LAKELAND, Fla. - Protests in Polk County were peaceful Monday night after a weekend of “civil unrest” on Saturday and Sunday prompted officials to declare a local state of emergency and issue a curfew through early Tuesday morning.
Protesters gathered at Auburndale City Park Monday night to mourn with the nation after the death of George Floyd while he was being arrested by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video of the incident sparked outrage across the country. The officers involved have been fired and one faces a murder charge.
Demonstrators in Auburndale chanted "No justice, no peace" and "I can't breathe" Monday night. Floyd could be heard in the video saying "I can't breathe" and went unconscious minutes later.
“It’s time for a change. It’s time for, we gotta wake up, it’s not fair, it’s not right that I have to worry about my future children living in a crazy place like this,” Doranny Aquino, of Winter Haven, told the crowd.
The group observed a 10-minute period of silence to recognize the time George Floyd was pinned to the ground.
Police joined the protesters Monday night, expressing their own consternation over Floyd's death.
“What happened, in this case, offends us just as much as it does anyone else,” Auburndale Police Chief Andy Ray said. “There’s no explanation, it doesn’t make any sense to us at all.”
Earlier Monday, Sheriff Grady Judd joined Lakeland PD to recap the events in Polk County over the weekend that prompted the curfew and state of emergency.
The Lakeland Police Department said a planned protest Sunday of about 100 people in Munn Park was peaceful and lawful Sunday. The group moved to the police station, which continued with no issues. However, some of those involved split off from the group and began blocking traffic at Florida Boulevard, which turned from citizens expressing their first amendment right to unlawful activity.
Lakeland PD said officers tried to disperse the crowd, but the sheriff’s office was called in to help clear the intersection.
Sheriff Judd said there he does not believe Polk County residents were the ones creating problems.
He said there’s a difference between a protester and a rioter and rioting will not be accepted.
Judd said they received information that law enforcement would come under attack at 8 p.m. near Interstate 4 and Highway 27, but the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Highway Patrol were ready.
Judd said the Highway Patrol did a “marvelous job” helping stop the few who showed up for that alleged effort.
“We are going to hunt you down and lock you up if you engage in any criminal conduct,” Judd said.
Judd said there were rumblings on social media that rioters planned to bring violence into the neighborhoods of Polk County.
“I would tell them, if you value your life, they probably shouldn’t do that in Polk County. Because the people of Polk County like guns, they have guns, I encourage them to own guns, and they’re going to be in their homes tonight with their guns loaded, and if you try to break into their homes to steal, to set fires, I’m highly recommending they blow you back out of the house with their guns. So, leave the community alone,” Judd said.
The sheriff encouraged anyone wishing to express their First Amendment right to free speech to keep the focus on George Floyd, who Judd said was a victim who should be honored.
"All of that ugliness has taken away from what we're united about," the sheriff said. "We're united about the conduct that you saw with George [Floyd]."