MAXWELL:  Name building for those who ennoble us

6/13/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


What’s in a name? Everything.

For individuals and groups, names are identity. The same is true of inanimate objects _ buildings, parks, stadiums, ships, space shuttles. So, what on earth were Mayor Rick Baker, St. Petersburg City Council members, Uhuru members and attorney George Rahdert thinking when they agreed to name a gym in the black community for TyRon Lewis?

Yes, certain legal conditions had to be met in naming the facility. I have no serious problem with that process, except that the city got too much involved in naming the gym when it played a more hands-off role in other similar projects.

Lewis was the 18-year-old who was shot to death by James Knight, a white police officer, in 1996. The incident sparked the worst racial violence the city had experienced in decades. Lewis _ who had outstanding warrants _ was killed when he was stopped for speeding. He was driving a 1980 Pontiac that he had obtained by bartering crack cocaine.

When Knight and another officer approached the LeMans, Lewis and his companion refused to lower the windows or step out, as any sane person would if a cop orders him to. Official reports state that Lewis pressed the accelerator, moving the car toward Knight, who fired three shots.

I do not intend to demean Lewis’ memory. Nor do I want to distress his family. I simply want to voice my objections to the naming and to bring some reality to a situation that has been driven by emotion, hot rhetoric and illogic.

We name buildings to honor the honorable. We name buildings for those who ennoble us. We name buildings for those who sacrifice for their fellow human beings, who go without to ensure that others may have. We name buildings for people who serve the greater good. We name buildings for those who willingly die to right a wrong.

TyRon Lewis did none of this. He was, from what I have read and heard on the street, a criminal. Yes, Lewis _ as my own son did during his teen years _ chose a life of crime. Lewis was a classic bully who disregarded the rights of his neighbors, especially those of older people. He dealt in illegal drugs.

And, perhaps most seriously, Lewis had utter contempt for authority. This contempt cost the young man his life; brought untold pain to his family; threatened the career of a police officer; cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars; plunged the city into several nights of violence; cost business owners sums that we are still trying to calculate.

And for all this, we name a building after him.

Rahdert was generous to defend the Uhurus. But he, the mayor and council members should have tried to persuade Omali Yeshitela (I told Yeshitela that I disagree with him) and others to name the gym after a deserving black person. Instead, Rahdert said: “We got a name we like. . . .”

Who are the good lawyer’s “we”? Certainly not the dozens of black people on the south side with whom I spoke. Not 99 percent of those who wrote to the Times. Rahdert’s “we” does not represent me.

If this facility _ “The All People’s TyRon Lewis Community Gym” _ belongs to all the people (consider the $177,000 federal grant to renovate the building), then the people should have had an opportunity help choose a name.

Instead, a self-anointed group acted alone, with the blessings of the mayor and the council. The government’s action, or inaction, is the worst kind of benign neglect. These leaders know that the Lewis name is poison, that, instead of spurring economic development, it will further alienate big money.

Their action demonstrates that they do not give a damn about the area that many hard-line racists still call “coon town.”

In my humble estimation, city leaders sent this message: “Oh, that’s “their’ part of town. They can give that damned little gym any name they please. Who cares?”

The mayor and the council should have appointed a diverse committee to submit several names. Obviously, Lewis’s name would have been one submission because a Uhuru member would have been on the committee.

If I had been asked, I would have submitted, among others, Lounell Britt, Doug Jamerson, Garnelle Jenkins, Perkins T. Shelton, Adelle Jemison, C. Bette Wimbish, Goliath Davis, Peggy M. Peterman, Shaun King, Rosa Jackson, Vyrle Davis, Fannye Ponder, Joe Savage, Willie Lee McAdams. These people brought honor to the black community and to the whole city. Their names symbolize pride, self-worth, sacrifice, individual responsibility. TyRon Lewis’ name symbolizes the opposite.

What’s in a name? Everything.