of threatening him agreed. Neither spoke to police or prosecutors, distrustful of the process.
Cloud said he didn’t expect to see justice done. “I just want the story to be known,” he said.
A ‘Black misfit’
Cloud first appeared at the protests on a sweltering day in August, carrying a skateboard and shaking the hair out of his eyes.
By then, the marchers’ numbers were dwindling as people retreated to air conditioning and returned to jobs interrupted by the pandemic. But Cloud, 20, had spent the summer recovering from an injury, the protests only a blur on the internet.
Then a Facebook post alarmed him. “Black Lives Matter should go home,” it said. “#BePrepared.” It sounded like a threat.
Growing up in the southern part of St. Petersburg, Cloud had watched neighbors deal drugs to pay the bills and his mother skip meals so her children could eat — such a contrast to the pristine streets and gleaming restaurants he sometimes passed on the Northside.
Now, here were people out on those same streets, yelling “Black Lives Matter.” He felt drawn to protect them.
He showed up braced for confrontation.
Instead, he found community.
The St. Pete Peace Protesters didn’t know that he slept in abandoned houses or in the back of Fossil Park and sometimes survived for weeks on 50-cent Honey Buns.
They saw his enthusiasm and creativity, the way he greeted newcomers and transformed every chant into a full-throated song. They invited him to join the de-escalation team, which planned routes and defused conflicts with hecklers. He learned how to signal cars at the crosswalk while the light was still red, so protesters could walk through the street.
As the weeks passed, Cloud began to see himself in a new light.
As a child, he could be sensitive and loved to immerse himself in Japanese cartoons and drawing — but he also could explode if he felt teased or disrespected. His mother thought his tendency to resort to his fists came from growing up without a father around.
It went deeper than that, he said. When he looked around, Cloud saw himself in a hole he couldn’t climb out of. His mother, working long hours as a certified nursing assistant, could barely support her four children. His schools were segregated and failing, places where teachers had no energy to help him manage his attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and police officers wielded pepper spray to keep students in line. Classmates treated him like an outsider. When he was 15, two white students stole a gun and blamed it on him.
“School’s not for me,” he repeated over and over. He didn’t see the point in trying.
So, at 17, he took to the streets, scrounging to get by.
He didn’t know where he was headed, just that he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. He called himself a “Black misfit.”
But the protests pierced his cynicism. He jumped into neighborhood projects, working in a community garden and street clean ups.
He liked that the protesters talked about systems that had shaped his life: The school-to-prison pipeline. Racial profiling. Housing segregation.
Cloud felt the fight in him melt away, replaced by possibilities.
Until that Saturday in September.
That night, dozens of people in biker gear and waving American flags marched toward Beach Drive, vowing to stand in for the police. Some were members of a group called Community Patriots Pinellas, others were part of the Blue Thunder motorcycle club. A few carried flags for the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group.
Among them was an internet personality named Jonathan Riches, wearing a “De-fend Police” T-shirt.
“Where are you, St. Pete police?” he yelled.
As Riches kept his video streaming on Facebook, he called out to protesters by name.
“Where’s your kid?” he asked one, threatening to call Child Protective Services.
Riches knew how to stir up conflict.
While in prison for wire fraud, he had filed thousands of frivolous lawsuits.
Once free, he threw his energy into spreading misinformation, like the time he pretended to be the uncle of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza.
Riches once described his tactics to a reporter: After a high-profile event, like a mass shooting, he might set up social media accounts with fake information, he said.
“Vulnerable, gullible people will see that, they think it’s from a news site and then they will copy it and tweet it out,” he said. “I encourage everyone to basically fight each other.”
In New Port Richey, where he is sometimes based, he researched the personal lives of Black Lives Matter protesters, then posted on Facebook and taunted them at rallies.
Now, he’d set his sights on St. Petersburg.
Videos filmed by a Times reporter had gone viral two nights earlier. One showed protesters walking over a car at a crosswalk and hitting it with a skateboard. In another, protesters sat down at the table of two Parkshore Grill diners after heated comments were exchanged.
St. Petersburg’s racial justice marches were mainly peaceful over the summer. Police had even stepped back and left the streets to the protesters, so they would not crowd sidewalks.
But conservative pundits seized on the videos, and they became the perfect call to action.
“We are here to keep you guys safe!” Riches crowed as he passed by restaurants. Some diners clapped or flashed thumbs up.
A local right-wing blogger, Cathi Chamberlain, marched with him. The video of the protesters bothering restaurant diners had caught her attention. If the police weren’t going to intervene, she decided citizens like her needed to step up.
Scanning the crowd, her eyes settled on Cloud. He looked to her like the protester who sat down at the couple’s table in the viral video — a different man with longer hair and lighter skin.
“There’s a kid in dreadlocks with a bullhorn,” Chamberlain said excitedly, waving her camera in Cloud’s direction.
