ST. PETERSBURG — Hours after a grand jury decided not to charge any police officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, protesters took their chants and frustrations to downtown Wednesday night. Then they marched to restaurant row on Beach Drive NE.
There, a tense scene between demonstrators and diners went viral. Protesters descended on two people at Parkshore Grill, sitting at their table, exchanging harsh words and gestures and refusing to leave. A protester later tweeted a photo of the diners giving them a thumbs down — and the time-honored one-finger salute.
In a video recorded by a Tampa Bay Times reporter, a protester can be heard threatening to punch one of the diners while another diner tried to lift a chair to get a demonstrator to leave the table. When a woman attempted to make a phone call to 911, protesters can be heard berating the patrons with expletives and insults.
The Twitter video garnered more than 3 million views — despite much larger protests in Taylor’s hometown of Louisville. It even made the New York Post.
There were other tense encounters between the group of mostly white protesters and patrons along Beach Drive NE and Central Avenue. It was an unusual scene after nearly four months of peaceful protests in St. Petersburg.
The Sunshine City is not Portland or Washington D.C. The demonstrations here are much smaller but still determined. There were a handful of arrests and tense moments in the early weeks. But police officers backed away long ago, and the marches continued.
There was a different energy to Wednesday night’s protest, and the responses it generated. The video attracted the attention of Mayor Rick Kriseman, who told the Times in an email Thursday that the protesters’ behavior detracted from their message condemning police violence and systemic racism.
“It is unfortunate whenever someone or something distracts from an important message that a majority of protesters wish to convey,” he said. “We shouldn’t confuse those peacefully protesting injustice in America with those doing harm to people or property and breaking the law.”
Republican congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna tweeted out excerpts of an email she said she received from a man who says he was one of the diners. He was identified only as Ken, his last name blacked out.
The diner said the thumbs down and middle-finger gestures were aimed at a protester taking a photo. Other protesters sat down. He said he and his friend were “insulted” and “threatened with physical violence.”
“Next thing I know there were 3 more at our table and several circling,” he wrote. “I was harassed, called racial slurs … threatened with violence.” They feared for their safety, he said, “with an angry mob close by.”
The diner complained that the mayor had not responded to his email and that “not a single SPPD officer (was) in sight.” St. Petersburg Police Department spokesman Yolanda Fernandez said the agency received two calls from Beach Drive NE. One caller said there was no need for police to respond, and the other said they did not wish to file a report. A mayoral spokesman said they received the email and will respond.
This was just one of many demonstrations that took place across the country Wednesday night to protest the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old Louisville emergency medical technician killed March 13 by police serving a “no-knock” warrant. One officer was fired after the botched raid. Earlier this month the city paid Taylor’s family $12 million and promised police reforms in a settlement. But the grand jury did not hold any officers accountable for her death, instead charging one with firing into a neighbor’s apartment.
St. Petersburg’s march started as usual at City Hall with 50 or so demonstrators. An hour later, it boiled over when a Mercedes Benz attempted to cross a downtown intersection blocked by protesters. A Times reporter video recorded protesters’ response: They hit the car with a skateboard, kicked it and one demonstrator walked over the car, from the hood to the trunk.
Protesters declined to speak on the record. They said they feared that they would be doxxed, that their personal information would be posted online and they would be targeted for harassment. The people at the restaurant declined to speak after Wednesday’s incident and could not be reached for comment Thursday.
St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway told the City Council during Thursday’s meeting that the Mercedes driver did not want to press charges, according to the St. Pete Catalyst.
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders addressed the video during the meeting, the website reported.
“I saw the videos last night and didn’t understand it,” she said. “The total message has been lost. For protesters who protest peacefully we applaud that. But the few that are passionate past the point of being disrespectful — I can’t endorse.”
John Ruetz, general manager of 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House on Beach Drive NE, said that by the time the protesters reached his restaurant, patrons didn’t react.
“They were out in the street yelling at the patrons, but the patrons weren’t,” he said. “It wasn’t a two-sided thing like it was up the street.”
Ruetz said it’s been weeks since they’ve seen the protesters. He said he was surprised by the nature of Wednesday’s protest.
“I feel like we’re crossing a line here,” he said, “between protesting and private business and that’s the biggest thing.”
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.