ORLANDO, Fla. — When the Orange County Sheriff’s Office began releasing body camera footage 11 days after a deputy fatally shot 22-year-old Salaythis Melvin outside the Florida Mall earlier this month, it was a victory for organizers who’d been staging near-daily demonstrations demanding greater transparency about the killing.
But their pressure campaign bearing fruit isn’t the only thing protest organizers say has hardened their resolve — so too have arrests of protesters by law enforcement.
In late May and June, protesters flooded downtown Orlando by the thousands following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, leading to after-dark clashes in which some hurled bottles and rocks at officers, who responded with tear gas. About 100 people were arrested, most on minor charges that were later dismissed.
Recent protests have been far tamer, but arrests for minor crimes like disorderly conduct have continued. Since the George Floyd protests, at least 16 people have been arrested for protesting in Orlando, Orange County and St. Cloud, four of whom were taken into custody more than once.
Many within the local protest movement view the arrests as an effort by law enforcement to discourage protests, with some believing police are targeting the organizers of protest groups and people known to frequently attend demonstrations.
When asked whether the Orlando Police Department monitors protest attendees through social media or other means, a spokesperson for the agency did not directly answer the question but said in a statement that OPD partners with protest organizers to ensure the safety of local public demonstrations.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to the same inquiry.
In interviews, protesters said the arrests have not diminished their commitment to fighting systemic racism and police brutality.
“This kind of thing just strengthens it. When I sat in jail, I was thinking of the next protest I was gonna go to, which was the day after,” said Maxwell Frost, 23, an organizer with The People 407 and March For Our Lives. “… I was in there thinking about how I was gonna tell the story and use the story to help inspire others and give other people a call to action.”
In recent months, protesters have coalesced behind the messaging of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for police accountability and diverting funding from law enforcement budgets into community social services.
When a $15 million increase to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s budget was proposed, organizers planned a block of demonstrations in late July from Universal Orlando resort and downtown Orlando, simultaneously protesting the county’s approved $5 million budget allocation to help the resort build another theme park.
“In the middle of a pandemic — when people are dying, people are out of work, people are not able to pay rent — we need that money to go to social services, but also go towards programs that we don’t have in Orlando and in Orange County, such as violence interruption services,” said Frost, who was arrested at a July 24 protest at Universal.
Around 25 protesters marched for nearly three hours around Universal on July 24, taking over the intersection near the front of the park for around 30 minutes without police interference, Frost said.
As the group was leaving and within sight of their cars, police told them to disperse. They kept marching, saying they assumed police would give them time to get to their vehicles before taking people into custody.
“Out of nowhere, the police ambushed us (and) started arresting people left and right,” Frost said. “In the chaos, as an organizer, I walked up to an officer and said, ‘Hey, we’re almost there, we’re pretty much done actually,’ but before I could even finish my sentence, I was on the floor. My face was in the pavement.”
Anthony Roberts, 23, an organizer and leader of the Reach Party protest group who goes by AmpDaTruth, said police started boxing in protesters with about 10 to 15 squad cars.
AmpDaTruth and Frost were among six protesters arrested that night on charges of disorderly conduct and offenses ranging from state misdemeanors to battery on a law enforcement officer. Many arrested were organizers of a local protest group, Frost said.
In a statement released that night, the Orlando Police Department cited the crowd ignoring “repeated requests to disperse” and “refus(ing) to leave the roadway” as the reason for the arrests.
“There’s a certain point when officers have to step in and clear to allow the safe flow of traffic,” OPD spokeswoman Heidi Rodriguez said the following week.
Many of the protesters arrested for disorderly conduct at the Universal protest, including Frost, have since had the charges against them dropped. AmpDaTruth’s case is still pending, according to court records.
Others who were arrested that day reported being mistreated while being taken into custody and during processing. Yri, a minor who was arrested July 24 and declined to provide their last name out of fear of retaliation, said they were misgendered dozens of times by officers during their arrest and then by staff at the Juvenile Assessment Center in Parramore.
