ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Following a night in which officers used tear gas on demonstrators who threw rocks and bottles at them, Orlando officials on Wednesday moved up a curfew by two hours for the city's downtown, as protesters continued a fifth day of demonstrations in Florida against police abuse.
Peaceful rallies with thousands of people in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg a day earlier took a more confrontational turn late at night, after city curfews. Officers in the three cities responded to fireworks, thrown bottles and rocks with tear gas, smoke grenades, pepper canisters and other measures to disperse crowds.
Across Florida, demonstrations continued Wednesday to protest racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black man who pleaded for air while a white Minneapolis police officer put his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck for several minutes.
Protests have taken place every day since Saturday, and in some cases, they've been followed by acts of vandalism, stores break-ins and burglaries.
“Florida won’t tolerate rioting, looting or violence,” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando on Wednesday. “I also want to thank the peaceful demonstrators who have engaged in lawful First Amendment activity, some of whom have helped to stymie attempts of some protesters seeking to engage in violent activity.”
DeSantis said dozens of people were arrested in the Tampa Bay region and Orlando.
“In Tampa one person was arrested attempting to sell Molotov cocktails from his vehicle and another was found with a backpack full of mortars,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said another person was arrested for trying to stab officers with a syringe and another person was arrested in Walton County in the Panhandle for trying to set fire to a police vehicle.
In St. Petersburg, protesters on Tuesday night fled, screaming and angry, and police made dozens of arrests. Two Tampa Bay Times reporters who were covering the events were briefly detained, one in each city, the newspaper reported.
In Tampa, a few dozen protesters ended up outside the courthouse late Tuesday when police ordered them to disperse. An officer using a loud speaker from atop a pickup truck declared an unlawful assembly. Other officers formed a line with their bicycles. Protesters started pushing against them and officers fired nonlethal rounds, smoke grenades and pepper canisters.
Hundreds of protesters on Wednesday marched peacefully through downtown Orlando toward the Orlando Police Department headquarters. But on Tuesday, after a similar protest involving thousands of demonstrators, a few remaining protesters threw rocks and bottles at officers so they were forced to deploy smoke and tear gas, the police agency said.
“When rocks and bottles are thrown at our officers, we have to protect our officers and our citizens," Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolon said Wednesday.
Orlando officials said a curfew in downtown Orlando would be set for 8 p.m. while it would remain 10 p.m. for the rest of the city.
“Clearly our residents support the reasons the demonstrators are speaking out," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, not everybody remained peaceful during these demonstrations, especially at the conclusion of each of the nights."
In Miami-Dade County, officials moved a curfew back to midnight starting Wednesday. Broward County officials ended their curfew but said it could be reimposed if lives, businesses or property are threatened.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said it fired two employees over “hateful, racist and threatening remarks" about protesters in texts and on social media.
“This conduct is not in any way reflective of the Troopers and employees of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles ... and this abhorrent and reprehensible conduct will not be tolerated," the agency tweeted.
Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.