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‘We don’t have to destroy our city to make a point’: WFLA reporter recounts moments protest turned violent

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Hours before the fires, vandalism and looting, protestors marched peacefully down E. Fowler Avenue chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “No KKK, No racist Tampa Bay” and “We Can’t Breathe.”

Hundreds of people from Tampa Bay attended the demonstration against racial injustice in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I think it’s very scary that the black and brown child have to worry whether he’ll make it home at night,” Elvis Piggott told me with a backdrop behind him of demonstrators crowding an intersection.

Upon arriving near Temple Terrace City Hall, I immediately noticed the large presence of local police, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies and Florida Highway Patrol officers blocking traffic so the protestors could march and make their voices heard.

“A lot of people are frustrated,” Tanea Houston, 29, said. “The violence is not OK.”

Houston told me she had the chance to share her concerns directly to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

“I stopped and talked to the mayor and asked her some things about the community, Houston said. “How we can fix things, how we can make people aware of what’s going on and how we can avoid certain things from happening.”

The protestors marched along the University of South Florida campus before stopping at the intersection of E. Fowler Avenue and N. 30th Street. From there, they turned south toward the Tampa Police District 2 substation.

Once they reached Busch Boulevard after 6 p.m., the situation began to rapidly deteriorate.

As WFLA photojournalist Joseph Capistran and I set up at a safe distance from the intersection, we started to see and hear the fireworks being set off sporadically.

I could hear sirens ringing as additional law enforcement arrived. I witnessed police officers and deputies try to take cover behind a row of vehicles as some in the crowd continued throwing fireworks at them.

I later learned from Eagle 8 HD reporter Paul Lamison, who was flying above the scene, that officers responded to the fireworks by discharging pepper spray.

This tense exchange sparked by the fireworks turned out to be the turning point.

Even with emotions running high and some heated verbal confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement officers, the protest and march that went for miles had been peaceful.

Back at the TPD District 2 substation, officers from other districts arrived and set up a perimeter by parking their cars around the building.

Throughout the evening, I watched my Twitter feed fill up with images of the intensified looting and vandalism at the University Square Mall.

Debris still littered that intersection of Busch Boulevard and N. 30th Street when we returned after 11 p.m. With the crowd dispersed, I got a close up look at how vandals broke into a Cricket Wireless store.

Tampa Police confirmed to 8 On Your Side that the Mobil gas station at this intersection had been looted before going up in flames. As I reported on the air, thankfully, Tampa Fire Rescue crews extinguished the flames before they reached the gas pumps or the destruction could have been much worse.

In retrospect, one comment from Houston earlier in the day stands out the most.

“We don’t have to destroy our city to make a point,” she told me.

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