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Hate crime awakens old fears

In the wake of the vandalism on a black mother's home, a community asks: Is this who we really are?

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published December 4, 2005

RIVERVIEW - The houses of Tribute Street all look the same: fresh and new. They have the same creamy stucco, the same perfect lawns, the same aura of middle-class prosperity.

All but one.

In that house, someone painted racial epithets on the walls. Someone broke into the house, destroying nearly everything, before the owner, a single black mother, moved in.

The viciousness of the attack last week shocked people in this diverse development 30 minutes east of Tampa. Neighbors exchange theories: It was a bunch of kids. It was a crazy person. Maybe the owner had an enemy.

Was it a fluke?

After all, wasn't this the new New South, where whites, blacks, Hispanics, Indians share cul-de-sacs?

For many, the attack raised old ghosts: These were also the suburbs where three white men kidnapped a black tourist in 1993 and set him on fire. Last year, three white teenagers painted slurs on a black family's house. And every month, the National Vanguard, a white supremacist group, meets in Brandon.

Days after the latest attack, a black customer was detained at a Brandon Wal-Mart for two hours and accused of forging a check, when he had done nothing wrong.

For some, those incidents reflect the true nature of this community. For others, it's an aberration.

Many were left wondering: What sort of place do we live in?

* * *

Puja Sharma and her family have lived on Tribute Street only a month.

She feels safe there. She heard about what happened next door, but it has nothing to do with her.

There are all kinds of people on this street, she says. There's even another Indian family, and a family from the Philippines.

"Everybody is busy these days," she said. "They don't care who lives next door."

* * *

Jeff Niehaus feels unjustly accused. Police questioned his children. Why? He thinks it's just because they live across from the vandalized house - and they're white.

"All my kids' friends are black," he protests. "I got a whole black neighborhood hanging out in my home."

Niehaus is 45. When he moved to Riverview in 1979, he says, he got beat up for being a "Yankee." Back then, he said, "you didn't see a black face in here."

The old families are still around. Niehaus calls them "crackers."

"There are young, white kids, and their fathers are still prejudiced," he said.

His cell phone rings. It's a detective.

"It ain't us," Niehaus tells him. "I guarantee it."

* * *

William Ammeraal leans over his chain-link fence. Here on Lincoln Road, one block over from Tribute, the mix of houses and trailers is more Southern.

But it's just as diverse, Ammeraal says. "We got Hispanics, we got coloreds, we got Arabs or whatever you call them," he says.

He says that when he heard about the vandalism, "I was shocked. Not that it's so close, I just can't believe people are going to be so rude and ignorant. To me I think it's just dirty."

Ammeraal, who is white, said he doesn't know any racists on his street. "If you're a U.S. citizen, you've got as much rights as I do," he said.

* * *

Sonya Gresham-Rose heard the news report and thought: It's happened again .

Last year, when teenagers painted racial slurs on a house in Valrico, Gresham-Rose, who is black, and her husband, who is white, showed up at the victim's door with a paint sprayer. They were strangers, but they wanted to help.

This time, though, Gresham-Rose said she is too busy to help clean up racist graffiti. She and her husband are moving. To Montana.

"Riverview is becoming too full and crowded and populated," she said. "But it's also the scariness. You just wouldn't think that would happen in your neighborhood."

"You have prejudice wherever you go," she added. "So we decided to move to Montana. There's nobody there."

* * *

Seventeen years ago, Doris Gardner, 37, who is black, saw the words written in wet concrete outside her newly opened hair salon: N-----S GO HOME.

Ignorance, she thought. Straight up ignorance .

"I wasn't offended," she said. "I know I'm not a n-----."

But she wasn't surprised, either.

When she was a child, she said, black people in Tampa knew not to drive through State Road 60 in Brandon.

"If you drove down 60, you'd get lynched," she says, setting rollers in a client's hair. "This is a good-ol'-boy town, and it's still the same."

For Doris, reminders of the past are everywhere.

Ancient live oaks loom over her store. Looking up, she wonders if black people were hanged from them.

* * *

Next door to Gardner's salon is the office of a chiropractor, Charles Pope. He is 68 and white, and has lived in Brandon all his life.

He was shocked when he heard about the vandalism in Riverview. "I find this stuff just absolutely repulsive," he said. "I doubt it was by anybody except a bunch of vandals just misbehaving."

Racism has never been a problem here, he said. "When I was a kid, there was a friendly feeling" between whites and blacks, he said.

"You looked out for them because they were part of the community. Then it went to ill feelings in the '60s, when there was so much disruption in society. But that's all settled down."

* * *

John Salgado stood in the street and watched as his neighbor discovered the ruins of her new house.

"She just walked into a war zone," he recalls. "She was in tears."

Salgado, whose parents were born in Mexico, said the attack was "appalling."

But he said that, ultimately, racism is unescapable.

"It's in every end of society, whether it's upper class, middle class. I think there's racism everywhere."

Everyone has a choice, he said. You can choose to let racism embitter you. "Or it can make you stronger."

"You have to cope with it," he said. "You have to live with it. It can happen to anybody."

--S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 4, 2005, 01:18:20]


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