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Protesters claim police ‘ambushed’ them during Downtown Tampa rally

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — For nearly an hour and a half on Tuesday night, Timothy Watson documented a protest in Downtown Tampa over the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

But it’s the final couple of minutes that he says tell the story of what really happened between protesters and police.

“They gave us a three-minute dispersal, and at that time people started to leave the area,” Watson said.

Watson spoke at his attorney’s office on Thursday. He said the protest was calm until officers gave that order to disperse.

“Before anyone could even get to (their cars,) we were ambushed – essentially an ambush by the Tampa Police Department,” he said. “First they said everyone get down and they started shooting.”

Watson and 69 others were taken into custody, including Larenz Johnson – a Tampa musician, minister and teacher.

His Facebook live video shows him trying to leave and running from police before he was taken into custody.

“They basically lured us into the intersection of Pierce and Morgan streets. Once we go there they completely surrounded us,” Johnson said. “They came rushing at us from every angle. Next thing you know we had tear gas flying and we had gunshots being heard.”

What Watson and Johnson say happened is in stark contrast to what Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said happened during a news conference Wednesday. He claims protesters with ill intent scattered rocks and mortars around downtown to hurl at police.

Chief Dugan told 8 On Your Side he regrets how it all turned out but stands by why they did it.

“It’s not our shining moment as a city but we’re going to work through this thing and I get their frustration and I’m equally as frustrated,” Dugan said.

Community leader Elvis Piggott suspects there’s a reason things ended badly.

“What that looks like is if the officers get tired, that’s when the protest stops. What time frame do you have to protest,” Piggott said.

So why don’t police give them a citation on scene and let them go? Why haul them to jail, where some like Watson and Johnson say they spent 12 hours?

“The problem is the reason they were arrested is they wouldn’t leave. Do we give them a notice to appear and they still won’t leave? And it still compounds the issue,” Dugan said.

Johnson says they were trying to.

“I took off running about four or five blocks away and they literally chased me down to Franklin Street to apprehend me,” Johnson claimed.

Black Elected Officials of Hillsborough County issued a joint statement about what happened that night.

“Let us be clear: We strongly condemn the use of force or violence by law enforcement against any protester who peacefully exercises their rights to the freedom of assembly and expression,” the statement said in part.

Meanwhile, Johnson said he met with Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Chief Dugan, who said they want to find ways to connect with young people in the community to bridge some of the divides between them.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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