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There's less kindling, but there's still a problem

Published May 16, 2004

The events of recent days in St. Petersburg scared a lot of people who were worried about a repeat of the widespread violence of 1996. But the city is in a different situation now than it was then.

The violent incidents that did occur were isolated and involved a few dozen people. St. Petersburg was nowhere close to being a "city under siege," as one of the TV stations warned its viewers ominously.

The community's leaders, black and white, spoke out in a timely and unified fashion. The police were better prepared. Behind it all, the city had spent several years and many millions of dollars trying to improve matters in the Midtown area.

So despite the rhetoric of "rebellion" that came as usual from the Uhuru movement, there was not as large a pile of kindling.

Having said that, the city's problem is not gone.

A lot of reasonable people are mad, really mad, about the police shooting on May 2 of Marquell McCullough, just as they were mad about the 1996 shooting of TyRon Lewis.

The rest of us might try to dust off our hands and say, "It was an open and shut case. McCullough rammed the police with his car, he had it coming, and you see how quickly the jury ruled against the TyRon Lewis lawsuit."

But, you know, dead is dead, and not everybody thinks teenagers deserve to die for panicking and acting stupidly, even if it was really stupid. (Personally, I think the Lewis case is a closer call than McCullough's.)

Law enforcement's use of deadly force is a perfectly legitimate subject for debate. Again, consider whether, just the other day, Pinellas sheriff's deputies should have found a way not to kill a disturbed man who threw a knife at them.

St. Petersburg now has a second chance to continue this conversation.

* * *

We ask a lot of court cases. The family of TyRon Lewis asked for "justice" in filing a lawsuit against the city.

But, you know, that was not the specific decision the jury had to make.

The jury had to decide strictly whether the shooting was an act of "negligence" by the city. And that was a hard row to hoe.

Here is how hard it was. The jury was instructed that if Officer James Knight intended to shoot TyRon Lewis, then by definition it was not a negligent act.

A "negligent" act would be more like, for example, a clumsy cop dropping his gun and it going off. But of course Officer Knight intended to shoot him. The officer said so himself.

The jury got a verdict form, agreed upon by the lawyers. The first question said: If you find that Knight intended to shoot Lewis, then your verdict is for the city. Stop right now. And that is exactly what happened.

This distinction between intentional and negligent acts will be the key point of the appeal.

* * *

Two people who handled themselves especially well during the week, I thought, were Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, and Mayor Rick Baker, albeit in totally different ways.

Rouson's role, it seems, is to be misunderstood by everybody. If he condemns violence, calls for calm or works with authority figures, then the Uhuru movement calls him a sellout.

For the cameras, Rouson was asked again and again whether he wanted to (1) appeal for calm and (2) predict whether there would be violence, and he did his best to answer.

To me he seemed deeply disappointed at the verdict, and angry at what happened to Lewis' family in the first place. Yet he still had the grace to step outside for the cameras immediately afterward and proclaim the greatness of the U.S. justice system.

As for Baker, he exhibited strong leadership both in public and private. He said things in exactly the right order as events unfolded, neither appearing weak or overreacting.

Immediately after the verdict, upon hearing that settlement talks had included a college scholarship for TyRon Lewis II, I turned to a friend and said: "The mayor should give them that anyway." So when Baker did exactly that in his news conference a little later, naturally I thought he was a brilliant fellow.

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