Arrested activist claims St. Pete Police harass people without homes in Williams Park

03/28/13 Janelle Irwin
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A longtime homeless activist in St. Petersburg is claiming that police officers hurt him while he was trying to defend a homeless man in Williams Park Wednesday. Bruce Wright was arrested and charged with obstruction after another man being arrested got away. According to the St. Petersburg Police Department, officers had an arrest warrant for a man in the park. That report quoted Wright as saying “stop harassing that man” and then asking what he had done wrong.

“You stiffen up a bit when you’re being arrested, but they claimed I was resisting arrest. One of them got a little blood blister on their finger claiming that was assault – the whole time I was talking to them, I wasn’t resisting. But in the meantime, they managed to hurt my wrist and my arm – I got bruises on my arm, I got my wrist in a cast and I think they were way over the top in what they did.”

Wright called the arrest unnecessary and said it’s part of a broader problem where police search for any reason to arrest homeless people in the park.

“Because they claimed they were going to arrest this person for open container/failure to appear which open container is, pretty much, not even a misdemeanor, it’s an ordinance violation and I found it kind of funny that they were going to go to those kinds of lengths for an ordinance violation.”

The report says that police asked Wright to step back several times and that he tried to flee when police attempted to handcuff him. Wright said that’s not true. He also alleges that the St. Petersburg Police Department has a longstanding history of harassing people without homes who tend to congregate in Williams Park.

“They’re also asking them if they have money. So, if they don’t have money they can’t be in the park or the bus terminals because they claim that you’re only to be there to ride the bus.”

Wright has grown more vigilant over the past couple of weeks after a man was arrested in the park and allegedly abused in the Pinellas County jail.

“When he got to the Pinellas County jail he was beaten severely to the point of unconsciousness. He’s an African-American young man and it was three white cops that freely used the N-word. Corporal Fox was the primary officer causing this kind of profiling and brutality. The young man had his head slammed to the ground several times and was punched.”

According to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s website that man is 36-year-old Omar Robinson who was arrested for selling and possessing marijuana. A spokesperson for the agency said they are investigating the claims surrounding Robinson’s time in the Pinellas County jail. Wright blames St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster for the crackdown saying that he is trying to get rid of people who make the park less appealing to tourists. Foster didn’t return a phone call, but St. Pete Police spokesperson Mike Puetz said the agency has recently added a patrol to the park, but that was in response to complaints about drugs.

Regardless, Wright said the actions being taken are affecting more than just the downtown homeless population.

“All the side panels to all the bus terminals have been taken down which means people are susceptible to getting rained on and weather – they can’t be comfortable in there. It’s because the police claim they can’t see in the bus terminals. Now people have to go to and sometimes wait in a line – go to the bus ticket place to find out when there bus is coming because all the signs are down that listed the times.”

Anthony Catron has been arrested in Williams Park several times. His record with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s office for the past ten years shows more than 20 arrests. Catron doesn’t deny that he’s made mistakes, but he’s fed up with what he calls police profiling in the park.

“It’s obvious that these police are coming up to us in green clothing and acting as if Gods, like goons and thugs when really they’re profiling us in that manner.

Catron’s last arrest in Pinellas County was in 2011. He said people like him who have been without a place to live need help finding jobs to turn their lives around.

“You would see a change in faith in them that they’re trying to make this step. First off, by the change in their appearance and postures.”

Homeless activists in St. Pete are working with lawyers to try to overturn some of the city’s policies for dealing with people without homes. Wright is also concerned that the city is trying to do away with the bus terminals at Williams Park and move them further south. He said that would only move the problem, not solve it.

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