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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002
How can something like this happen in the United States, in a modern city, in 2002?
According to news accounts and eyewitnesses, this is what happened: Late Tuesday afternoon, several St. Petersburg police officers went to a high-crime area in the black community, dubbed Midtown, and arrested 23-year-old Kamalo Byrd for possession of crack cocaine and marijuana. This area is known for heavy drug trafficking.
Before he was apprehended, Byrd ran through the house of a 62-year-old woman who was asleep. Of course, the officers had to run through the woman's house, too. Soon after the arrest, about 30 African-Amercian residents came to the scene and, according to reporters, began harassing the police, five of whom had been patrolling the area on marked bicycles.
After Byrd was arrested and put into a cruiser, someone in the crowd threw an explosive device near the officers. The object exploded. Five officers had to go the hospital for a nosebleed, ringing ears and powder burns.
The officers on the bicycles were ordered out of the area for their safety and to prevent a violent situation from becoming more violent.
"After the explosion, there was nothing but laughter and cheers from the people," Karl Lounge, a street narcotics sergeant, told the Times. Lounge was temporarily blinded by the light of the explosion. "I hope this incident is an extreme eye opener for the officers and staff and citizens of the community to really see how out of control things are."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker expressed outrage that "anybody would in any way attack our police officers when they're doing their job."
How can something like this happen? What would make someone throw an explosive device at the police and a crowd to find the act to be funny?
According to a police report, a man in the crowd yelled these words at the police: "This isn't your neighborhood, and these aren't your streets. We own the streets down here and you motherf--- need to get the f-- out."
St. Petersburg's black community, like many others nationwide, is growing more dysfunctional by the day. It is suffering from what some social scientists call the "abused community syndrome." Residents have been down and abused so long they will endure almost anything to survive another day.
The irony is that while some blacks, especially leaders of militant organizations, see the police as their enemy, the police are, in truth, the only force that keeps black St. Petersburg from plunging into chaos. In some neighborhoods, the only free people are high-profile criminals and assorted bullies.
Militant black leaders, such as Omali Yeshitela, head of St. Petersburg's Uhuru Movement, themselves become the black community's biggest enemy. They are apologists for thugs and criminals who victimize their law-abiding neighbors.
Yeshitela, for example, sees the police as an "occupying" force. As much as I like some of his efforts, his thinking on the police contributes to the pathology smothering the black community. It condones behavior that debases life, behavior that has no place in a modern city.
Tossing an explosive at police officers doing their lawful job and finding the act funny have no place in the black community. These acts cannot be defended intelligently.
Instead of wanting less police presence in the community, law-abiding blacks, many of them homeowners, want more police presence. On Thursday, I spent the day in the area where the confrontation occurred and talked with more than 20 residents. These people want the drug dealers gone. They reject any philosophy that rationalizes dangerous behavior.
"Thank God for the cops," a 67-year-old man said.
Several older people I spoke with live in fear. They rarely leave their homes. Parents keep their fingers crossed that nothing will happen to their children as they come and go.
Since the riots of several years ago, the police department has made a good-faith effort to respect the rights and perceptions of black residents. I like many of the initiatives that have been implemented, such as officers on bicycles who get to know the citizens on their beats.
Currently, though, the police are in a bind: If they get tough, they are condemned. If they show sensitivity, they are condemned.
The police are only a small part of the equation for maintaining tranquility in the black community. Black residents themselves must lead the way. As Randall Robinson notes in his new book The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other, ordinary blacks must reclaim their communities from the types who would toss explosives at the police, who would sell drugs in front of their homes.
So-called black leaders and the clergy should come forward and become allies of the police. No criminal should find safe harbor in a black neighborhood. No police officer on the job should have to worry about being attacked by a mob in a black community. No resident should have to worry about a drug dealer running through her home as she sleeps.
Imagine that: A stranger -- a suspected drug trafficker, running through your home trying to escape police capture. What could be more terrifying?
Blacks cannot blame white people for such incidents in their communities and the conditions that produce them.
Blacks also should not expect the government to solve their problems. As Robinson writes, while outside assistance is helpful, "it cannot salvage a living generation of African-American men and women who are being, in alarming numbers, lost to the black community as wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, breadwinners, and responsible social contributors. This, we must do for ourselves."