Photos: Cops are already pepper-spraying protesters at Thursday’s downtown Tampa rally

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The sixth straight day of protests have already started.

In downtown Tampa on Thursday evening, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay photographer Ashley Dieudonne is following protesters as they march from Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and around downtown.

Dieudonne was also near the I-4/I-275 onramp near Perry Harvey Sr. Park where some protesters were hit with pepper spray. At one point, Tampa Police officer B. Scholer was running up behind protesters and spraying them from behind, says Dieudonne.  The Tampa Bay Times reports that an event organizer has also been detained.

Despite the pepper spraying, Dieudonne said tonight's protest has so far been mostly peaceful, and included an eight-minute moment of silence in honor of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who murdered last Monday underneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

CL has reached out to a City of Tampa spokesperson to see if they could elaborate on why pepper spray was deployed.

At 8:49 p.m., nearly three hours after our initial email to the city spokesperson (to Ashley Bauman, Director of Marketing & Communications at City of Tampa and for Mayor Jane Castor) the Tampa Police Department Facebook page left a comment on a CL Facebook post asking CL to “tell the full story.”

“Protesters in the same group from the past several days again tried to enter the interstate. The female in one of your pictures swung an umbrella at one of our officers and as they were trying to make an arrest, the crowd ran at our officers in an aggressive manner. Officers used the spray to back them up,” the comment read. “Your headline should read, ‘Criminals attacking officers’"”

At 8:52 p.m., this writer’s desk received a voicemail from Jamel Laneè, Public Safety Information Coordinator for Tampa Police, reiterating what the Facebook comment says.

Twitter video shows what appears to be the moment the “female” that “swung an umbrella at one of our officers” was taken down before being subdued by three officers. Another video shows a bystander being pepper sprayed.

In the background of video, you can hear a protest organizer on a speaker or bullhorn telling everyone to “abort” and “follow me.” The crowd moves to a nearby parking lot and then towards N. Jefferson Street.

Joel Davis, pictured in a few slides of this gallery, standing next to his box cargo trike, told CL he witnessed the protest organizer heard on the bullhorn being “violently body slammed” by officers. Davis, who said he was “just supporting peaceful protests with water, snacks, resources, masks, gloves etc.,” said he hopped off his trike to try and get video of the takedown and was met with police officers who put shotguns (presumably loaded with nonlethal rounds) in his face while saying, "get the fuck out of here or I'm gonna shoot you."

“You can see the dude still pointing his fucking shot gun at me behind the closest cop,” Davis added in his text message exchange with CL. Davis said all of this unfolded about 15-20 minutes into the “peaceful march.”

He said the crowd was trying to go back to Curtis Hixon when the protest organizer started to worry as he noticed people get separated.

“I saw the cops pointing him out,” Davis wrote, alluding to the protest organizer. “They were trying to single him out. I told him he needed to run. As soon as he started to run those suv cruisers swarmed us. Probably 40-50 mph barely missed me on the trike.”

Davis said the SUVs and cops surrounded the protest organizer.

“He was standing upright with hands in the air, only a bullhorn hanging off his neck, and they rushed him and body slammed him. Several cops jumped on him,” Davis said. That’s when Davis tried to pull out his phone.

“They ran at me with shotguns, put them directly in my face and starting screaming ‘get out of here mother fucker I'll shoot you’ just screaming,” Davis added.

Davis said he observed the protest leader, earlier in the evening, addressing a crowd, and begging them to be peaceful, at Curtis Hixon before the march moved out of the park.

“He said something to the effect of ‘everyone is watching, tonight they're gonna see how peaceful we are and how violent the cops are,’” Davis said. “He then had a girl get up and pray for peace and protection and that we would be heard. 20 minutes later the cops started the violence. For no reason.”

Davis added that he saw one cop single out a Black protester in the parking lot after the initial assault. According to Davis, the cop chased the protester who did nothing to the officer but yell.

“He just lost it. Pure rage,” Davis said, alluding to an officer, who can be seen falling in these pictures.

Davis also made note of photos of a young protester, purportedly at the protest with his mother, who was pepper sprayed. Davis said the kid could not stand by the time the protesters returned to Curtis Hixon.

“Couldn't open his eyes and was just shaking. Couldn't even verbalize what he needed,” Davis said, adding that the kid’s mother wanted him out.

“But they had been separated from her daughter who was with them and couldn't leave her behind,” Davis said, adding that the kid who was pepper sprayed had volunteered to be on the front line. “His mom patted him on the back and said ‘I'm proud of you’ and just stuck with him.”

