Alexis Speaks Out: I was Arrested at a Protest and Florida Justice Center Had My Back.
Update January 1, 2022: Florida Justice Center no longer provides criminal defense services.
A night that began peacefully ends in utter chaos. Bodies are packed in a crush, surrounded by police with their riot shields. The acrid scent of tear gas chokes the air. Rubber bullets fly overhead. People are screaming, crying, gasping for air. Alexis, just 22-years-old and with no prior record, is pulled from the throng and placed under arrest.
JUNE 4TH, 2020
That night, Alexis was part of a peaceful demonstration in downtown Tampa. She and two of her friends learned of a protest from social media, part of the movement against police brutality but also specifically in opposition to a local restaurateur that advocated violence against protesters, calling on people to “just shoot them all.”
Alexis describes arriving on Kennedy Boulevard around eight that night and finding the mood surrounding the protest to be tranquil. “Everything was organized. We walked from one street to another…. We went to the restaurant… and we just protested, we chanted, stuff like that. It was peaceful the whole time.”
Three hours later, the night was coming to a close and the protests had dissolved. Alexis was walking to her car when the officers in the area blocked her path. “The cops, they kept blocking us in. I guess they were trying to four-corner us so we couldn’t go anywhere.” Alexis truly believes that everyone simply wanted to go home: “We were walking away! Most people were trying to go home and trying to find their cars. They kept blocking us in every time we would go to another street.” This controversial crowd control technique called “kettling,” where officers surround a group on all sides, frequently causes more violence than it prevents. That was certainly the case in Tampa that night.
The police encircled the crowd. “They blocked us in completely. They literally blocked maybe like 60-something people in a circle and they started shooting us with rubber bullets and shooting us with tear gas. We were on the ground, and they still were shooting at us.”
The tear gas canisters flew by Alexis, dangerously close. “I was affected with the tear gas because they shot two canisters right near my head. I don’t know if it was on purpose, but it was by my head so it was really, really hard to breathe. I wanted to stand up but then I was like, ‘I don’t want to get shot with the rubber bullets.’”
Alexis threw herself on the ground to avoid the barrage of rubber bullets, but one of them still struck her. “I had on some goggles and the rubber bullet bounced off them.” Had Alexis not been wearing protective gear, she could easily have been blinded.
With the protesters stunned, gassed and shot into submission, officers began making arrests. Alexis was handcuffed. “My wrists are really small so they were really, really tight on my wrist. They were cutting my wrists.” She sat on the lawn, hands cuffed, before being escorted into a nearby police van to head down to the station.
Once inside the van, Alexis was relieved to see one of the friends she’d come to the demonstration with, the other had been lost in the chaos. The vehicle rolled into the station where Alexis came face-to-face with an officer that promptly yelled at the protesters to “SHUT UP!” The screening process would now begin.
Alexis received multiple pat downs, and was stripped of all her jewelry, hair ties, and shoes. She was questioned about her mental health and forced to take a pregnancy test. Finally, she was photographed, fingerprinted, and put into a holding cell with a number of other people. The station’s best defense against the coronavirus consisted of a simple survey and a quick temperature check.
Alexis was lucky to have been released after just three hours. It was now 4 AM and she was walking out of the station, having received a Notice to Appear before a judge for the misdemeanor charge of Unlawful Assembly.
Some friends recommended a lawyer who could help her, but Alexis had no luck getting in contact with him. She was on a student’s budget, and quickly became “frustrated” with the search for a lawyer. She was protesting to help others but, it seemed, no one would help her.
While scrolling through the #TampaProtest page on Twitter, she learned of the Florida Justice Center. She made the call. “They immediately answered the phone.” Alexis explained her situation to the FLJC employee and requested an attorney. The employee told her he would find her an attorney and, with little hope, she hung up the phone.
Just a couple of hours later, her phone rang. “He called me back and put me into contact the same day that I called them with a lawyer…. I think it was an hour later they called me back with a lawyer that was willing to help me for free.” For the first time since this horrible episode began, her hope was restored.
Alexis’s experience with her pro bono lawyer was “very good.” In fact, she looks back on the situation, stating that the lawyer was “the best person I’ve ever talked to in this whole situation.” The lawyer walked her through the whole process and presented her with a plan of action to help her beat the charges. “She did so much for me: calling around, even calling to let me know that the charges were getting dropped…. Even then, she said she was still going to work with me to make sure that this was never going to be on my record and never come up again.”
LOOKING TOWARD TOMORROW
With the criminal charges dropped, Alexis would maintain a clean record and once again be on track for a bright future. She’s pursuing an academic career that requires enrollment in certain programs. “They do background checks for this program that I’m trying to get into. I cannot have something like that come up on my background check because that could make the difference with me being able to finish school or not. So it means a lot that this is not going to be on my record and that I can just continue living my life.” Because of the attorney she was provided by the Florida Justice Center, Alexis can again have the future she’s worked so hard for.
Her experience with the Florida Justice Center reminded Alexis that there are good people out there in the world. “This just makes me know that I can go and protest and believe in something, and somebody will back me and somebody will be there to help and support.
“The fact that people are willing to help and believe in this cause and they believe in what you’re doing… it gives hope.”
ABOUT FLORIDA JUSTICE CENTER
Florida Justice Center is the state’s only legal aid organization dedicated to helping people with justice-involvement. Authorized by the Florida Supreme Court, FLJC works to lower the effects of an arrest through free and low-cost legal services, as well as connections to community service providers.
With a mission to empower individuals by providing legal support, community education, and removing barriers to success caused by the criminal justice system, FLJC succeeds in helping thousands of individuals each year.