MAXWELL:  The view from the neighborhood

10/19/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg



A year has passed since the death of TyRon Lewis and the explosion of racial anger and violence in St. Petersburg, and within the community of black citizens where the fires erupted, there is still uncertainty. Will there be economic opportunity for blacks? Could riots ever happen again? Are police the friend or the enemy of African-Americans?

There is no one opinion on such matters, and, as the mayor directs new strategies, the federal government offers grants, and local task forces explore economic and educational questions, the people who live in south central St. Petersburg remind us that we should never stray too far from the lessons on the streets. Was the violence necessary? Did the violence produce any positive results? As unpalatable as these questions might be to most of us, we ignore their significance at a high price. To ignore these questions is to essentially discount the views and life experiences of many ordinary black citizens who do not have the power or name recognition to call news conferences, who live as outsiders in the very city they call home. But their insights are genuine and, often, painfully honest.

When asked about the violence and the circumstances surrounding it, Rosanne Blowers, 43, a home school educator who was reared on the south side and attended school there, said:

“I don’t feel personally that violence is ever the best choice or should ever be the first choice. I don’t think it is the best thing, but, in this case, it was a tremendous wake-up call that maybe was the only thing that would have been heard. The violence did some good because it was so blatant and sudden and terrifying that it could not be ignored by any citizen of this city.

“I definitely believe that the violence brought many positive changes, even in just my very own life and the lives of my family. The communication that stemmed following the riots has been far-reaching. The door to communication has been swung wide open.

“We, as a family, have many close personal friends of other races, and they’re continuing relationships. The needs and the differences that we experienced growing up together have been brought out into the open. I absolutely think that St. Petersburg is better off now than before the riots.”

Pye Young, a 16-year-old senior at Lakewood High School, whose parents own property near the spot where Lewis was killed, agrees with Blowers:

“Violence was not the right way. However, it was the way that most people in that area knew how to react to something as brutal as TyRon’s killing. That feeling of outrage spread throughout the night. That one incident ignited all of the pent-up anger and frustrations. My mother drove through the scene and got caught in the traffic at 16th Street S and 18th Avenue S.

“Even though there was a lot of public and private property destroyed, I believe that the violence did some good because we got, not just money, but the attention. The spotlight was on us. Even though it was negative attention at first, it turned into positive attention. Everybody was ready to take action. Even Washington took notice.

“My life and the lives of many other students are personally better because of the riots. Our lives are better because the riots presented a lot of opportunities for students in general to talk about what happened and other personal things that happened with the police. They also presented a lot of open forums for people throughout the city to talk. They gave everyone more chances to dialogue. The riots didn’t help the area where TyRon was shot, though. I travel 18th Avenue and 16th Street every day. My church is on 16th Street. I don’t see a whole lot of difference.”

Many older residents of the area believe that the violence was harmful and set the black cause back many years. A 71-year-old retired custodian for the state, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisals from drug dealers, is angry one year later.

“That violence wrecked people’s businesses,” he said. “Just look at Badcock. I established my first credit through Badcock in 1946.”

Della Mickens, 73, a retired hospital worker, agrees. “Violence is the wrong way to get justice,” she said. “It created a monster in our city. It left a label that we’re bad people. Now everybody on the south side is seen as bad, and it’s not true. We’re not better off because these people destroyed stuff. The violence didn’t prove anything.”

For many residents, the shooting of TyRon Lewis by St. Petersburg police officer James K. Knight confirmed years of reports of police brutality. But younger and older people seem to differ in their opinions. Blowers and Young, for example, argue that police brutality and long-held resentment about it were major causes of he violence. The 71-year-old man and Mickens, having grown up during Jim Crow when blacks, especially males, were more law-abiding and took great pride in avoiding police nightsticks, disagree.

The man, who belongs to a community group that conducts marches against drug trafficking, respects police officers and their work. “The Uhurus don’t want police officers,” he said. “How can we live without police officers? I work closely with them one-on-one. Once you get to know police officers, you learn exactly how things are out there. They do their jobs just like the rest of us do our jobs. No, I wouldn’t say that all cops are on the up-and-up. There’s always a rotten apple in the barrel. But that doesn’t add up to widespread brutality.”

In describing what she believes was the direct cause of the riots, Mickens reveals her view of police brutality: “TyRon Lewis would not have died if he had obeyed the law. If you’re driving and the police puts on the signal, it means to pull over. If the light hadn’t turned red at 16th Street and 18th Avenue, TyRon Lewis probably would not have stopped. And after he stopped, he didn’t obey the officers. He failed to open the door and get out of the car. He brought this on himself. When you disobey the law, you get what’s coming to you.

