South St. Pete residents take concerns over MLK Day "lockdown" to City Hall

They said what were supposed to be efforts to protect public safety actually infringed on their rights — and endangered the public — on a day that was supposed to be about recognizing equality.

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click to enlarge Activist and south side resident Gwen Resse tells council she's concerned about what a "lockdown" means for public safety. - Screen shot, StPete.org
Screen shot, StPete.org
Activist and south side resident Gwen Resse tells council she's concerned about what a "lockdown" means for public safety.

In the wake of what many saw as an unnecessarily heavy police presence in south St. Petersburg on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, outraged residents flooded City Hall to vent.

Many complained of being unable to come and go as they pleased (or needed to), and of being forced to show identification to turn onto their own streets. Police lights whirled and yellow caution tape blocked access to some neighborhoods. Much of it was easily a mile from where most of the MLK Day-related activities took place.

They wanted answers.

“My question is who, what, when and why was the decision made to shut down black town,” said 63-year resident Brenda Nelson. “What happened on Monday was excessive. It was extremely excessive.”

While residents of predominantly African-American areas of south St. Pete lived it, others caught a glimpse of the heavy police presence that day via a video activist and community advocate "Brother" John Muhammad streamed on his personal Facebook page. The video featured footage of thoroughfares closed to traffic and the congestion that resulted on other roads as well as a tense interaction between Muhammad and a police officer when Muhammad asked about it.

Before council on Thursday, he said what he and his neighbors experienced was reminiscent "of the sundown laws, Black Codes and Jim Crow practices that Dr. King gave his life fighting to abolish."

He said that many South Side events are often subjected to overbearing police presence, "even neighborhood kickball games."

"Instead of spending money to stop, block and reroute, I would like to encourage you to direct, manage and assure the flow of traffic like you do at the Rays games, Grand Prix and other major events," he said, adding that the city should have been more proactive in notifying residents and businesses of the road closures and other measures.

Activist Chuck Terzian, a resident of Kenwood, said what he saw on that video was “collective punishment and collective containment.”

“These are the tools of tyrants and dictators and I'm sure no one here wants to be seen in that light,” Terzian said.

South St. Petersburg resident and activist Gwen Reese told the council the restrictions may have done more harm than good, given that the police "lockdown" could have prevented residents from driving to the hospital or even a few blocks to check in with a sick or elderly loved one.

“We're talking minutes and seconds between life and death,” she said. “I view it as a blatant disregard and a disrespect for the African-American community. Regardless of how it was intended, the impact of it was negative.”

At the end of the lengthy comment period, Mayor Rick Kriseman, who recently won reelection in large part due to black voters on the city's south side, and Police Chief Anthony Holloway said they vowed to do better.

click to enlarge St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway explains the department's public safety measures, which some say were akin to police containment. - Screen grab, StPete.org
Screen grab, StPete.org
St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway explains the department's public safety measures, which some say were akin to police containment.

“The most important job of city government is public safety, but in ensuring public safety we must also balance public safety with respecting the community,” Kriseman said.

Among changes he'd like to see, he said, are "better communication with the community prior to the event" and that he be briefed on the police department's security strategy "prior to any major event."

Holloway, meanwhile, said the police have used the same safety measures on MLK Day for at least 20 years, for the most part, and defended it by noting how in 2014 and 2015 there were shooting deaths and injuries during the festivities but on Monday, there were no deaths, fights or arrests.

"The plan worked," Holloway said. "I'll tell you that right now. The plan worked. Except we did one thing: we did a bad job in communicating to the community when and how we were going to direct traffic through the community."

He added that while some speakers complained that the police department doesn't apply the same type of "containment" at events like Pride, there are plenty of events — north and south of Central Avenue, which in many ways is still a racial, economic and cultural dividing line left over from the segregation era — in which people complain about restrictions.

"When we do St. Anthony's Marathon, people complain because we lock 'em up, so to speak, because we redirect traffic," he said. "Every major event, we move traffic throughout the city where people can and cannot move."

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