Protesters ask for more intentional engagement from city leadership

Ashley Green identifies as an advocate and resource for protesters. She said there are several people who are ensuring that the movement continues and that those are the people city leadership can reach out to.

By Nicole Slaughter Graham, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — At the St. Petersburg City Council meeting on July 23, Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin announced that a meeting between city officials and St. Pete Protest organizers had been scheduled for the following Monday.

During the second open forum of the meeting, Ashley Green, one of the St. Pete Protest’s organizers, stated she was “taken aback” by the deputy mayor’s announcement and that she, as well as other members of the protest organization, had no knowledge of the meeting.

According to a Tampa Bay Times article, the meeting was meant as an opportunity to plan a summit between city leadership and protesters.

The article also reports that Tomalin found herself on a Zoom call alone and that the protest organizers who were invited to the meeting did not attend.

Deja-Denise Sherrod, one of the protest organizers and a behind-the-scenes resource, said the picture painted of the protestors in the Times article felt inauthentic.

“If everyone doesn’t say they’re available for the time for the meeting, then why would you set up that meeting?”

The deputy mayor, Sherrod said, planned the meeting and did make sure she was available, but did not follow up with the protest organizers she’d been in contact with to confirm that they were available.

“She limited her contact to people she already knew from the community. It makes me think that this might have been an intentional jab at protesters, setting us up to fail.”

Tomalin reached out to those who at the time, she said, self-identified as representatives of the protests.

“It seems to be evolving and changing as to who identifies as leadership,” Tomalin said. “It’s impossible for the city to confer who identifies as leadership. The three people with whom I was talking had identified as leaders.”

The protestors, Sherrod said, do not have a defined leadership hierarchy, which is intentional.

“We don’t have centralized leadership because we’re not trying to implicate the same institutions of oppression that we are against.”

Without defined leadership members who are able to speak for the group, said Tomalin, it’s become difficult to know who to reach out to.

Ashley Green, who identifies as an advocate and resource for protesters, said there are several people who are ensuring that the movement continues and that those are the people city leadership can reach out to.

“This (the protestors) is a group of individuals and young people who are coming into their own political existence and social justice fight,” she said. “Not enough of the folks who have been continuing this effort had been engaged and we were really disappointed.”

A makeup planning meeting, said Sherrod, was originally scheduled for Aug. 5, with the summit tentatively scheduled for Aug. 26, but, Sherrod said, it was canceled by Tomalin.

“She canceled and said she didn’t want to talk about anything beyond the police,” Sherrod said, noting that in this meeting, protesters had plans to talk about many issues affecting the community, including the police.

Tomalin said that since her initial conversation with protesters, things have changed, and city leaders are currently deferring to the protesters when it comes to planning the summit.

“We are yielding to the readiness of the demonstrators. The topics they want to discuss and how the meeting will unfold is beginning to change a bit so we’re yielding to them.”

This, she said, is because the city wants to be careful about not controlling the narrative. Also, she said this does not change the city’s desire to work with protesters.

“I am and the city is being very intentional about not appropriating any part of this process with the demonstrators. We’re very excited to convene with these demonstrators and other concerned citizens to make sure the work we are advancing includes the important voice of our citizens,” Tomalin said.

Green and Sherrod agree that the city could do more to engage in an authentic way. To start, said Green, protesters would like to see Mayor Rick Kriseman and Kevin King, St. Petersburg’s Chief of Policy & Public Engagement, to engage with protesters directly.

“We want Kriseman and King to come to the table with a sense of urgency,” Green said. “We’re not hard to find,” she continued. “We are marching from City Hall every day at 7 p.m.”

Sherrod said city council could also be more active in how they engage with protesters as well.

“I’d like to see city council try to facilitate conversations with protestors, whether that be one-on-one or within the group — outside the planned city council meetings.”

This issue, she said, is big enough for a dedicated conversation.

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