Tampa Bay protesters decry Rittenhouse verdict, wonder about their own safety going forward

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The Tampa Bay chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation holds protests for a variety of social and political reasons, and Saturday’s action—organized in less than 24 hours—was a condemnation of a jury decision to rule Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty on-all-charges related to his killing of Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In its official statement, PSL blames the acquittal on the systemic racism of judicial courts, uncommon practices and bias from the presiding judge, plus America’s history of right-wing militias as an extension of state-sanctioned violence. Downtown St. Petersburg’s roughly 90-minute protest was one of many around the country decrying the verdict and went from City Hall to the intersection of Central Avenue and 5th Street N, which happened to be in the middle of the multi-block Florida CraftArt festival. Speeches from different community members could be faintly heard over the chatter and music of the festival—and spurred heckling from folks who voiced their support for the Rittenhouse verdict.

Although PSL organized the protest, members from other local political groups were represented—folks from the Florida Indigenous Alliance, St. Pete Cop Watch, Tropical Communist Party, Uhuru Solidarity Movement and the Tampa Bay Action Committee all took their turn at the bullhorn.

Passersby could be heard shouting dissenting opinions like “he’s innocent! I would have shot them, too!,” “If you don’t like this country get the fuck out,” and “ya’ll are all fucking commies!” towards the small crowd of protesters. One upset pedestrian started harassing a protester with a cane, asking them if they “Were on disability for free handouts,” before the other demonstrators shooed them away with chants.

Even with the visibly distraught hecklers, nothing stopped the protest from continuing. Chants like “Lock him up!” and “No justice, no peace!” were heard around the 500 block of Central Avenue., as festival goers audibly gawked.

Although this protest was about the verdict itself, one of the main points that was emphasized was the importance of safety in future protests. Rittenhouse murdered people in Wisconsin, but speakers at Saturday’s demonstration pointed out the imminent danger that protesters face right here in Tampa Bay.

“Rittenhouse’s acquittal is a clear signal from the government that vigilantes who kill anti-racist protesters—or any kind of progressive demonstrator—will enjoy impunity.” the official PSL statement reads. 

During last summer’s protests, guns were pulled on demonstrators both in St. Petersburg and in New Port Richey. Cars purposefully ran into crowds of peaceful protesters in Tampa, and St. Petersburg had to remind folks not to move vehicles through protests. The threat of danger and violence is very real for Floridians exercising their right to assemble—particularly with governor Desantis actively trying to push “anti riot” legislation

Christina Boneta—a Pasco county-based Black Lives Matter organizer who’s come face-to-face with Proud Boys—took the bullhorn at this weekend’s PSL protest and delivered a captivating speech about safety, violence and organizing.

“How many times last summer did we have guns pointed at us? When I was in Pasco county, a man came to the protest, flashed his gun and declared “this is war,” she told the crowd gathered around her.  “Any of us—Black or white—could have been shot or killed. We have to start learning what safety really means.”—Kyla Fields

11/20/2021 | Photos by Dave Decker