Calm prevails, now city braces for trial's verdict
In the wake of Wednesday's unrest, city officials work to keep the peace. Today's expected end to the TyRon Lewis case worries some.
By LEANORA MINAI, MARCUS FRANKLIN and CRAIG PITTMAN
Published May 14, 2004
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Eric Mallay, owner of Wireless World at 1856 18th Ave. S, is still paying off loans he took out to rebuild from eight years ago. He estimates Wednesday night's damage - which includes broken windows and water damage - might hit $300,000.
NAACP president Darryl Rouson said the violence "retards the progress we had begun to make."
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Activist Omali Yeshitela said he blames Mayor Rick Baker for the conditions that led to the violence.
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
ST. PETERSBURG - After a night of sporadic violence, city officials and civil rights activists pleaded for calm Thursday and prepared for today's expected verdict in a lawsuit tied to the 1996 disturbances.
At 11 p.m. Thursday, the neighborhoods affected by the previous night's incidents remained relatively quiet. A police cruiser's windshield was broken by a rock near John Hopkins Middle School on 16th Street S, and police quickly dispersed other small gatherings of people in the streets. At least four Pinellas County schools in the area canceled after-school events through the weekend, and the St. Petersburg police added patrols.
City officials and residents in the neighborhoods known as Midtown also looked ahead to this weekend.
A civil trial over the police shooting that killed one man and touched off two nights of disturbances nearly eight years ago is expected to be decided today. City officials and the family of TyRon Lewis, who was shot and killed by a police officer in 1996, have failed to agree on a settlement and the case is expected to go to the jury this afternoon.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker called for calm Thursday after 20 arrests were made overnight, several Midtown businesses were damaged and several shots were fired at police officers. He promised fair treatment for all by the police but swift punishment for anyone caught breaking the law.
"We are going to protect our community," Baker said. "We are going to be committed to making sure our police department treats people with respect in the community. But they are going to arrest people if they commit acts of criminal violence."
Gov. Jeb Bush phoned Baker to offer his support. "He has it under control," Bush said, describing Baker as "a person who has been reaching out consistently toward all segments of the city."
St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson, who filed in and out of closed meetings with city and police officials, said the violence "retards the progress we had begun to make."
"It doesn't destroy it," he added. "The burden now is to act with increased sensitivity and increased activity. We need to be circumspect in how we treat citizens."
But activist Omali Yeshitela said he holds Baker responsible for the conditions that led to the violence. He said the violence resulted from overly aggressive police actions against African-American residents, particularly in the weeks leading up to the start of the trial.
"Rick Baker is responsible for it," Yeshitela said. "There's been backward movement. They've reverted back to the old refrain: You can't have economic development until you get rid of crime, which means more aggressive policing, which started the thing in the first place."
Among those arrested recently was one of Yeshitela's allies, Sateesh Rogers, who has led antipolice protests at the downtown BayWalk shopping plaza. Rogers was pulled over Tuesday because the rear tail lights of his 1987 Mazda weren't working and charged with driving on a suspended license. In his car were fliers that said, "Will St. Pete Learn or Will St. Pete Burn? Remember '96! Who Run These Streets!"
"They know who we are," said Rogers, 21. "They've heightened their patrols in the community. It's like they're picking incidents."
Yeshitela, founder of the Uhuru Movement and chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, urged the city to settle the suit brought by the family of Lewis, an 18-year-old black motorist shot to death by white police Officer James Knight in 1996.
"They can win the case, and they can lose the peace," Yeshitela said.
But city officials said they did not believe settling would help.
"I don't think settling this case will solve the Uhurus' unhappiness with us," said City Council member John Bryan. "I think this case is just one small piece of the puzzle. And if they win this one, and we give in to this, it fires them up for the next one."
Midtown residents tried to make sense of what had happened again to their neighborhood. Some blamed police, but others blamed the Uhurus.
Travares Lucas, 18, said black youths believe they are singled out by police and shop owners for harassment at BayWalk because of the way they dress.
"People feel they're not being listened to," said Lucas, building manager at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority's Center for Achievement on 22nd Street S. Violence becomes "their only way to get heard. Protesting and writing letters, it's like they're talking to a brick wall. But when you throw something . . . then you hear echoes. Now everybody's suddenly interested."
But Yalanda Howard, 24, and Keyona Thompson, 20, who witnessed some of Wednesday night's unrest, said people should stop listening to the Uhurus. They said Yeshitela's group is more interested in tearing the community apart than building it up.
