Dozens of peaceful protesters stood in front of The Shops at Wiregrass on the rainy evening of June 6 — joining the chorus of voices across America calling for the end of police brutality and systemic racism.
Those gathered in Wesley Chapel were there to speak up in the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, according to a video that went viral and national news reports.
Chauvin initially was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison later added a second-degree murder charge against Chauvin. The three other officers — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, news reports say.
Protesters in Wesley Chapel walked from the main street of the mall — which had been closed at 3 p.m., by management — out to the intersection of State Road 56 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Greg Lenners, the mall’s general manager, said the decision to close was made in an abundance of caution.
“Obviously, we value the beliefs and the opinions of the community,” he said. “It’s just that we have the obligation to protect the safety of the businesses and our employees, and customers,” he added.
So, protesters made their way to the area in front of the mall, which is public property.
They carried signs with messages such as “Silence is Violence,” “Amplify Black Voices,” ”Justice for George,” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
They stood under umbrellas, wore rain ponchos, or simply got drenched.
This protest and others across Tampa Bay came on the same day a second memorial service was held for Floyd, in Hoke County, North Carolina, where he was born. A third, and final service will be held on June 9 in Houston, where Floyd grew up.
Many at the Wesley Chapel event said it was their first protest.
“We feel like this is the time,” said Susan Boyle, who was there with her 16-year-old daughter, Emma. “I’ll cry if I talk.”
She paused for a moment and said, “It’s something black people have experienced all their lives. We really have to say something. White privilege – there’s a huge part of the population who have no idea what’s going on.”
Wesley Chapel resident Tonya Reavis, 52, and several family members walked with a small group that left the mall area and headed to the intersection in front of the mall.
“We’re just tired,” Reavis said. “We’re here showing our solidarity. We want equal pay, equal justice. Every equality. We just want to be treated as human, not three-fifths of a human.”
Tre Moore, 23, who stood next to Reavis, held a sign that said: “Love Black Lives Like You Love Black Culture.”
“We’re peacefully protesting injustice, and against racism,” Moore said.
Protesters alternated chants, repeating phrases including: “We want justice. We want justice. We want justice.” And, “Say their names. Say their names. Say their names.” And, “Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.”
Cars streaming by beeped their horns. One motorist shouted to the crowd: “I support you.”
Some protesters told The Laker/Lutz News they’d heard about the plan to gather through social media.
Jenifer Pepen, who lives in Live Oak, said it was important to be there.
“I’ve been a supporter of the Black Lives movement for many years now. It was time to come out. George Floyd’s death, I think, punctuated what is really centuries of systemic racism and injustice and brutality, in this country.
“It’s important to not be silent, in moments like this,” she said.
“Even in New Tampa/Wesley Chapel, it’s important to show that black lives matter, and come out. Even on a rainy day.
“The system needs reform. It needs reform in the suburbs. It needs reform in the inner cities. It needs reforming everywhere.
“It’s a system that affects the lives particularly of black and colored communities, but it is a system that impacts all of us, and we really all should be involved in reforming it,” she said.
She advocates the passage of laws to ban chokeholds and knee-holds, and also calls for improved training.
“I believe de-escalation needs to be something that is a part of training in the police departments across the United States. We’ve unfortunately seen the complete opposite in many situations, as these protests have been carried out throughout the United States.
“I also believe that the purging and the suppression of the records that detail the violence and brutality of bad police officers needs to stop. They need to be held accountable. They need the full weight of justice, when things happen. I think police unions play a role in that, as well.
“I also believe every city, every county, needs to reevaluate their budget, as it pertains to how we fund police departments,” she said.
“I don’t think that police departments that have been found to brutalize the community should be receiving funds. I think those funds should be much better allocated in the education system, the health care system, in places where we make positive impacts in the communities of color.
“I also think it’s absurd that taxpayers are the ones that have to pay for the civil lawsuits that are brought against police officers, who brutalize families, brutalize communities.
“We should consider, if I am being perfectly frank, taking it out of certain pension funds,” Pepen said.
Kimberly Morin, who lives in Meadow Pointe, explained her motivation for attending the protest this way: “I am very much against the brutality that is in the police force today, the inhumane way they treat not only citizens, but most black citizens.”
She suggests these reforms: “More training for how to handle situations, not to restrain with their knees on their necks, and not to draw guns on unarmed people for no reason.”