Davis, who was just following the protest and not leading it, thinks the road to the violent exchange in this picture happened when the group of protesters—which announced that it was headed towards Tampa Heights—was forced to turn off Tampa Street and east on Scott Street.

“The cops had the route blocked off because it required us going under the overpass, and there was no way the cops wanted the group near the interstate,” Davis said, alluding to the offramp from I-275 northbound onto Scott Street.

“So they forced us to turn right [onto Scott Street]. When we turned right, that sent us directly at the line of bike cops that were blocking the on-ramp [closer to Perry Harvey Sr. Park]. We weren't trying to get on the on ramp. We didn't get halfway down that block before they just started spraying and people started screaming,” Davis said. “That was the first time the group split up. Cause everyone just started running and screaming in every direction.”

Davis then heard someone yell “Swat” before police “in full riot gear came charging at us from behind by the bus station. Like they were waiting to flank us and box us in.”

That’s why Davis said the group was forced to run back towards downtown up Jefferson Street. 

“That's where they rushed up and pinned [the protest organizer] down by the cemetery and put the guns in my face,” Davis added.

At 9:33 p.m. Tampa Bay Times reporter Josh Fiallo posted that the events described above were “the only contentious moment between police and protesters on Thursday.” 

“Police presence has been minimal since, too,” Fiallo, who followed the protest all night, wrote. “Meanwhile, protesters have covered a ton of ground.”

At 10:56 p.m., CL photographer Dieudonne told us, “Protest over. No significant action to speak of. Quiet ending.”

In an Instagram TV video posted Friday morning, the aforementioned organizer of Thursday’s protest detailed some of what happened.

In it, @emadi_o said it was disheartening that “700-1000” protesters showed up, “just fighting for equality fighting to be seen,” but ended up having the exchange with Tampa Police despite every effort to be peaceful.

“Instead of listening to us, instead of opening your ears and saying, ‘Maybe all these people feel some type of way, maybe I'm doing something wrong,’ and instead you start by tear gassing and everybody with no warning.”

“And don't let the news stories twist this, I don't know how it's gonna come out, I haven't read anything yet, but I just know how the news does us,” the organizer added. “Don't believe what they say.”

The organizer then went on to say that the “umbrella” girl police described in its social media comment was walking at the front of the peaceful protest.

“This girl is walking with her umbrella. The police officer grabs the umbrella, and she refuses to let go as she should. That's her umbrella. Why are you assaulting this girl who is walking peacefully?,” he said, adding that there was a struggle and the the cops pulled her from the crowd and arrested her in front of everyone.

“Four cops on a five-foot-five girl,” the organizer said. He then described how pepper spray was deployed to disperse the crowd, adding that he got it on his face.

“Imagine this girl who's laying in that pepper spray being handcuffed with four cops on her. Imagine a 17-year-old girl who was only there for a peaceful protest,” he added. “I told everyone, it would be a peaceful protest. People took my word for that because it should have been a peaceful protest.”

The organizer then describes how he went down the street before he was cornered by police. He said a friend watched him get arrested and that he asked her to record what was happening.

“I say 'record this.' As she’s recording, two officers arrest her for absolutely no reason and then say she allegedly assaulted them. When she has video proof that she did not, which you guys will see,” the organizer added. “I'm exposing the whole shit.”

He said he’s being charged starting a riot. In an Instagram message, CL asked the organizer to to connect us with his lawyer.

“We all know that [the charge] is false because I've spoken multiple times that we just want a peaceful protest. I want this to be known, I need everyone to know,” the organizer said as he asked for anyone to send him videos. “We're going to expose everything that happened to me because we did everything right. And they did everything wrong. And that needs to be known.” 

“That is enough because this isn't fair. We're fighting the system they've given us, and it's not fair. I'm a 22 year old kid fighting the system. But thank God I'm doing it with a group of people.”

“This is enough,” he said later in the video. “Enough is enough. And we've definitely had enough.”

CL will update the post on Friday after we return a phone call to TPD. —Ray Roa

UPDATED: 06/05/20 8 a.m. This post has been updated with comments from a social media video by the arrested protest organizer, TPD’s Thursday night social media response to the post, quotes from Joel Davis, and Twitter posts from Tampa Bay Times reporter Josh Fiallo.

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06/04/2020 | Photos by Ashley Dieudonne