St. Petersburg City Council’s final virtual meeting before summer break was interrupted Thursday shortly after being called to order, as unknown participants in the meeting, under the guise of being city residents speaking on the consent agenda, subjected City Council, city staff and the public to threats, derogatory racial epithets and hate speech.
Shortly after the meeting began, an individual who said he was from Tennessee was brought into the meeting for public comment, as legally required under executive orders allowing virtual public meetings from Gov. Ron DeSantis. Participants in public meetings must be residents of St. Petersburg or employees of companies located in St. Petersburg, but there is no process for ascertaining that aside from the word of participants.
Once city staff was aware that the speaker was not a resident of St. Petersburg, they muted the participant and attempted to take control of the meeting once again. The speaker repeatedly screamed the “N-word” and other obscenities, along with racially-offensive threats.
City clerk Chan Srinivasa attempted to filter out the outside speakers, attempting to ascertain which items on the consent agenda they were interested in speaking to, but the hate speech continued as more participants raised their hands in the virtual Zoom meeting.
“We need to get this under control,” said Council member Darden Rice.
Other council members shook their heads, attempting to ignore the comments and continue moving forward. Council member Robert Blackmon broke down in tears. Council Chair Ed Montanari looked to the city’s legal department for guidance. City attorney Jacqueline Kovilaritch explained that Council was legally required to hear the speaker until they ascertained that their speech was not about the consent agenda.
But the threats and hate speech continued, once again, until Montanari moved to recess the meeting.
Numerous council members, as well as St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman, took to social media to condemn the attacks.
“Today’s virtual city council meeting was crashed by racists who attempted to use their allotted time to spew hateful and repulsive words and call for individuals, including African Americans and the mayor, to be killed,” Kriseman said. “Those who broke the law will be held accountable. Those attempting to agitate and be hurtful should feel shame and know that they are not welcome in the City of St. Petersburg. This is a time for peace and healing and moving toward a better and fairer society for African Americans. Anything less is unacceptable here.”
Horrible, foul, cowardly racists are crashing the St. Pete City Council zoom open forum and public comment on the consent agenda. This is why #BlackLivesMatter. This is why #BlackLivesMatter . This is why #BlackLivesMatter. This is why #BlackLivesMatter.
— Darden Rice (@DardenRice) June 11, 2020
“Horrible, foul, cowardly racists are crashing the St. Pete City Council zoom open forum and public comment on the consent agenda,” said Rice. “This is why #BlackLivesMatter.”
Blackmon, who was openly emotional during the meeting, shared an extensive post on Facebook.
“What happened at the beginning of our meeting was shocking – and inexcusable,” he wrote. “Today had been a great day. We are going on ‘summer break’ after today’s meetings. But during public forum our city attorney and a fellow council member were threatened, and then an entire race was repeatedly, provocatively and repulsively slandered and told to ‘die’, with the most vile racism and hatred a human could muster. It made me lose it. We are currently in recess.”
“As a white male, I am embarrassed. As a young person, I am confused, and shocked, that we still have so far to go as a society. It is a testament of character that immediately, I was contacted by three city colleagues – all people of color – concerned not about themselves, but me. The reoccurring, heart wrenching theme of their statements – ‘we’re used to this.'”
“But there is still so much important work for us to do. For society to do. We need healing. We need change. We need to reflect, and move forward with open minds and open hearts. Days like this are a somber, hateful reminder. I showed my vulnerability – which is uncomfortable. But I’m proud to show – and say – that Black Lives Matter.”
Council is scheduled to resume meetings at 4:30 p.m. with no votes taken today, in order to avoid public comment. Votes will be rescheduled for a later date.