Jasmine Sanchez, who lives in Aberdeen, off State Road 54, came to the protest with her sons, Isaiah and Elijah.
“This is not their first protest,” Jasmine Sanchez said. “Their first protest was for Trayvon Martin.”
Martin was 17 when he was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman acknowledged shooting the teenager but claimed self-defense and was acquitted of second-degree murder, according to news reports.
Isaiah Sanchez explained why he wanted to be at the Wesley Chapel protest.
“I came out today for racial equality, for government change and for justice for all those we’ve lost to police,” Isaiah Sanchez said. “I’d like see reforms in police de-escalation, and the equality of all races in all walks of life — if you’re gay, if you’re black, or you’re white, or you’re Asian. If you’re Hispanic.
“Everybody gets equal treatment,” he said.
His brother, Elijah, added: “I came out here today to bring justice to all of the fallen black people, and just make all of the people who made the black families suffer — they need to pay. They need to be in jail.”
Jasmine Sanchez said she’s sensing a growing awareness.
“You’re seeing everybody coming together for this,” she said. “This group is so diverse. It shows a connectedness that I have never seen before.
“I think a lot of people just didn’t realize what was going on. You live in a quiet community.
“You don’t realize what’s going on in the next neighborhood, in the next city. It’s very easy to become closed off in your own little world.
“Thank God for social media. The information is spreading,” she said.
Others speaking out:
The Pasco Economic Development Council Inc.
Bill Cronin, president and CEO of the Pasco EDC, issued a statement that reads in part: “Today, many of our friends, our families and our neighbors are suffering for many difficult reasons.
“We continue to support everyone in our community who feels they are treated unfairly and that their voices are not being heard.
“We are saddened by all of the recent violence taking place around the country and for all of those affected by it, along with all of those impacted by the global pandemic.
“Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it…and no reaction is still a reaction. For this reason, Pasco EDC is reacting by publicly reaffirming its commitment to the equality of all.”
The statement goes on to offer specifics on the organization’s commitment to equal opportunity, diversity and fairness.
Benedictine Sisters of Florida
The Benedictine Sisters of Florida extend their condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd whose death is a grave violation of the values of justice, equality and peace. Our prayers are with those suffering through this tragedy and the aftermath of the demonstrations and civil unrest. We acknowledge the inequities that once again have been exposed and raise our voices praying for good people to come together to “be the change” that will bring peace, compassion and justice to our communities.
This statement, according to the Sisters, was adapted from the original by Sister Beverly Raway, OSB Prioress, at St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota.
The Archdiocese of St. Petersburg
Bishop Gregory Parkes, of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, issued a statement, which says in part:
“The manner in which George Floyd died is an atrocity to the humanity and dignity that each person has as a child of God. As a Church, we stand in solidarity with peaceful protesters who demand justice and respect for black individuals who have suffered the effects of racism for generations.
“As is stated in the 2018 USCCB Pastoral Letter, Open Wide Your Hearts: ‘Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior […] When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful. Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39).’
“As Bishop of this local Church, with sincere concern for the souls of all within our Diocese, I urge all people of goodwill to seek peace, unity and just changes that will affirm the dignity of all lives, regardless of color, status, age or stage of life. I also urge an end to violence and destruction that victimizes communities and destroys hope.”
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis
In a June 5 newsletter, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis shared the results of a survey he did on the issue of “the civil unrest that we’ve seen throughout Tampa Bay and around the nation.”
The congressman said he frequently sends out surveys to get feedback from constituents.
“However, last week I was surprised by how an issue that appears in the media to elicit such division actually garnered more consensus than any other survey I’ve sent to date.
“The vast majority of my constituents who responded to the survey on civil unrest indicated that they want to see our Constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest protected, they want action to stop the illegal activity that is occurring (rioting, looting, arson, etc.), and they believe that there are systemic racial issues in our criminal justice system that must be addressed immediately.”
Bilirakis goes on: “These lawless actions by a relatively small group of people silence the cries of those who are hurting and detract from meaningful change.”
At the same time, Bilirakis recognizes the difficult work of law enforcement.
“Our law enforcement community is comprised of men and women who bravely place themselves in harm’s way to protect us. Their jobs are dangerous, complex and ever-evolving. “We must always support them as we work to find solutions for how to come together as one nation under God.”
Published June 10, 2020