The global call for police reformation began after eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for that long. People around the world watched the footage in horror and growing rage. Protesters took to the streets demanding justice and an overhaul of American law enforcement as they said Floyd was just the latest name added to an unforgivably long list of black men and women killed by police in this country.
At first, the protests were confined to Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed despite the fact he pleaded he could not breathe and witnesses on video protested that he was dying. But the event proved to be the spark that lit the flame and similar events began to pop up all over the country, then even across the world.
Plant City had its first such protest Tuesday evening. Hundreds gathered near the RaceTrac and Southern Hospitality at the intersection of James L. Redman Parkway and East Park Road. When the post announcing the protest originally began spreading on social media, it was met with mixed reactions. Many voiced their support of the gathering as long as it remained peaceful and others vowed to be on site to protect local businesses and support law enforcement.
Members of the faith-based community headed toward the protest ground at noon, five hours before the scheduled assembly, to pray over the events that were set to occur.
Then the crowds began to arrive shortly before 5.
As trucks began to pull into the Southern Hospitality parking lot, they lined up facing the RaceTrac and drivers began to get out and shake hands with each other. Many leaned against their trucks, some stayed in their seats inside the vehicle and others hopped into the truck beds. They quietly chatted among themselves, sipped on a bottle of water or Coke and sat back and watched.
They didn’t bring signs. They weren’t marching or shouting. They simply stood and observed in silence for most of the time. Kevin Lumley, who got there in time for the start of the protest, said that group came out to the parking lot to support local first responders as well as Plant City at large.
“We’re just a bunch of local people that don’t want our city destroyed,” Lumley said. “We’re not here for anything but that. We support them and their right to protest. However, we just want to make sure it’s peaceful and we want to support our local police and fire rescue.”
Across the street, a gathering began to trickle in for the Black Lives Matter movement. At first it was just three young women with signs. Then it was eight. Then 15. Before long, attendees were walking over from all directions. There was more parking at Southern Hospitality, so many parked there and footed it across the street. Some lingered for a while on that side of the intersection, waving their signs and chanting at cars as they drove past.
Plant City resident Hasani Jackson and many others who hail from the city stressed the importance of keeping things peaceful to demonstrate to other communities that residents here can be unified and come together for a common cause.
“People are here to peacefully assemble in support of George Floyd,” Jackson said. “We want to show the world that Plant City is together. It’s gonna be peaceful, hopefully.”
Rosemary Almanza, one of the first to arrive to the assembly, hoped the protest would help give minorities a louder voice so that they may finally be heard.
“This unjust system is not right,” she said. “We can’t let this continue. Why do they get to kill us and go free? Why is there not justice for George Floyd? I’ve suffered through this fight too. My mom is Hispanic and Muslim. She’s gotten death threats just because of how she looks. Until we have justice, this won’t end. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Sheriff Chad Chronister arrived to chat with people on both sides of the intersection. While many were loudly calling his appearance a “photo op,” he did have a few conversations along the way up and down the lines.
Chronister walked through a line of protestors who angrily, passionately let him have a piece of their mind before speaking with members of the media slightly away from the group. He said he and his colleagues are “repulsed” when incidents like Floyd’s death “can make law enforcement across the country suffer.”
“We’re gonna keep doing everything we can to improve relations with all portions of the community,” Chronister said. “And I think, lastly, it’s to make sure the community knows, regardless of who you are, we hear you. We’re listening. That, I promise you.”
Though Chronister stressed that the police presence was there to “keep (protesters) safe” and allow them to express themselves, many protestors weren’t satisfied.
When the crowd started to spill into the streets, the protesters decided to organize into a march and head toward the police station on Alexander Street. While they marched, they said the chant shared across the world: “No Justice, No Peace.”
A chorus of “I can’t breathe” rang out as well and the names of those who had died at the hands of police were shouted up and down the wave of marchers. Plant City Police, along with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, blocked the Alexander intersection for the marchers as they turned off of Redman to head toward the police station. Onlookers dotted the adjacent sidewalks and parking lots, phones in hand, filming the scene. One car played “Changes” by Tupac Shakur as the group marched along to the police station.
Some who arrived late filed into the line or cheered them on from the side of the road. Kyana Cristiani and Cynthia Fernandez walked with masks that read “I can’t breathe” in black Sharpie.
They said they are interracial, which was why they wore the masks and echoed that all lives matter. They believed the message of the event was until everyone was held accountable and stereotypes were put aside, there wouldn’t be change and wouldn’t be peace.
When the protesters finally arrived, they spread out along the chainlink fence separating the parking lot and entrance from the building. Police were lined on the other side of the fence in front of the building, watching silently, and a few men were on the roof.
