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Marchers support police chief, take aim at mall

Black leaders also demand the resignation of City Council members who have clashed with police Chief Goliath Davis.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Thunder rumbled overhead, but it was no match for the voices of about 60 people who marched through downtown St. Petersburg in a light rain Saturday, chanting, "Hands off Goliath Davis and hands off the black community."

Organizers of the 12-block march to City Hall said they wanted city officials to know that the community stands behind Davis, St. Petersburg's black police chief. But marchers also used the event to champion other causes: charter schools for black students, economic development in the black community and consequences for businesses that mistreat black customers.

"We're here today because we're not going away," shouted Lou Brown, chairman of the Coalition of African-American Leadership, which organized the march. "We're here for economic justice and freedom, and we'll stay until we get it."

Davis' supporters say he has faced racist and unfair attacks, mostly from the Police Benevolent Association union. Marchers, a mix of black and white residents, called for the resignation of PBA President Jack Soule and City Council members Kathleen Ford, Bea Griswold and Bill Foster.

Davis clashed with Ford and Foster in April over talk of an outside review of the police department. "It's a good thing I have thick skin," said Foster. He and council member Jay Lasita attended the rally. "The organizers wanted to make it personal. They did, but I think they also recognize we're going to need each other to build a bridge."

The march started with about 45 people, and more joined in as the crowd wound its way north on Eighth Street and down Central Avenue. Motorists honked their horns in support. One driver handed her umbrella to a marcher during the storm.

"The cause is bigger than the rain will ever be," said St. Petersburg resident Debra Durant, who was attended her first the rally.

"We face a greater threat than this weather," said Omali Yeshitela, the coalition's political action committee chairman, who addressed the crowd from the steps of City Hall.

"There are forces in this city opposed to any kind of progress the African community might try to make," Yeshitela said. "The same ones who attack Goliath Davis are the same ones who attack economic development in the black community. This march today is clear evidence that the black community has a right to stand up, and others will stand up in solidarity."

As he spoke, passers-by stopped to listen, swelling the crowd to at least 75. Yeshitela and several other speakers also urged residents to stay away from Tyrone Square mall, where a black teenager was kicked out July 15 for wearing a cap with the bill to the side. Mall officials have said that Ephraim Sykes, 15, violated the shopping center's dress code, which prohibits clothing commonly recognized as gang-related.

"What they've done is taken the way young, black people dress and made a rule against it," Yeshitela said. "I happen to know that slavery was a rule, too. Just because it's a rule, doesn't make it right. If they don't respect us, we ought not spend our money there."

The coalition is organizing a meeting Sunday, Aug. 6, at for 6 p.m. Aug. 6 at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, 3455 26th Ave. S, to urge residents not to shop at the mall.

Maria Agosto and Edward Schott said they supported Davis' efforts to make St. Petersburg safer and were appalled that Sykes was asked to leave the mall because of his hat. The white couple traveled from Gulfport for the march.

Said Schott: "What's important to the black community needs to be important to the white community."

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