**Updated June 4, 2020 to include remarks from Child’s Park Neighborhood Association Vice President Jabaar Edmond. St. Pete Catalyst regrets excluding the remarks in the original story and mislabeling Edmond as a protestor.**
Dozens of St. Petersburg public officials, law enforcement and community leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning, looking care-worn but resolute after months of emergency pandemic response and four days of predominantly peaceful protests that have sprawled across downtown, down Martin Luther King Jr. Street, in front of City Hall and the new St. Petersburg Police Station.
In a change of tone from previous press conferences and photo opportunities, city leaders gathered in a powerful collective call for change, a commitment to hearing the concerns of citizens, and to developing policies that would fight systemic racism.
“Our people have been speaking up, and we’ve been listening. But the key thing is, I don’t think we’ve been hearing them,” said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway. “We’re going to start hearing some people.”
The police chief was clearly emotional. “The protestors have been coming to the police department, our home, to bring up their issues. So what I’m telling people today is: Come to our home, come to our porch, I want to listen,” he said.
“I’ll be there at 2:00, I’ll be there at 4:00, I’ll be there at 6:00, I will be there at 8:00. I’ll be there every day. Come to my porch, let’s talk.”
The demonstration began with words from Deputy Mayor and City Administrator Dr. Kanika Tomalin, who framed her words as not just those of a city official, but a mother. The mother of a young black man.
“My son Kai is a 19-year old black man making his way in America,” Tomalin said. “And, his future…and that of so many other black boys and men, depends on our ability to make a difference.”
Tomalin recalled the viral video of George Floyd, the man who died in police custody after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In his final conscious moments, Floyd called out, “Mama,” and “I can’t breathe,” a chant heard around the world at demonstrations provoked by his death.
“There is heavy magic that happens in the moment one becomes a mother,” Tomalin said.
“Once a woman becomes a mother, she becomes every mother. And, something equally powerful happened the moment that Mr. Floyd cried out for his mama, in the last minutes of his last breaths. He became every child. Every black boy and man crying out to every mother. Every boy and man who moves through this world with as much apprehension of the unimaginable as anticipation of what’s possible; every boy and man whose heart holds as much fear as hope; as much disappointment as determination … because the color of his skin makes his future uncertain.”
Tomalin went on to say that the city leadership gathered Wednesday stood in solidarity with the community, the marginalized and the protestors, to call for collective change in St. Petersburg. She called for clarity in what justice looks like in St. Petersburg, and which policies and protocols would shift the practices that have caused the community pain.
Then, she committed to creating a collaborative plan to create sustainable, transformative change. “In St. Pete we lead,” Tomalin said. “We set standards. We blaze trails and we break molds. I believe we will do the same with this moment.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman echoed her message. He recalled the riots in Detroit that preceded and followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 and 1968. Kriseman said he had never expected to see demonstrations of such “collective anger” again in his lifetime.
“But, more than 50 years later, here we are,” Kriseman said. “And not just because George Floyd was killed. We find ourselves here for too many reasons.”
Kriseman went on to call out disparities in policing and the criminal justice system, in policy and economic systems; policies that benefit “the wealthy, the white, and the few.”
“The work of building just and fair societies, of ensuring opportunity for all, of leading people through hurricanes, global pandemics, and civil unrest has fallen to governors, mayors, council members and community leaders. Fortunately, we’re up to the challenge. I believe we’ve proven that here in St. Pete.”
Community Leader Matt Byrd also spoke, announcing that a social justice policy team was being developed, which would present demands to administration.
Byrd recalled the 1996 police killing of Tyron Lewis. “Almost 25 years ago right here in St. Petersburg, Tyron Lewis was shot by the police,” Byrd said. “And I was out there, I was feeling just like she’s feeling right now,” he said, in reference to a bystander yelling back at him on the street.
“St. Petersburg has matured as a city in many ways, and its taken some really positive steps in the right direction. Today I stand here proud to part of this beautiful city. I’m proud of the diversity of the city and its leadership. I’m proud of how hard they fight for our black men. I know how hard Nikki [Capehart, Director of Urban Affairs] fights for our black men.
“Today, I’m here to challenge us, I’m here to challenge the administration to engage in those uncomfortable conversations … White supremacy slapped us in the face and gave us all a reality check, every last one of us … In St. Pete, we have some healing to do, we have some work to do.”
Child’s Park Neighborhood Association Vice President Jabaar Edmond confronted local leaders and the media following the demonstration, and discussed nationwide policies and practices that he believes could be easily implemented in St. Petersburg, if the city had the political will to make those changes.
Edmond said he’s tired of public officials passing blame from one entity to the other.
“I think we’re missing a big opportunity by not pushing social justice reform in this community,” Edmond said. He argued that St. Petersburg is the place to start a tide of social change, that would expand from the city to the country, and eventually across the state. But that work, Edmond said, just like economic development, has to come with a plan.
“Where is our social justice plan?” he asked. “Where is our racial equity plan? Do we think that we just now need it?”
“We can’t tell our neighbors they need to cut their grass when we haven’t cut our own grass,” Edmond continued. “We’ve got to cut our grass first.”
“I take ownership in the city of St. Pete, I take pride in the city of St. Pete, this is my home as well, and I’m going to do my best to improve it, and that’s what politicians should be doing too.”
In the meantime, as local leaders committed to local work to fight police brutality and end systemic racism in St. Petersburg, Rep. Charlie Crist said his team is working alongside the Rev. Watson Haynes of the Pinellas County Urban League to distill a national Urban League plan to fight police brutality into federal legislation.
The 10-point plan pushes for new and strengthened police hiring standards, body and dashboard camera use across law enforcement, retraining in best practices for police officers, revised use of deadly force policies, the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate police misconduct, a new national database for citizen complaints against police, and a federal law prohibiting racial profiling.