A few officers along with their vehicles were parked on the right-hand side of the road near the entrance. After some time spent chanting and taking a knee, a portion of the protesters rose and began to march back toward RaceTrac. The others gathered around the police at the vehicles.
Sgt. Al Van Duyne of PCPD entered a conversation with those gathered. At first, the protesters responded with anger and frustration, voicing their lack of trust in law enforcement and even citing cases in Plant City they believed were handled unjustly.
Van Duyne explained there was a process to voice those complaints, but that “nothing could be solved today.” He explained the process and encouraged them to turn to city commission meetings if they so desired. For a few it was enough, but others demanded more.
With some urging from the other protesters, the group eventually left and walked once more toward RaceTrac. Several Hillsborough County Sheriff deputies who were following alongside the group were asked to walk with them in a show of solidarity.
“As long as you keep it peaceful, we’ll walk with you,” one replied. The men then wove into the crowd and walked back with them. The group paused once more in the center of the Alexander Street and knelt in prayer before reuniting with the rest of the group down Redman. The entire group began to walk back toward Alexander again when the first sign of unrest began.
A truck pulled onto Redman with a Confederate flag waving from its bed. Protesters surrounding the vehicle and 29-year-old Vintwan Brooks, of Plant City, snatched the flag and attempted to burn it. The incident led to a confrontation between two individuals and HCSO said in a report that “Plant City Police attempted to intervene during the dispute. While handcuffing Brooks, a Plant City Police officer was pepper sprayed by another protester. The protester immediately fled the scene to avoid arrest. Brooks was arrested for Inciting a Riot and Resisting an Officer without Violence.”
Brooks was the only person arrested during the event.
After a tense moment, the group moved on and knelt once more in the Alexander intersection to pray. They called for God to heal the hearts of those who tolerate injustice, to open the lines of unity for this country and for justice to be served for those who took the lives of Floyd and countless others.
They marched back again. As night began to fall, the group settled once more at RaceTrac before many crossed the street and stood facing those who were in their trucks. Law enforcement quickly formed a barrier between the two groups, but one man stepped away from his truck and walked forward, each hand raised in a peace sign, and said “We want peace, too.” He was ushered back behind the officers.
While some of the protestors got nose-to-nose with the police, the rest lingered near the road. A tactical vehicle pulled onto the edge of the parking lot and police in riot gear began to line up. The loudspeaker clicked on and HCSO announced it was no longer a lawful assembly. Everyone was given five minutes to disperse or possibly be arrested.
PCPD told the Observer the reason for the abrupt shutdown was that prior to law enforcement intervention, several things occurred to lead up to the decision to end the assembly. Van Duyne said a private citizen’s property — the Confederate flag — was stolen, that an officer had been pepper sprayed during the confrontation that occurred surrounding the theft of the flag, that rocks were thrown at two law enforcement vehicles — a marked patrol car and a tactical vehicle — and water bottles were thrown at a few officers.
As the law enforcement in riot gear slowly walked toward the assembled protesters, a few tossed water bottles at the cops. The other protesters immediately yelled at them to stop and not “give them any ammunition,” but HCSO confirmed deputies “had to deploy a less lethal round on one subject seen throwing bottles at HCSO deputies and Plant City Police officers. The subject fled the scene to avoid arrest.”
A video of him being struck and falling to the ground is circulating on Facebook.
Within another 25 minutes, the group dispersed as the police slowly combed through the parking lots of RaceTrac and the Walgreens adjacent to it.
PCPD posted on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon thanking the residents for their support during the protest. They added that they will prepare for any upcoming events that may be planned and then asked any non-protesters to stay home.
“Please know that we are deeply grateful for the sentiments of PCPD support demonstrated by residents, but ask that you avoid protest areas if you are not participating as a peaceful protester. This helps us ensure the safety of protesters and our community,” the post read.
And the movement appears to be continuing. A social media post now making the rounds indicates another protest will be held tonight starting at 6 p.m. on Collins Street and Evers Street.
Unlike the one before that featured a multi-mile march, this flyer asks attendees to bring their bikes along to the protest. The location is right in the heart of historic downtown and many business owners have already planned to close early and board up their windows out of an abundance of precaution.
The protests may have been sparked with Floyd, but they are now focusing on highlighting the systemic issue of police brutality in the U.S. On Wednesday afternoon it was announced that all four former officers involved in Floyd’s killing now face charges. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is increasing charges against Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, to second-degree murder and is also charging the three other officers that were involved in the incident, according to a tweet from US Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
But protests continue to be scheduled across the nation.
You can follow along live for coverage of tonight’s assembly on the Observer’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.