“I don’t go along with the Uhurus. They caused the riots. They had all those rocks piled up. You don’t need to teach children to fight against the law. We need laws, and we need to obey them. You can’t fight the law because you don’t have the equipment to do it with.”

Sadly, some older blacks believe that as Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela gains more respectability among mainstream powerbrokers, their interests will get lost, and they will become even more disconnected from the rest of the city. Mickens, the 71-year-old man and others believe that, since the riots, city officials seem less willing to support their causes.

The retired custodian is one of hundreds of older residents who have been terrorized for years in his home by drug dealers and other street thugs. He and his wife and their neighbors organized to protect themselves.

“I’ve seen the time that my wife and I and other old people couldn’t sit on the porch or in the yard for the drug dealers all in front of our property making deals,” he said. “Since we started the drug marches, it has made a big difference. But Yeshitela and his people are against Weed and Seed that would get these dealers out of here. After the riots, the leaders downtown interferred with our marches. They even stopped us to a certain extent. We eventually got started back, but we’re not as strong as we were before. The drug dealers know it, and they’re coming back.”

Indeed, Yeshitela persuaded St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer to remove the Challenge 2001 program from the umbrella of Weed and Seed and also to reject a New York-based program that instills self-respect and self-reliance _ qualities lacking among untold numbers of young blacks in the riot zone. And, in a private meeting, Yeshitela convinced the mayor that Weed and Seed placed disproportionately tough legal punishments and restrictions on mostly black neighborhoods.

“Weed and Seed isn’t needed in Tierra Verde,” Mickens said. “But it’s needed where I live. The mayor let us down. He went along with the Uhurus. It was a big mistake because Weed and Seed was the one thing that would help us weed out the drug people. The mayor went against the welfare of law-abiding citizens to please Joe Waller (Yeshitela). That is ugly, and it is unfair.”

Most young blacks seem to agree with Yeshitela that Weed and Seed is an oppressive program intended to lock up more black males. For them, police brutality is riding in the next cruiser turning the corner.

As a direct result of the riots, Darrel Stephens, a white, was replaced by Goliath Davis, a black, as police chief. Many blacks saw the Stephens administration as a major cause of the unrest in the community.

Blowers, whose views were typical of younger residents I interviewed, said she believed that a black chief will make a positive difference. “The way that cops treated the community under Stephens was one of the points of frustration,” she said. “To have a black leader in that role gives the people a voice, and they will feel that they can have some input. After all, the offense that caused the disturbances was committed by a white officer. It is a good change, especially at this time.”

Most older residents interviewed were cautiously optimistic or, like the 71-year-old retired custodian, believed that no significant changes will come under Davis.

“At first, I thought a black chief would make a difference, but I don’t now,” he said. “So far, the new chief hasn’t shown me anything. We had a drug march, and we had people from all parts of the world as drug marchers. The new chief wasn’t even there, and we had planned this march two years ago. Darrel Stephens was there. It seems that the new chief has his favorites. He’s not going to make a difference.”

During a recent news conference, Uhuru leader Yeshitela said that the future of St. Petersburg’s African-American community is the “best I’ve seen in a lifetime” and declared that a repeat of last year’s rioting would be “irrational.” But the ordinary black citizens I interviewed simply don’t agree with him. Many are discouraged that the promised infusion of federal assistance is coming too slowly or is being directed in areas that will not benefit them. Others, in all age groups, believe that the situation has grown worse since the disturbances. Most older residents were less hopeful of the area’s future than any other group.

Because she and her generation represent the future, the comments of Lakewood senior Pye Young are instructive and worth quoting at length:

“I’m hopeful for the future of the area, but I’m also realistic. I know that there is a very high chance that things will not get better _ not this time around. Maybe there will be another riot or something to ignite another riot. The future will be better if the community realizes that the children are the healer of the next generation. If we instill in our children that life is not supposed to be like this, that there is a better way to handle things, that there is a better way to communicate with people and handle situations, life will get better over here.

“Our elderly saw and did a lot in their day. Now, it’s our children’s turn to make things better for their children, for each successive generation. Most of this federal money coming in must go to the betterment of the children, their education, their social training, their health care. We must dedicate ourselves to our children. And they must know that they are our most valuable asset. That’s how you prevent riots.”