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Racial Tensions Escalate In New Port Richey As Protests Continue

Black Lives Matter activists will be protesting this weekend in New Port Richey. They've been demonstrating there on a regular basis for months, but tensions have escalated recently with counterprotesters, including some white supremacist groups.

During a recent protest in the city’s downtown last Friday night, Black Lives Matter supporters marched along the sidewalk chanting the names of Black people killed by police officers like George Floyd, and they echoed his dying words, “I can’t breathe.”

They only made it a few blocks before counterprotesters stopped them in their tracks. White men dressed in camo and waving Trump flags approached.

"All lives matter, all lives f***ing matter,” they shouted. “Back the blue!”

“Everyone silence, we’re not engaging, don’t engage,” said Black Lives Matter Pasco County founder Nina Boneta in a raised voice as she urged members of her group from confrontation and tried to get them to cross the street. It wasn’t easy, particularly when some white supremacists made violent threats.

“Why don't y'all come out to Moon Lake to protest, see what happens there?" yelled one angry counterprotester, referring to a nearby community known for its Ku Klux Klan ties.

A couple of activists stopped and argued back and forth with him, and a sea of cell phones began recording, as they did any time there was a similar issue. Organizers managed to steer them away before any scuffle broke out.

Also in the mix, New Port Richey police, there to stop traffic and keep peace. They had to intervene when one agitator refused to keep his distance and repeatedly inserted himself into the crowd of protesters. Officers removed him each time.

Protester Marlowe Jones, 29, considered this night to be one of the calmer demonstrations. He said others have involved more conflict.

Jones said tensions have also been rising in the community outside of the protests, with social media fueling harassment.

“It's been absolutely crazy,” he said. “As one of the organizers I've been getting death threats, I’ve been getting letters to my house, you know, people calling me the n-word, calling me ‘monkey.’"

And while the police were helpful on this night, Jones said that hasn't always been the case. Black Lives Matter Pasco County members argue police officers cite them more than counterprotesters for offenses like using megaphones.

Jones is facing charges for battery of a law enforcement officer. Authorities say Jones swatted a policeman's hand away as he was helping a friend who was attacked by a bar patron in July. He pleaded not-guilty to the charges.

New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart said protesters still have to follow city laws when demonstrating, and said his department tries to be fair when enforcing those laws. He said officers issued warnings about things like improper megaphone use before issuing citations.

Bogart said their job is harder when protesters are loudly criticizing and challenging the work they do.

“My officers are absolutely not siding with either side,” he said. “I've personally been there, and I can't fault them, I think they're holding up incredibly well given the abuse that they're taking.”

To diffuse the tensions, protesters brought in outside help. About a dozen volunteers known as legal observers shot video and recorded notes on their phones along the route that included specifics about who was doing what at what time.

Legal observers aren’t protesting, and they’re not supposed to intervene in conflict. They collect evidence that can be used if anyone gets arrested and can serve as potential witnesses in court.

Donning a bright yellow vest and hard hat with 'legal observer" written in big letters, Rachel Hagenbaugh, 35, stood watch near City Hall. She believes her team's presence affects how police act.

“When we're out here with ten or more [observers], there's no citations, they're [the police] a lot friendlier, they're playing the non-biased job they're supposed to be playing,” she said. “Other instances when we're not here, they are always on the other side. That's why there's a mistrust in the group [Black Lives Matter Pasco County].”

Adding to the mistrust in New Port Richey are social media posts involving police that protesters say are racially insensitive. There's a video of officers joining a prayer circle led by the Proud Boys, a notorious white supremacist group. A female officer posted a selfie on a boat with a confederate flag.

Chief Bogart said the officers in the video didn't know those were Proud Boys when they agreed to join the group in prayer in the parking lot of a local WingHouse restaurant, where the officers had been responding to a call.

He said the officer with the flag won’t be disciplined either, as she wasn't in uniform representing the department. He did have her take the post down.

“Is it the best thing to have done? Absolutely not, it is insensitive,” Bogart said. “But I’m sure when that picture was being taken they [the officer] weren’t thinking about that, it wasn’t to send any kind of message.”

But Nina Boneta said these actions do send a message: people of color aren't safe in this community.

“If you want to experience up-close racism, you want to know what it’s like, you want to experience white supremacy in a police department – come to anywhere in Pasco but come to New Port Richey,” she said.

Boneta teared up as she explained what motivates her to remain active in this fight.

“The hate in this country has got to go, it has got to go,” she said, adding for those in the community who aren’t protesting:

“We’re not trying to burn your houses, we’re not trying to take anything that’s yours, all we want to do is be treated equally. That’s all Black Lives Matter Pasco is about, we’re not here to loot nothing, burn nothing or destroy anything. I live here, my daughter goes to school here, this is our community, I want it to be better for everyone.”

Still activists, law enforcement and city leaders are beginning to find some common ground. They have started gathering to discuss ideas for change, and this week the New Port Richey City Council voted to buy more body cameras for the police department, something all parties agreed was necessary.

During the meeting on Tuesday evening, Mayor Rob Marlowe lamented the negative attention the city has been getting.

"We're a very open and accepting community and we try to be, so to see folks try to paint us as something other than that I think is absolutely reprehensible," he said.

Black Lives Matter activists say significant changes need to be made for the city to truly be inclusive, like diverting some police funding to services that can uplift Black and brown and white residents. And they say they will keep on protesting until that happens.

WUSF multimedia reporter Daylina Miller contributed to this story.

New Port Richey police walk behind protesters at a recent Black Lives Matter march.
Daylina Miller / WUSF Public Media
New Port Richey police walk behind protesters at a recent Black Lives Matter march.

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