At Black Lives Matter rallies in New Port Richey throughout the summer, Christina Boneta got used to bringing her megaphone covered with stickers.
“The point of protesting is so people can hear you and we can bring issues to people,” said Boneta. “It’s supposed to be loud.”
Then, the sound amplifiers became police targets.
Since July, officers have issued thousands of dollars in noise ordinance fines to protesters who used the devices downtown.
At least five Pasco County protesters have received a total of 14 citations, which add up to more than $4,700, the Tampa Bay Times found.
Boneta’s fines total $2,573. She says she was not warned before most citations were issued.
New Port Richey has a strict noise ordinance, enacted in 2017 to crack down on loud downtown bars and clubs. It gives police officers broad discretion to use their ears to determine whether to issue a citation.
Pasco activist says New Port Richey police targeted protesters
The Times requested all noise complaints on Main Street from July to November. There were no megaphone noise complaints initiated by citizens — all were started by police officers.
The New Port Richey Police Department and Mayor Rob Marlowe were asked about the recent citations. Both declined to comment.
So did City Manager Debbie Manns.
“I’m not providing any comment to you on that, or any part of the history of the ordinance, as a result of the fact that we have pending cases,” Manns said. “I wish I could be more helpful.”
The protesters say the citations, and other actions by the New Port Richey Police Department, are meant to send a message: Go home.
When Boneta, 32, first came out to City Hall to protest the killing of George Floyd in May, she didn’t know what to expect. A mother who works in insurance billing, she considers herself “shy” and was deeply uncomfortable with public speaking.
But then, life in Pasco County, which is 90 percent white, had always been uncomfortable for Boneta, who is half Black and half Puerto Rican. Every day she drove past a large Confederate flag, displayed on her neighbor’s lawn. She noticed shop attendants following her around stores or people pulling their purses close when they passed. People sometimes called her derogatory names.
She never felt like making a big deal. “I’m used to people looking at me funny or maybe throwing an n-word out there,” she said. “My experience is just, like, a normal Black experience.”
Watching the death of George Floyd in police custody inspire a movement was a wake-up call. “Am I going to continue just talking about what’s wrong with the world? Or will I try to change something?” Boneta asked herself.
The ongoing Pasco protests have been much smaller than those in St. Petersburg and Tampa — the group sometimes draws up to 50 people, but usually numbers around 15. A few times a week, they stand in front of City Hall or march along the sidewalks for two hours, shouting their message to cars and restaurant diners.
People sometimes hurl hate. They wave Trump flags as they drive by or stand across the road and call protesters names, Boneta said.
The naked aggression shocked her. But it also strengthened her resolve to speak out. She became a leader in the group and used a megaphone to make speeches. She loved to start the chants off with, “When Black lives are under attack, what do we do?” and hear the roaring response come from the group: “Stand up, fight back!”
On Aug. 28, Boneta was arrested after officers asked her to sign a noise citation — her fifth.
She had only learned of the other four citations two days earlier when a friend looked up her court record. She didn’t know how the officer knew her name and said the citations had been sent to the wrong address.
When the officers approached her, she wanted to ask them what was going on and why they had never warned her.
“We might be annoying, yelling and chanting, but we don’t block traffic or take the streets or litter,” Boneta said. “We just literally chant and try to get our message across.”
In a police report from the night, Cpl. Timothy Berge said he asked Boneta to sign a citation, but she continued to yell into her megaphone.
“As I was walking back to my patrol car, I heard Christina announce she was not going to stop using the megaphone,” Berge wrote. He said an elderly woman then complained about the noise and asked him when it would stop.
Berge tried to approach Boneta again, according to the report, but protesters locked arms and formed a wall. The officer warned her she could go to jail if she did not accept and sign the citation. When she told him to mail it to her, like the others, he placed her in handcuffs and took her to jail on charges of resisting an officer. Boneta says she did not hear the warning that she would be arrested. “It was just so quick, I didn’t have time to react,” she said.
New Port Richey police declined to comment.
She tried using a megaphone once more — and was given another citation. Others in the group received citations, too. The fines started at $173 for the first violation and grew to $518 each. The megaphones have stayed at home since.
Megaphone fines are unusual, but not unheard of, said Carrie Boyd, a policy director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Police have been trying to use laws to rein in protesters across the country, she said.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently proposed a broad “anti-mob” law that would expand “stand your ground” to those suspected of looting, make it a third-degree felony to block traffic during a protest, and offer immunity to drivers who claim to have unintentionally killed or injured protesters who block traffic.
Clemmie Harris, a historian at Utica College and former criminal investigator with the New York Police Department, said the noise citations echo a long history of “quality of life” ordinances used to surveil people of color — stretching from Jim Crow segregation laws, to Civil Rights protests when Blacks could be arrested for “distributing literature without a permit” and making “statements calculated to breach the peace,” up to “Stop-and-Frisk” policing more recently.
“This has the ultimate impact of shutting down the constitutional rights of Black and brown folks and their white allies when it comes to protesting in a highly segregated space,” he said.
The protesters plan to fight the citations in court.
Sometimes Boneta wishes her life could go back to before she got involved in protests. It’s exhausting to put herself in the path of conflict. Then she remembers the names: Trayvon. Breonna. Sandra. Eric. George.
Week after week, she heads to downtown New Port Richey, cups her hands around her mouth and keeps yelling.
*story by Tampa Bay Times