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A man of many battles

More than a decade after conquering his cocaine habits, Darryl Rouson has brought his mission of helping others home. Such battles have brought him praise. His critics, however, have pegged him a troublemaker who likes publicity.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Darryl Rouson parked his Jaguar in the middle of Queensboro Avenue S one day this spring in front of a row of leaning wooden houses with yards of nothing but sand, empty liquor bottles and crumpled beer cans.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, tie and slacks, Rouson watched a drug dealer pull out a handful of crack cocaine rocks. Rouson handed the guy his business card. The civil and criminal defense attorney figured the dealer may need his help someday.

For Rouson, that incident was more than just a chance to meet a potential client. He had just picked another fight.

Having battled drug and alcohol addictions himself, the outspoken Rouson is ready to go to war against the drug dealers and the blight they bring to neighborhoods.

But he also has drawn battle lines against Tyrone Square Mall's enforcement of a dress code that he says unfairly targets blacks. And he wants to fight St. Petersburg businesses that he says covertly sell drug paraphernalia.

Rouson knows that his critics will say he's a show-off and that his passionate activism has made him controversial. Currently, he has a pending bar complaint, he said.

"My passion sometimes gets me in trouble," Rouson said. "But I'm responding to the dictates of my conscience, what I feel is right, and I don't mean to harm nobody."

Rouson, 45, who came to St. Petersburg when he was 3 years old, left here in the 1980s. He returned in 1998 after more than a decade away. During that time, he went through rehab to rid himself of his addictions.

The new Rouson has quickly made a mark on his old stomping grounds.

A little more than a week ago,, police filed a report after Rouson went to the mall and refused to straighten his baseball cap. Rouson, a critic of the mall's policy, was issued a warning for trespassing and threatened with arrest.

Two months ago, Rouson confiscated tobacco smoking devices that can be used as glass crack pipes from a flea market vendor. He wants to have a pipe-smashing event at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, where Rouson heads the Substance Abuse Freedom Education ministry.

In March, Rouson sued the Queensboro property owners. He didn't want the eight buildings demolished, so he sought to acquire the eight buildings on Queensboro Avenue just east of 22nd Street S. The owners turned it over to his non-profit organization, Community Benefit Network Inc., and Rouson dropped the suit.

The non-profit group also bought a house at 2133 18th Ave. S, which is adjoining the Queensboro property. Rouson said that meetings for alcohol and drug abusers are set to begin within the next two weeks.

It is Rouson's biggest local seeding project. He is considering rehabilitating at least two of the houses and is looking for money to make it happen.

"We're going to put recovery meetings where people used to get high," said Rouson, panoramically looking at the crack houses, polluted with the remnants of drugs and prostitution.

"I commend Darryl's efforts to not only overcome his own substance abuse problem, but the commitment he's made to try to eradicate drugs in the larger community," said St. Petersburg Police Chief Goliath Davis.

Life shattered by habits

Two decades ago, it would not have been unusual for Rouson to visit a place like the abandoned houses he is now trying to renovate. He wasn't a crack house dweller, just there long enough to buy drugs and flee.

"I was afraid of getting caught," he said.

Rouson was born and raised in Cromwell Heights neighborhood near Lake Maggiore, a product of private Catholic schools and part of a prominent family.

His father, W. Ervin Rouson, was a guidance counselor at then-Gibbs Junior College and an administrator at St. Petersburg Junior College, where he also was once a candidate for the presidency. The elder Rouson, who later became vice president of student affairs at then-Palm Beach Junior College in Lake Worth, died in 1979.

His mother, Vivian, was a French and English teacher at Sixteenth Street Junior High and Lakewood Senior High schools, and also worked for Gibbs Junior College. She was a guest columnist for the Times and one of the pioneers of integration in Pinellas County. She is retired and lives in Washington, D.C.

Darryl Rouson graduated from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1977. He finished law school at the University of Florida in 1979 and went to work at Gulfcoast Legal Services in 1980 in St. Petersburg.