“I counted, and I was misgendered 32 times. My pronouns are they/them, and I let them know that. They gawked at me like a circus animal and continued misgendering me,” said Yri, an organizer with Young Black Abolitionists who is nonbinary and said they suffered cuts and an ankle strain during their arrest.
An OPD spokesperson said the agency has not received any formal complaints of excessive force stemming from recent protests.
Many protesters, including AmpDaTruth, were arrested again at events the following week. AmpDaTruth’s arrest at a July 27 picnic near Lake Eola sparked a #FreeAmp social media campaign shared by protesters across the country.
He was since banned by a judge from Lake Eola, a common protest venue, as a condition of his bond while he waits for his July 27 arrest to be resolved in the courts, records show. He is scheduled for a hearing on that case in September.
The pattern of arrests has led organizers to believe police are targeting them and other frequent protest attendees to shake their resolve.
“It kind of decentralizes the entire action and leaves people scared, and when people are scared, they go home,” Frost said. “ … It’s easy to know who’s an organizer, because you can see the folks with the bullhorns (and) who’s directing folks.”
Justin Tucker, 22, said he’s not affiliated with any particular protest group, but police have told him he is a target. He said officers have shown him his Instagram page while at protests and called him by name while arresting him.
“They’re pretty much trying to point out and target people that have been consistent with protesting,” he said. “I’ve had people hit me up when I wasn’t even at the protests saying, ‘Oh, they’re saying your name, asking where you are because if they see you, they’re saying they’re going to take you in.’”
Tucker was arrested during the Universal protest July 24 and again at a Salaythis Melvin protest Aug. 21. Deputies said he resisted arrest and hit an officer while fleeing, and deputies found a gun that had been reported stolen concealed in his backpack, according to an affidavit and an OCSO statement that evening.
He did not respond to the Orlando Sentinel’s questions about his Aug. 21 arrest.
Activists have sought to engage in dialogue with law enforcement agencies for months to collaborate on their policy demands.
Miles Mulrain, who founded the nonprofit Let Your Voice Be Heard and is one of the most visible leaders of the broader movement, met with Orange Sheriff John Mina on Tuesday to discuss the investigation into Melvin’s death, with the hope of finding compromises to ensure the expedited release of information in the future whenever a deputy shoots someone.
Brokered by State Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) and State Rep.-elect Travaris McCurdy (D-Orlando), the hour-and-a-half-long meeting showed the weeks of protest are yielding positive results, “but as far as a resolution, we are still in limbo,” Mulrain said.
“This is more ammunition for us to keep going,” he said. “I think the sheriff has seen us, acknowledged us, and it’s good that he reached out … but it’s definitely not over.”
The meeting came days after players of the Orlando Magic met with Mina through a video call, with some leaving the meeting unsatisfied. Mina has said throughout the investigation into Melvin’s death that he is considering policies that would help speed up the process of releasing information like body camera footage to the public.
Though Mulrain has not been arrested during the recent protests, he was escorted out of the Florida Mall and trespassed by several deputies shortly after arriving to protest Aug. 22.
Mulrain said the arrests of fellow protesters are unjustified, and he hopes continued conversations with law enforcement officials, like his Tuesday meeting with Mina, can lead to collaborative solutions.
Meanwhile, protesters who’ve been arrested say the process does nothing but give them more time and resources to plan future demonstrations.
Jaren Garman, 20, was arrested at the Aug. 21 protest for stepping into a bicycle lane after deputies told protesters to stay off the road. He said a deputy gave him a brief warning before grabbing him by his bag, throwing him into his bicycle and arresting him in the street, he said.
As he waited for nearly three hours in a jail transport police van with three other protesters, bruised and cut by the zip tie handcuffs, he said he bonded with members of the organization Dream Defenders who offered to post bail for him. Though he was unaffiliated with a group before, he said he plans to join the organization.
“Once my charges are dropped and I get it expunged from my record, I’ll most likely be right back out onto the street,” he said. “(The arrest) has filled me with rage. It has shown me exactly what they’re trying to do to scare us from even protesting again, and so I’m not going to fall for that trap. I’m not going to be scared.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)