"They're destroying the little pieces of it we do have," Thompson said. "In my opinion they did it out of ignorance and stupidity."
Midtown business owners spent the day picking up the pieces from the disturbances, which lasted until about 4 a.m. Thursday.
At LA Fashions in Central Plaza, 3235 Central Ave., a car drove through the barred windows in the storefront. Men wearing gloves and masks swiped about $14,000 worth of clothes, owners said.
"My heart is broken. I don't think about the future. I can't," said the owner's wife, Myeong Pak, a Korean immigrant.
Wireless World at 1856 18th Ave. S sustained fire and water damage and destruction of equipment, display cases and furniture. All the one-story building's exterior windows were broken.
"What is there to salvage?" asked owner Eric Mallay, who figured the damage may total $300,000. His adjacent grocery store was destroyed in the 1996 disturbances, and he said he is still paying off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans it took to rebuild from eight years ago.
Although Yeshitela and others attributed the violence to continued community anger over the 1996 shooting, Wednesday night's unrest began with a nighttime march protesting a more recent incident, the May 2 shooting by Pinellas sheriff's detectives of 17-year-old Marquell McCullough.
Detectives said they shot McCullough because he rammed their cruisers with his truck and tried to run them over after a 20-block chase. He was carrying 30 pieces of crack cocaine.
Uhuru leaders have called the McCullough shooting "TyRon Lewis all over again" and called for "the killer cops" to be tried for murder. But Yeshitela and Rogers both denied the Uhurus organized the Wednesday night march. About 100 people carried a banner protesting McCullough's death, and police Chief Chuck Harmon said the department has not tied the disturbances to the Uhurus.
At 9:25 p.m., someone called police to complain that the marchers were blocking traffic on 18th Avenue S. Two minutes later came the first report that some were throwing bottles and had tried to turn over a vehicle.
Michael Schweizer, 25, said he was riding his mountain bike along 18th Avenue S when a crowd knocked him off his bike, pelted him with bricks and kicked him. Schweizer managed to get away and reached in his pocket for pepper spray. But a block later he was again dragged to the ground.
"People were beating each other up to beat me up," said Schweizer, who is white. "I literally thought I was going to die."
He said a woman in the crowd fought her way over to him and saved his life.
"She was screaming, "Leave this man alone!' If it wasn't for her, they would have killed me in the street," he said.
Schweizer, who suffered a black eye and needed seven stitches in his arm, said a police car arrived and he jumped in.
Chris Kelly, 37, was returning from a shopping trip to the Tyrone area, driving down First Avenue S toward his Roser Park neighborhood, when a crowd marching toward him forced him to stop. A beer bottle shattered against his window, then rocks started flying.
"I dropped the truck into first and pushed people out of the way and either drove over feet or rocks," said Kelly, who is white. "I didn't stop to exchange insurance information."
After the 1996 disturbances, police had vowed to be better prepared for future violence. That training paid off Wednesday night, Harmon said. Officers quickly established a command post at Tropicana Field, where they peeled the plastic wrap off their brand new riot shields and swung into action.
About 100 officers were assigned to what police described as "hot spots" throughout the disturbance area. Dressed in riot gear, four officers rode in each squad car, responding to each spot to quell violence. About four to five cars would go to each hot spot.
Police arrested 20 people, 11 of them adults: three women and eight men, the oldest one 36 years old. Among the nine juveniles, the youngest was 14. Charges ranged from loitering to attempted homicide of a police officer.
Wednesday's unrest was primarily confined to an area bounded by Fourth Street S to 34th Street between 15th Avenue S and 46th Avenue. Stores in two shopping centers - Lakeview and Maximo - were looted. St. Petersburg Fire Rescue responded to about 21 calls, including three car fires, two building fires, seven trash bin fires and six rescue calls. The front passenger side window of a fire truck was smashed at 22nd Avenue S and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
Officers took about 60 police reports related to Wednesday's disturbances, mostly for criminal mischief and throwing objects at cars and people. Among the calls, police went to Denny's at 4000 34th St. S for a burglary and battery. Also, a motorist was "forcibly" removed from his car at a traffic light and battered by a crowd at 22nd Avenue S and King Street.
- Times staff writers Jon Wilson, Waveney Ann Moore, Carrie Johnson, Jamie Thompson, Sharon Bond, William R. Levesque, Anita Kumar, Alisa Ulferts, Donna Winchester and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.