‘You can run them over!’
Lawrance English rode his bike at the front of the march. A 30-year-old security guard, he usually took on the job of blocking cars so protesters could pass.
He knew it made him a target and his prominence in the Black Lives Matter movement had already led to run-ins. Earlier in the summer, he punched a man who charged at him during a confrontation. Police questioned English, records show, but decided that video showed he acted in self-defense.
Now, Riches’s group came to meet him at the crosswalks, trying to edge out the protesters while motioning cars to drive through.
“You can run them over. DeSantis said so!” a woman told a driver.
A man in biker gear pressed up against a protester filming the scene, flapping his flag in the camera’s lens.
At one point, Riches trained his phone on Cloud.
“Thousands of people are watching. Do something!” he yelled.
Cloud put his hands together in a prayer and bowed. He made a heart with his hands.
He reminded himself what the protest leaders had said — the faster they finished the march, the less chance for mishaps.
He turned on his megaphone: “Keep moving, keep moving!”
Rounding the Vinoy hotel, Riches was following a white man in a baseball cap who ran toward English and Cloud. It was Laurence Davis.
“C’mon, we’re following — the pursuit is on,” Riches yelled.
Davis, a broadband distribution specialist, had joined the protest with a gun in the back of his waistband, a cup in his hand.
He later told police this was his third time marching with the Blue Thunder, “a group (that) believes law enforcement has been unfairly judged, based on the actions of a few.”
For weeks, the protests sweeping the country had grated on him, his Facebook page showed.
One post linked to a video of a man shooting a Black Lives Matter protester during a tussle in New Mexico. “I would have done the same,” he wrote.
Earlier that night, Davis had yelled at a Black man in a car. As the man opened his car door and began to step out, Davis reached for the back of his pants. His shirt flicked up, revealing a gun.
“Get in the car, bitch,” he repeated.
The Black man couldn’t see the gun from the front, but he got back in his car. Davis left the gun where it was.
Now, he and another man surrounded English on his bike, and yelled, “All lives matter!” in his face.
Another protester, Kimberly Cox, ran up with her phone out. She had noticed the confrontation brewing and wanted to film the scene to make sure no one got hurt.
Cloud stood next to her, trying to keep English calm. “Do not fall into ignorance!” Cloud yelled, his voice growing hoarse. “You’re good, you’re good.”
Cox stepped backward and tripped on a man in a white shirt, who had been filming her earlier, she later said.
“Excuse me, get the f--k out of my way, bitch!” she yelled.
“Whore!” someone screamed.
“He had a knife or something,” Riches said as he walked by.
Then, video shows, Davis shoved Cox. Her head hit a car and then the pavement as she crashed down, she said. Medical records reviewed by the Times show she went to the hospital for loss of consciousness, head trauma and nerve damage.
Cloud heard the knock of her head on the ground.
Later, he wouldn’t remember how things unfolded, just the feeling of wanting to punch Davis, who collided into him.
It was the same rage he’d felt the day his mother turned up the volume on Tarzan to keep him from hearing her screams as a boyfriend beat her.
He fell backward and landed on his feet. Davis motioned to him, like “come on, let’s go.” Cloud squared off into a boxer’s stance. English ran to Cloud’s side.
Then Davis reached back and pulled out his gun.
Cloud felt calm.
If this was his time to die, he thought, at least he was protecting a woman — the same age as his mother — who was fighting for him.
“He’s got a gun!” someone yelled.
Instinct kicked in. Cloud and English raced away through the crowd.
Davis, still holding the gun, kept walking. A man picked up English’s bike and threw it.
Then a protester called out:
“St. Pete police — where the f--k are you?”
The police officer
Maj. Matthew McKinney finally appeared in the median of Beach Drive. A 26-year veteran of the St. Petersburg Police Department, he was in charge of monitoring the scene that night and had been watching live feeds from afar. He came out when he heard the sides growing tense.
But as he stepped from his cruiser, he missed the radio report that Davis had pointed a gun moments before.
In video, people from Riches’ group bombard him with questions.
“Is it illegal to block traffic?” Riches yelled, shoving his phone in the officer’s face. “Yes or no?” A woman wearing a white bandana said she saw men with knives.
“We need everybody to just relax here,” McKinney said. “Let them express themselves — does that really disturb you all so much?”
When Davis and two other men yelled at a group of protesters chanting on the median, McKinney spread his arms wide and walked Davis away.
As he moved, Davis reached out and pushed McKinney’s arm. The major, who is Black, didn’t react. Minutes later, Davis shook his hand.
McKinney was later disciplined with an employee notice for failing to provide effective leadership and oversight that night, records show.
The protesters made it to The Pier and kneeled for a moment of silence.
Davis and the two others were still following. One carried brass knuckles. They ran up and began shoving protesters standing on the outside of the circle.
