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At his death, a city erupted

Melvin Hair's 1987 death sparked riots in Tampa. But did it really change the city?

Published February 18, 2007


TAMPA - In death, her son changed the face of this city. But Velma Bailey wants nothing to do with it, choosing to live the rest of her life in the Panhandle, as close to Georgia and Alabama as you can get without being there.

Bailey's son was Melvin Hair, a mentally ill black man who was killed by police 20 years ago today. His death sparked Tampa's last major civil disturbances, which made the city confront what many say was a divide wider than Tampa Bay: the gap between black and white.

But Bailey, 61, offers no hindsight from her porch in Bascom (pop. 106), where time moves an hour behind Tampa and a closed Exxon in the nearest city still advertises gas for $1.26 a gallon.

Bailey lives alone, an encouraging environment for introspection, especially when visitors are few and memories linger longer than the tire tracks on her dirt road. But she doesn't revisit the past, she said, she just "moves on." When the daily memory of her son's lifeless body - voice box and Adam's apple broken in three places - visits, she cooks dinner or washes her clothes in bleach. She's never visited her son's Tampa grave, which has no marker. She owns but two pictures of him, one in an album, the other in a modest corner in a frame with 20 family photos.

Depending on your point of view, these details symbolize where Tampa is today. To some black residents in Tampa, Hair's death and the racial problems it revealed were ignored and erased. But to many leaders, including those African-American, Tampa wrestled with race and won big battles, moving the city well beyond 1987.

* * *

At the time Hair's death sparked three nights of rioting, unemployment for blacks was about triple the 6.6 percent of the overall Tampa population. Black families in East Tampa's Belmont Heights had incomes $7,000 below the city average. The percentage of black arrests, between 27 and 31 percent for about a decade, jumped to 42 percent in 1985 and 47 percent in 1986. While blacks made up 23 percent of the city, they were just 9 percent of the police force.

In December 1986, Dwight Gooden, a New York Mets star pitcher from Belmont Heights, was pulled over after his Mercedes was seen weaving.

An argument led to a fight, which drew 22 officers, all white. Pictures of the pitcher's bruised face made Belmont Heights boil.

About 5,000 people lived in its projects, College Hill Homes and Ponce de Leon Court, near 22nd Street and E Lake Avenue. People were piled in small quarters. Thin walls stretched tolerance.

College Hill was poised to explode on Feb. 18, 1987, when a family friend at Bailey's house called police after Hair, 23, a paranoid schizophrenic, grew violent. David D'Agresta, 24, a white rookie police officer, tried to restrain him with a police-sanctioned choke hold.

"You're killing him," Bailey recalled saying. "He's a mental patient. Turn him lose."

Her son went limp. Officers drove Hair to a gas station to get away from a gathering crowd.

D'Agresta tried to resuscitate Hair. Bailey remembers officers returning, heads down when they told her Hair had been hospitalized. Most of the people who lived on the block stood outside their homes.

* * *

The disturbances began the next night, as word of Hair's death got out and coincided with an ill-timed city report clearing police of racism in Gooden's arrest. Police sealed off a 12-block area. At the end of three nights, between 200 and 400 people had burned and looted a grocery store, and torched trash bins and a station wagon. Seven were injured; 14 arrested.

* * *

As executive assistant to Mayor Sandy Freedman, Bob Morrison was her troubleshooter. Along with the mayor and black leaders, he walked through College Hill during the riots.

"The community was saying, 'We're tired of talk,' " he said. "This life that was lost was just an example of how this city doesn't care about the lives of young black men."

He walked with some high school boys and began to understand their frustrations encompassed not only police, but opportunity. One felt a white player was chosen over him for his school's baseball team because his parents knew the coach.

The starkness, including guns blasting into the air, shocked Morrison, then 32, a black man who grew up in Tampa. It further emphasized the disconnect between poor and everyone else.

At that time, Morrison said, the communities were "like two ships passing in the night."

* * *

Morrison watched the city try to bridge the gap. He saw a biracial coalition form to discuss race. Morrison was present when the City Council and Hillsborough County Commission held their first joint meeting to rename Buffalo Avenue for Martin Luther King Jr. - important because it stretched through white parts of Tampa, too.

Bob Buckhorn, who was then an aide to Freedman, called the eight years after the riots the most important in Tampa's history since integration and credited the former mayor for bringing change.

"There's not that level of distrust that you saw 20 years ago," he said. "I mean it was palpable. You could cut it with a knife."

Freedman pushed out the police chief, banned the choke hold that killed Hair and instituted a policy that fired city employees who made racial slurs. She knocked down crack houses, prodded banks to give the poor low-interest loans and promoted blacks.

"I absolutely think we moved light years in the right direction," Buckhorn said.

The Police Department used NFL stars like Freddie Solomon and Lee Roy Selmon to help recruit more blacks, and its ranks grew to 13 percent in a decade. Community oriented policing got police out of patrol cars.

It rebuilt trust, as did an awareness team that went into neighborhoods fighting rumors about the city or police. But the biggest difference to Curtis Lane, who was the first African-American promoted to police major and deputy chief, was watching the East Tampa projects razed and replaced by Belmont Heights Estates in 2002, a bright campus of subsidized townhomes where people have few complaints.

He recalled trying to shoo teens off the drug-dealing corners such as the "Dust Bowl" at 29th Street and E Lake Avenue, back into the decrepit projects.

"They would tell me, 'Officer, it's cooler outside than it is inside,' " Lane said. "That's why we're hanging on the blocks."

* * *

Men still cling aimlessly to the stoops of 22nd Street. Ask them if tensions have lessened, and they say police are worse. Few of these men - some of whom have "22nd Street Outlaw" tattooed to their necks - will give their names.

They say the black community lacks the unity it had in the 1970s and 1980s, caused by the dispersal of public housing.

They say black leadership is missing. People just accept police abuse, they say, and add that problems have been shoved to the transient University area known as "Suitcase City."

"We accept things that go on," said Janet Waddy, 37, standing at 28th Avenue and 22nd Street. She grew up here and remembers Hair's death.

"It was like they took one of us," Waddy said. "They weren't doing anything for us, yet they took one of us."

"Back then, black folks really stuck together," said the Rev. Edwin Woodard, 44, who leads Fruit of the Spirit Ministry. "It was us against them. It was more unified."

Twenty years later, Woodard said he feels as if the city still does nothing for East Tampa, despite the jobs, programs and new buildings officials cite.

"Show me where the help is around, Janet," Woodard said. "Show me!"

* * *

East Tampa needs work, police Capt. Gerald Honeywell acknowledged. But police are working harder than ever, he said, sending top brass to neighborhood meetings, cleaning up neighborhoods at residents' requests.

"People have much more of a voice now," said University of South Florida associate dean Sam Wright, who worked for the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League in 1987. "And there's much more inclusiveness than that time."

When black business owners complained about Gene's Bar, which police visited about every other day last year, the city bought the bar and elected officials held a news conference celebrating with residents.

Still, few dispute that the area needs more jobs to sweep street corners of despondency.

"We still got a ways to go," said Chloe Coney, founder of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa Inc., which built businesses and organized antidrug marches here. "I don't want you to think we've arrived."

Freedman might be more dissatisfied than most. She said she is disgusted that TPD's black officers still total 13 percent, unchanged in a decade.

"We still have a long way to go," she said.

* * *

About 350 miles northwest, Velma Bailey thinks about College Hill. She thinks about the 23-year-old "boy" who followed her around, laughed at turned-off televisions and tied towels to his neck, pretending he was the Great American Hero and she, Wonder Woman. The only change she thinks about is how she ended up alone.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 20:32:16]

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