Protesters Brave Heavy Rains For Peaceful March In Downtown Tampa
The rainy weather didn’t stop a large crowd of protestors from peacefully marching through downtown Tampa on Saturday afternoon, beginning and ending with demonstrations in Curtis Hixon Park.
While the crowd consisted mostly of young adults, people of all ages and races joined together to chant “Black Lives Matter,” “No Trump, no KKK, no racist Tampa Bay,” “Say his name: George Floyd, say her name: Breonna Taylor,” and other messages as they moved from the park toward West Kennedy Boulevard.
They then marched over the bridge to walk through the neighborhood surrounding the University of Tampa before returning back downtown for a lap around some of the restaurants and businesses within a few blocks of the park.
It was hard to estimate the full scale of the crowd as hordes of people weaved around city blocks in the pouring rain. Soaked clothes, muddy shoes and the occasional bursts of thunder and lightning didn’t stop most people from completing the march, and crowds cheered as the sun temporarily came out in time for a moment of silence to honor black people killed by police and others.
Many drivers in cars that passed by or were held up by the foot traffic honked their horns in support, some waving protest signs out their windows or offering water bottles and snacks to marchers. Volunteers on the sidewalks also offered up supplies to those in need, and event organizers stationed at street corners used megaphones to control the flow of people and ensure everyone was safe and for the most part remained on the sidewalks.
Emadi Okwusa, 22, is with the Black Collective Movement, which helped co-host the event. He told protesters at the start that he recently got a felony charge after he was accused of starting a riot at a demonstration earlier in the week. He pleaded with them to remain peaceful and “not put his life on the line” by creating havoc during the march. It seems everyone took the message to heart.
“I think this is absolutely beautiful, people maintained their composure, people stayed contained on the sidewalks, in the crosswalks,” he said as he helped direct crowds on Ashley Drive. “We are staying safe and we are being heard, we have over 1,000 people out here for our cause, this is amazing.”
Okwusa credited recent high school graduate Christian Robinson, 18, who he calls “Truth,” for organizing the event.
“I’m doing this because I just want change,” Robinson said. “We all want change, and this isn’t just for me, this is for everybody else who’s out here, everybody else is out here in the rain and they’re showing how
serious they are.”
The day was especially emotional for New Port Richey resident Jeanette Gonzalez, 26, who held a sign with the Declaration of Independence pasted on one side and a list of names of black people killed by police on the other.
“I have a black son and I have a black daughter and I’m doing this, I don’t care what’s at stake, so that they don’t have to go through this when they get older,” she said with tears in her eyes.
She choked up as she went on, “It’s disturbing, it’s scary and I don’t want them to ever fear that. My daughter is only 5 years old and she’s already gone through discrimination at school because her hair is curly and her skin is darker. I’ve already had to switch her schools two times, so that’s going to change, that’s going to change today.”
Hakeem Campbell, 34, also had his son in mind and brought him along to the protest.
“Every day of my life I’ve had to experience the racism and injustice with the police, so I’m here to let my
voice be heard and I brought my son as well because I want him to experience it and know that (police brutality) it’s not right and it needs to stop,” Campbell said.
His son Zion, 11, said it “means a lot that people are supporting George Floyd and supporting black people.”
Prior to the event, the Tampa Museum of Art set up tables with art supplies so community members could create protest signs.
“The museum is in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Kessanda Abel, the museum’s community engagement manager. “Artists and members of the community have a way to express themselves, to take all that they’re feeling and put it down -- whether it's paint on canvas, photography, or in this case, markers and foam core, art is important because it’s sharing what you’re passionate about with the community.”
Alaina and Jose Mirial and their four children stood at a table creating posters.
“We’re here because I really want to instill in my children that black lives do matter and white people need
to help. We can’t just be silent, that’s the way I was raised. I really realize that it’s going to take all of us to help make a difference with systemic injustice against black people,” said Alaina. “I’m just so thankful to have this opportunity to bring my children here to see it’s not all rioting and there are peaceful voices.”
“I was raised in West Tampa and I’m Hispanic, I’ve been discriminated against a lot by the cops and I know all cops aren’t bad, but if you don’t speak up for the ones that are doing wrong, then you’re just as guilty,” added Jose.
Unlike with some marches earlier this week, Tampa police officers had a very limited presence at this demonstration. The only time they were highly visible was near the entrance to I-275 on Ashley Drive, where a number of police vehicles flashed their lights and a group of officers stood in what appeared to be riot gear. They ultimately kept their distance from protestors, at least during the organized march, which concluded around 5:30 p.m.
Shanté Williams, 22, came out to demand Mayor Jane Castor defund the police department and reinvest in the community. She carried a sign that said “’Mayor’ Castor Is Still A Cop,” referring to Castor’s time as Tampa’s former chief of police.
“Though she is the first openly gay mayor of Tampa, her activism is not intersectional, so we say as proud members of the LGBTQ community: canceled,” Williams said. “We’re done, she’s still a cop, will always be a cop, she’s got the cop mentality and she’s not out here protecting her people.”
Another protestor, Andria Stokes, outlined ideas for police reform on her sign that reflected similar suggestions made by the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign. Those include banning chokeholds, requiring warnings before shootings and other polices, all of which Mayor Castor recently said have been in place in Tampa for years.
Stokes is turning 56 this year and has been to many protests in her life. She said she was thrilled to
demonstrate alongside so many 20-somethings but said they can’t be the only ones who act.
“It’s not a young person’s problem, it’s not an old person’s problem. It’s all of our problem,” she said.
The crowd was split between protestors wearing masks and those who did not. One group went a step further than just face coverings and also included some people in scrubs and lab coats. They were medical students from the University of South Florida and said they wanted to support the black community even if it meant going out in public during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We believe strongly in social distancing and limiting crowds, so the fact that we’re out here going against that means that this is so important, this is a huge issue,” said USF med student Emily Shipley.
The inclement weather did put a damper on another event scheduled nearby. An official Black Lives Matter demonstration was planned for Fred Ball Park near Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa, but organizers postponed the event to next Saturday due to safety concerns. A small group of people gathered there anyway, but many people who planned to attend that event went to Curtis Hixon Park instead.
Protests also took place in St. Petersburg and near University Mall, which suffered damages last week during riots.
More events are planned for Sunday in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Lakeland.