McKinney heard about the confrontation over the radio. He began walking over to arrest the men, he wrote in an internal memo, because they had refused his order to leave the area.
A supervisor interrupted and told him to stand down. Another sergeant was already there and would handle it.
But in video from the scene, no officers arrived. Instead, protesters formed a chain, trying to block the men from getting into the circle.
Finally, Davis and the others retreated.
“All lives matter,” Davis yelled once more over his shoulder.
“Yes, we know, buddy,” a protester responded wearily.
Dozens of people recorded the protest with their phones. But that night, no witnesses were interviewed, no further evidence collected, no arrests made.
In the days after, police relied mainly on Jonathan Riches’ video. Along with photos of Davis, they released screenshots of Cloud and English, accusing them of carrying knives.
“The man in red plaid was carrying a folding knife, and the man in jeans had a homemade sharp weapon commonly called a shank,” the police press release said. “Detectives would like help to identify and speak to all three involved.”
The agency had drawn red circles around the supposed weapons, but nothing was clear in the grainy images, not even the men’s faces.
The claims were based on Detective Brian Bilbrey’s assessment of the video. Bilbrey found English’s hand movements “very suspicious,” said Yolanda Fernandez, a St. Petersburg Police Department spokesperson. Police had already identified Cloud and English, but Fernandez said they released the photos because they hoped it would encourage witnesses to come forward.
Lawyers working with the protesters, Megan Fernandez and Johnny Bardine, were outraged. In a statement, they said English was holding a flip phone and Cloud had a long belt. They thought police should focus on Davis, who the video captured shoving Cox and pulling a gun.
English and Cloud both deny having knives that night.
For Cloud, the confident tone of the police version, the rush to judgment, felt like nothing new.
“The system is against me, that just proves it,” he told the Times.
To English, the photos were a display of power. “They are showing me that they can control the outcome of these situations,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me, but it pisses me off deeply every time.”
Cloud and English weren’t about to sit down with police, they said. Cloud believed they would throw him in jail before he could open his mouth.
Fernandez, the lawyer, understood. “Why would two young Black men, in this climate, want to speak to the police who have already released photos of them on the evening news?” she said. “(The police) seem stunned that people don’t trust them.”
The lawyers turned to Kimberly Cox.
For months, the 40-year-old mother of two had been protesting against the police. The killing of George Floyd had led her to books like How to Be an Antiracist and documentaries like The Central Park Five, then to rallies across Tampa Bay.
As a white person, she saw it as her duty to be on the front lines of the protests, protecting people of color from harassment whenever she could. Weeks earlier, her arm was injured after stepping between an officer and a Black protester in New Port Richey.
She wanted Cloud and English cleared, and Davis arrested for assault, possibly charged with a hate crime.
So a week after the incident, still tender from her injuries, Cox nervously walked with her lawyers into police headquarters. Two other white protesters also agreed to make statements and share videos and photos.
The lawyers had warned Detective Bilbrey that Cox would be reticent— she didn’t trust the department. She also was still recovering from her injuries. They asked him to be gentle.
But the interview quickly became confrontational, a video recording shows.
Bilbrey barked out questions and grew frustrated when the lawyers interrupted.
When Cox described Davis as a white supremacist, Bilbrey asked sarcastically, “Was he wearing a shirt that says ‘I’m a white supremacist?’ "
“You are alienating your witnesses!” Fernandez interrupted.
As the lawyers argued about his tone, Bilbrey’s temper rose. “If you don’t want to be here today, I will walk you right out the front door, ma’am,” he said.
As Cox exited, she spit out an insult — “you f--king jerk” — then quickly apologized.
Police had identified Davis days earlier through an anonymous tip, according to records. But he never agreed to sit down with a detective. Instead, he submitted a statement through his attorney that painted him as the victim of antagonism.
“Multiple people would play a ‘game’ of walking in front of Blue Thunder members and then abruptly stopping in an attempt to cause people to have to abruptly step around them.”
He said Cox had stepped in front of him.
“The unintentional collision was not forceful,” he wrote. “I apologized to the woman who said nothing back to me.”
Then, he said, a man in a red plaid shirt (English) stepped up from behind him and pulled out a knife.
He never accused Cloud of having a knife.
After they retreated, Davis said he walked to his car and left.
Davis’ statements are not supported by what video shows, according to a Times review and the detective’s initial report.
Editor’s note: To illustrate the scene above, clips from different cameras were synchronized using audio markers caught by both cameras.
But it was the last piece of evidence Bilbrey collected before forwarding the case to the State Attorney’s Office.
Cox’s lawyers encouraged her to meet with prosecutors to continue pressing an assault charge. But those interviews went no better.
