Trump supporters gather in Downtown St. Pete to counter Black Lives Matter activists in tense, but peaceful night

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One week after a counter-protester pulled a gun during a Black Lives Matter march in downtown St. Petersburg, activists and counter-protest groups again clashed in St. Pete Saturday.

With an increased police presence, no violence broke out, but tensions ran high.

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When the flames wouldn’t catch, Gary Snow grabbed the Nazi flag from the small whole he burned into it and used his hands to tear it apart.

“Let me make a point,” Snow said. “I’m not a white supremacist. I don’t believe in Nazis. I’m not a Nazi.”

When he pulled out an Antifascist Action flag, he skipped the lighter and used a knife.

“This is what I think of Anti-Fa,” he said, slicing through the center of the flag.

Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

Snow, a self-described provocateur, came to St. Pete from Ft. Myers. In the last few years, he’s made a name for himself throughout Florida. In 2017, Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams called Snow a “catalyst” when a Jacksonville anti-war protest turned violent. Five protesters were arrested, but Snow was not. Later that year, he was arrested while countering a Black Lives Matter Protest in Bradenton, but charges were never filed.

A Funeral for white supremacy

Activists with Movement St. Pete march on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

A light, but steady sheet of drain drizzled over Downtown St. Pete as nearly 300 activists with Movement St. Pete gathered for a vigil and march from South Straub Park to the Pier.

Activists with Movement St. Pete march on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

The sound of a beating tom-tom drum and chants were noticeably absent as the activists moved from Straub to the pier, with only the sound of wet grass squeaking and crunching beneath the soles of their shoes.

“It is fitting that we marched silently for many reasons,” activist Ashley Green said. “It felt like a little bit like a funeral procession. Like the death of White Supremacy.”

Hundreds of protesters encircled Green and other speakers, like Rabbi Michael Torop, as they stood under Janet Echelman’s woven sculpture and called for an end to violence, hatred and white supremacy.

“We speak out for peace, we speak out for tolerance. Peace Justice and equity.” “My friends, this is one of those times where we much speak out and say there are not good people on both sides.”

Rabbi Michael Torop speaks at a Movement St. Pete event on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

Stoking flames

Meanwhile, counter protesters sporting mostly American flag or Donald Trump apparel marched to meet the protesters. Police on bicycles formed a barrier as the counter-protesters shouted to the crowd. Snow, joined by local right wing activist Jonathan Riches, grabbed a bullhorn and began to antagonize protesters.

“You tell this police here, right now, you don’t need their help,” Snow said. “You tell them to leave.”

Snow said he was not affiliated with any groups, but was joined by members of the Patriot Action Network and, eventually, Blue Thunder, a law enforcement-supporting motorcycle group led locally by insurance investigator and former Colorado Springs police officer Eric Harris.

Snow asked one protester if he had a knife and accused him, without evidence, of having stabbed someone.

“Didn’t you just stab somebody the other night?” he asked. “Didn’t you just stab somebody the other night,”

The night of the gun

The Saturday before, a Blue Lives Matter counter-protester was seen on camera shoving an already-injured woman to the ground and pulling out a pistol he aimed at protesters. Saint Petersburg police released footage claiming it showed two male Black protesters with knives.  But slowed footage shows what was believed to be a knife was a cell phone in one instance, a belt in another and a bandana.

That didn’t stop counter-protesters from claiming they were the ones to be assaulted.

“The knife was pulled on me,” one woman said.

Movement St. Pete trains its members in de-escalation techniques and has a de-escalation team that wore safety vests and stood on the periphery of the march.

Weapons drawn

Eric Harris speaks to members of the Blue Thunder motorcycle club at 3 Daughters brewing before heading downtown to counter a Black Lives Matter march. David Rañon/WMNF

Before meeting other counter-protesters for the march, Blue Thunder met for a meeting and briefing at 3 Daughters Brewing after Ferg’s Sports Bar told them they couldn’t gather there. A journalist attempted to take a photo of the bikers and one attempted to intimidate them by waving brass knuckles in their face.

“You’re intimidated by cameras”

“Yes”

“That allows you to wave brass knuckles in someone’s face.”

“If he’s intimidating me, yes.”

David Rañon/WMNF

Back downtown, activists marched back to Straub before dispersing. Marching again in silence, a group of counter-protesters waited at the park while another followed them back shouting obscenities at protesters between “Back the Blue” and “Blue Lives Matter” chants.

Take Back DTSP

A pro-Trump counter-protester addresses activists with Movement St. Pete during a march on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

Blue Thunder and other groups have been helping to organize counter protests since a Tampa Bay Times reporter tweeted a now-viral video depicting a confrontation between protesters and diners at Parkshore Grille on Beach drive.

The video, which was viewed millions of times, prompted Blue Thunder to create Saturday’s Take Back DTSP event inviting people from around the state to protect diners from harassment and keep streets unobstructed from marches.

Attorney Johnny Bardine said that video is responsible for recent tension after four months of peaceful marching.

“You can draw a straight line from that viral video taken on Beach Drive with the diners, to a week later and the police are looking for two young black men who they thought had weapons, who did not,” he said. “Because of that, the safety and the liberty of those two black men, who are innocent, has been jeopardized.”

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Times spokesperson Sherri Day said the reporter posted the video, then attempted to ask questions, but no one would speak to them.

“After tweeting the video, the reporter attempted to talk to everyone at the scene of the incident,” she said. “No one – not protesters, diners or bystanders – would talk. That is why we did not write a story on the night of the incident. 

Since then, we advanced our reporting and have written several stories. We stand by all of them.”

A loosely organized group attempted to march from Straub Park to City Hall. As the group crossed 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street, many didn’t make it through the light, impeding southbound vehicular traffic. Before getting to City Hall, about half the group split off and headed back to Beach Drive at the apparent request of Blue Thunder, many of whom were seated at a large table outside of Tryst Lounge or drinking at nearby bars.

On the way, the group passed Bacchus Wine Bistro. Vanessa and Brent Ballard of Sarasota were sitting outside drinking wine and picking at a charcuterie board with their new friends Jacob Andrews and Peter Alexander. As the group walked by, marchers shoved signs and flags in the couple’s face and began yelling at them. The diners said they felt threatened and harassed.