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Gym will carry name of man slain by police

The shooting of TyRon Lewis preceded a night of violence. The name is a compromise with the group that renovated the facility.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001

The shooting of TyRon Lewis preceded a night of violence. The name is a compromise with the group that renovated the facility.

ST. PETERSBURG -- To some black activists in St. Petersburg, TyRon Lewis was a martyr -- an innocent young man ruthlessly killed by an oppressive police force.

To police, Lewis was a criminal who was justifiably shot just before he ran over one of their own.

To the City Council on Wednesday, he was a compromise.

After balking at a plan to name a renovated gymnasium "Uhuru Black Gym of Our Own," the council agreed to a new name: "The All People's TyRon Lewis Community Gym."

The decision to name the gym after the 18-year-old who was killed by police in 1996 outraged representatives of the St. Petersburg police union, but was considered by others an appropriate remembrance.

"It means that (Lewis) did not die in vain," said Janice Kant, the white administrator of the African People's Education and Defense Fund, which renovated the gym. "It means that he died so that economic development would be a priority in this city."

Nonsense, said Bill Lau Bach, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association.

"Why do we keep going back to the past?" Lau Bach asked. "Why don't we move forward in this city? Why are we honoring that person? I mean, have you all looked at the criminal history of that young man? . . . Weren't there warrants out for his arrest? He tried to kill a cop."

The City Council was involved because $177,155 in a federal grant controlled by St. Petersburg was used to renovate the building, 1327 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S.

The contract, which was agreed to by the African People's group, barred it from calling it a "Black Gym." But just as the gym was about to open, the group hired an attorney, who threatened to sue if the city attempted to stop the gym from being named "Black Gym of Our Own."

After negotiations, the gym's managers offered the compromise name, which city attorneys advised met all the grant guidelines. The council approved the building's new name 6-0 Wednesday with little discussion. Council members Bill Foster and John Bryan were not present.

The vote was the latest repercussion for the city in the nearly five years since Lewis' death on Oct. 24, 1996, set off a night of violence. He was killed when he was pulled over for speeding while driving a 1980 Pontiac LeMans he had gotten from a motel maid for 10 rocks of cocaine.

Officer James Knight and another officer approached his car at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S, but Lewis and a friend, Eugene Young, refused to open the windows or get out. Knight said that Lewis hit the gas and that the car lurched at him before he fired the three shots that killed Lewis.

A grand jury cleared Knight of any wrongdoing on Nov. 13, and disturbances erupted again.

But the Police Department suspended him for 60 days without pay. A hearing officer who reviewed the case later said that the city was wrong and that Knight should get his pay back.

Alvelita Donaldson, who is on the board of the Education and Defense Fund, said Lewis' past, which included several scrapes with the law, has nothing to do with his legacy.

"His death was the beginning of a new birth for this community in race relations, and it ushered in discussion about economic development and social justice in this community," she said.

The city's contract for the grant money also barred use of the gym for political and religious speech. City attorneys said the language was designed to meet Department of Housing and Urban Development rules that the money should not be given out for political purposes. They agreed to add new language that would allow incidental political or religious gatherings.

"I think it was shameful that a black organization was singled out with restrictions that no one else in the city suffers," said attorney George Rahdert, who represented the African People's group and also represents the Times on First Amendment issues. "And I feel vindicated that the City Council has fixed that constitutional error. We got a name we like and we got the ban on political and religious expression removed."

Council members and Mayor Rick Baker expressed relief that the controversy was over and said they were always concerned simply with the name meeting the rules of the federal agency that doles out the community block grant money, HUD.

"I wish it hadn't come to this particular impasse. It made it difficult to move the project along," said City Council Chairwoman Rene Flowers. "TyRon Lewis is something that happened that sparked a historic event in St. Petersburg, and the words "All People's' are inclusive. I'm just glad we were able to settle it."

Recent coverage

'Black Gym' a red flag for officials (May 17, 2001)

A strong message (August 24, 1999)

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