The prosecutor handling the case, Anthony Carlow, cut the meeting short after Cox’s lawyers interrupted to clarify her injuries. Cox met with a second set of prosecutors, but they were unfamiliar with the videos and kept asking about knives, not Davis’ behavior, the lawyers said. Carlow declined to speak with the Times.
Cox said she lost confidence in the investigation.
“It made me feel like they weren’t looking at me like a victim, but like a criminal,” she said.
In early January, the prosecutor’s office announced they were not filing charges against Davis.
“He was justified in pulling the gun,” said Kendall Davidson, who oversaw Carlow’s investigation, in an interview with the Times. “The state of Florida allows people to lawfully carry concealed weapons and allows people to defend themselves when threatened with great bodily harm.”
He said he was “very confident” English and Cloud threatened Davis with knives.
Prosecutors couldn’t bring a case in good faith unless they believed in “a reasonable likelihood of successful prosecution,” Davidson said.
He acknowledged that Davis’ statement about bumping into and apologizing to Cox didn’t match the video. But he also said Cox was “pretty hostile” in interviews and did not share her medical records. She and her lawyers dispute this.
Cox cried when she found out Davis wouldn’t be charged.
“Someone was just allowed to walk up and physically assault me — and get zero repercussions,” she said. She is still struggling to pay off $3,000 in medical bills from that night.
The lawyers were upset by the state’s logic. “You can’t be the aggressor and claim self-defense,” Fernandez said.
English and Cloud didn’t expect any other outcome.
“Y’all should be telling me what color the knife was, what make it was, if you got footage of everything,” English said. “That is just lazy police work, and that is in our face.”
That same week, armed rioters encouraged by President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election. They barged past barricades and police, smashed glass, stole property and fatally injured a Capitol Police officer. Four others died in the mayhem.
Trump — who had called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” and threatened anyone who damaged federal buildings with 10 years in prison — referred to the rioters as “very special people” and said he loved them.
As Fernandez watched the white protesters post pictures and video from the mayhem, she saw a direct connection to the St. Petersburg case.
“There are thousands of Larry Davises, who descended on the Capitol with no fear of repercussion or consequences,” she realized.
Both Riches and Chamberlain attended the “Stop the Steal” event in Washington, D.C., the day of the insurrection.
On the bus back to Florida, Chamberlain shared conspiracy theories with followers on Facebook Live. Her confidence was as strong as ever. She would keep speaking at Patriot events in Tampa Bay. “We know Trump still has four more years!” she cried.
‘Show us the flip phone’
In an interview, Chief Holloway defended his agency’s investigation.
He had not reviewed the video himself, he said, but he said he trusted his detective and the supervisors who signed off on Bilbrey’s report. He declined to authorize Bilbrey to speak to a reporter.
Holloway said the men accused of carrying knives should come to the police department to prove they didn’t have them.
“If you say that’s the phone, bring the flip phone, show us the flip phone,” he said.
The case could be reopened if more information was revealed, he said.
“No one’s being treated special here,” he said. “If there’s another side of the story, we need to hear it.”
Browne-Marshall, the John Jay professor, criticized the department for releasing photos of Cloud and English and then calling on them to prove their innocence.
“Multiply what happened in St. Petersburg across the country and you have the reason why people of color don’t trust police officers and prosecutors,” she said.
‘I needed more than that’
After police released his photos, Cloud kept a low profile. A white protester heard he had nowhere to go and invited him to stay with his family.
Cloud was shocked at how much calmer he felt with a room to himself, his mind no longer buzzing with the constant worries about his next meal and where he was going to sleep.
“I have to keep pressing myself to want more than the bare minimum,” Cloud told himself.
He didn’t keep up with Cox or the lawyers about the case — he was focused on the future.
The protester helped him get a job canvassing for the Biden campaign, and Cloud threw himself into working 10-hour days. In his free time, he listened to Buddhism lectures by Alan Watts on YouTube, to help himself relax.
He began to envision a path forward: A high school equivalency diploma, a job, a bank account and an apartment of his own. Making it big as a musician or artist.
But the weeks after the election were tough.
He traveled around to fast-food restaurants, not finding work. In December, feeling like he had overstayed his welcome, he left the protester’s house to crash with a friend in his old neighborhood.
He wondered: Now that Biden was elected, were the protesters finished? What about the police reforms they’d called for?
“The whole thing was a disappointment,” he decided. “I needed more than that.”
Finally, he found work on the night shift at McDonald’s. He dreamed of saving money to go to Japan, where he imagined people were kinder, and he would finally feel safe.
First, he had to save up to move out of the neighborhood.
One day recently, skateboarding back from the store, he narrowly avoided crossfire.
He watched from the corner of his eye as an unfamiliar car slowed next to two men he didn’t recognize. He heard the door swing open and a gun’s click. Then: Bap-bap-bap.
By then, he was already running.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
Video editing by Jennifer Glenfield, web production by Langston Taylor.