He soon branched out into private practice, which yielded a six-figure income. In 1983, however, a high school pal offered him cocaine at a party.

Rouson's $1,000-a-week addiction to cocaine and alcohol ate away at his $150,000 salary, devoured his first marriage, and gnawed at his successful lifestyle and reputation. When Rouson would go to make a buy, he was always looking over his shoulder as if that made him invisible. But Rouson knew his visits to crack houses would eventually get him in big trouble.

"I was either going to die or get arrested," said Rouson, who was never arrested, but got hints from friends who kept their distance and from clients delivering messages from cops who said they were going to get him.

In 1987, he sold his practice and his Pinellas Point house and left the city for treatment. He and his wife divorced.

Eventually, he stayed in Chicago where he teamed up with the Rev. George Clements, founder of One Church-One Child, a program that finds black adoptive parents for black and biracial children. Rouson was the recovery revival coordinator for One Church-One Addict, which taught churches how to meet the needs of recovering drug addicts.

He remarried in 1991, but his second wife died in 1997 of breast cancer after a 19-month fight. A single father, whose son is now 6, Rouson asked himself what he should do next.

"The Lord said, "Go home,' " Rouson said.

In April 1998, Rouson returned to St. Petersburg with a burst of activism that he could exercise inside and outside the courtroom.

George Rahdert, an attorney who represents the Times on First Amendment issues and a friend of Rouson's, was glad to have him back in town.

"In my opinion, Darryl is kind of a natural bridge between the African-American and the Caucasian community of St. Petersburg," Rahdert said. "He's a guy who's at ease in all social situations and a real conciliator."

Within almost two years of his return to the area, Rouson became chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Black Chamber of Commerce, a board member of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP and a member of the city's Charter Review Commission.

Set on 'giving back'

But Rouson says his only motivation for activism is "giving back to the community."

"I'm not proud of my journey," he said. "But I'm no longer embarrassed by it."

"I really want to make things happen. Black children need to see our black lawyers," said Rouson, who has complained that there is no African-American bar association in St. Petersburg and longs for other attorneys of color to get active in the community.

For example, Rouson issued a public challenge in March for African-American professionals, including lawyers, to support Davis, the city's police chief.

But "why should all the black attorneys (support him)? You ask all attorneys because not only are there just black attorneys, there are white attorneys as well" who support Davis, said Grady Irvin, an African-American attorney who works in downtown St. Petersburg and complains that other attorneys are just as active as Rouson, but don't seek publicity.

"What Darryl would love to be is king of the black lawyers," Irvin said.

Since he's been back, Rouson has had his first bar complaint filed against him, according to his attorney Martin E. Rice. Rouson was seen leafing through a psychology report that was sitting on the prosecutors' table while the jury was out of the room deliberating. Rouson apologized in court to the judge, who took no action.

Rice said he expects Rouson to get a public reprimand. "I think what's important to understand is that he made a mistake and he immediately brought it to the court's attention," Rice said. "It involved some material that he was clearly entitled to, and everyone agreed that he would have received."

Rouson's passion for eradicating injustices outside the courtroom has caused him some trouble too.

A St. Petersburg police officer at the mall wrote that Rouson rudely objected to the mall's policy when he was asked repeatedly to straighten his hat. According to the report, the officer said that Rouson was baiting law enforcement officials.

Rouson doesn't see it that way and has said it was the officer who lost his temper.

Even some residents who live on Queensboro Avenue don't agree with Rouson's mission.

Vassie M. Walker is glad to see the addicts go and not sure she wants to see them back for a rehab center.

"It was bad in here. It was really bad in here," said Vassie M. Walker. "It was just loads of cars and people in here all the time and just trashing your yard.

She is concerned about Rouson's plans that would allow addicts to gather.

"I'm just tired. I just don't want nothing. I just want to rest from all of that over there." Plus, she said, a drug rehabilitation center is too close to other houses.

But Rouson, who with his wife, Angela, is expecting a baby in December, is not swayed.

"I am not perfect," Rouson said, "but I work hard at just being real."

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