LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A peaceful protest that drew hundreds to Munn Park in Lakeland splintered off into unrest that ended in tear gas and SWAT teams assembled Sunday.
As of Sunday night, there were no reports of looting or violent crimes in Lakeland.
A local state of emergency and curfew set Sunday night is meant to maintain peace, county officials said.
“I understand that people are really angry with everything going on but violence really is not the answer. Peace speaks louder than violence in my opinion. I understand that people want their voices to be heard but it’s not the way to do it,” said Mercedes Werbinski, the protest organizer.
Werbinski told 8 On Your Side her main priority of the day was to keep the protest peaceful.
Protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs circled Munn Park throughout the afternoon.
At one point, the group knelt and chanted “I can’t breathe,” which were some of the last words heard spoken by George Floyd, who died during an encounter with Minneapolis police officers this week.
Former Officer Derek Chauvin was seen on video holding his knee to Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes.
He has been charged with third-degree murder.
Protesters want three other officers who were on scene with Chauvin arrested too.
“This has been going on way too long. I think honestly everybody’s out here because they’ve had enough. So we’re really out here because we want change. That’s all we want is change. It’s peaceful. We want it to stay peaceful but overall, man, we just want change,” said Zariya Terrell, a protester who lives in Winter Haven.
“Today is a new day, honestly and we’re fed up. But we’re gonna do it right this time. We’re not gonna loot the streets because we love our city. But we are gonna make sure that they know that we are upset. We’re gonna make sure that they know that we are here. We are gonna make sure that they know that we’re not standing down,” said Jarvis Washington with Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk, Inc.
Following the peaceful protest attended by hundreds of people, a smaller crowd gathered outside the Lakeland Police Department before moving to Memorial Boulevard.
They remained there for much of the afternoon and evening, closing off the intersection to traffic.
Lakeland Police Department and Polk County Sheriff’s Office SWAT teams deployed tear gas and used rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
County officials say they will reassess the curfew, set to expire at 5 a.m., on Monday.