Two distinct pictures are emerging of Saturday’s protest in St. Petersburg, sparked by the death of an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn.
City leaders, including the police chief and mayor, praised peaceful protesters and the professionalism of St. Petersburg police officers. One of the protestors, however, said pain and loss were the motivating factors.
“They can emphasize how peaceful we were,” Epiphany Summers, Statewide Organizing Director for Dream Defenders, told the St. Pete Catalyst, “but we do not have peace in our hearts. People are livid. People were crying in front of a police department in the middle of the street.”
About 500 people were at the protest in downtown St. Petersburg, Summers estimated, one of many around the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
During a Sunday news conference, St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway said the protest, which stretched throughout downtown from City Hall, through Beach Drive and eventually to the Police Department headquarters, was predominantly peaceful.
“We heard their message, we understand what they have to say, and I can tell you that St. Pete police officers in the department and other law enforcement officers disagree with what that officer did in that city,” said Holloway.
“There was no cause for that officer to do what he did to Mr. Floyd, and I’ll say this every time I get the chance to, that officer should have been arrested and hopefully he will be convicted if they have the right charges on him.
“That type of activity and those tactics will not be used in St. Petersburg, and that person would be fired,” Holloway said, referring to the manner in which Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin was fired, and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter following the release of the viral video of the event.
“And, if an officer witnessed this, that officer better come forward or they would be fired also,” Holloway continued. The three other officers involved in Floyd’s death have also been terminated, but have not been charged with any crimes.
Holloway went on to encourage peaceful protest and condemn unrest. “If you are protesting peacefully, we want that and we welcome that,” he said. “If you violate the law, break the law, damage any city property, do anything to any of our citizens of police officers, you are going to jail, period.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman echoed that message. “When you start protesting and it turns to violence, you drown out your message,” he said. “The message you are trying to impart to the community gets lost in the violence. So I was very proud of our protesters. I was also very proud of our community, because one thing that we see here in St. Petersburg is that this city is a strong community.”
In an interview with the Catalyst, however, Summers told of the tears shed by protestors, the many stories told by protest organizers and community members, and about the many situations for which they feel the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department have not been held accountable.
Holloway said that the St. Petersburg Police Department is ready and willing to have one-on-one conversations and to build relationships with those involved in the protest. But Summers said she believes stronger accountability for law enforcement both in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County is the first step.
Dream Defenders is a direct action group formed in 2012 in response to the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.