8/14/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
On Tuesday afternoon, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced his decision that St. Petersburg police Officer Terrence Nemeth was justified in using deadly force in the fatal shooting of Javon Dawson, a 17-year-old Gibbs High School student.
Shortly after the news broke, several vehicles arrived at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue S, and a dozen or more people, most of them young, had gathered outside. A while later, young men held up banners as motorists passed, and two television crews were setting up their rigs in the parking lot.
A number of unmarked and marked police cars prowled the streets in the vicinity of the Uhuru House. On several corners along M.L. King Street S, officers were out of their cars and speaking with small groups of residents.
Circumstance seemed just right for a repeat of the riots of 1996, when St. Petersburg police Officer James Knight, who is white, shot and killed 18-year-old TyRon Lewis, who was black.
On the night of the 1996 shooting, 20 buildings were burned and one police officer was shot. Less than a month later, after a grand jury determined that Knight broke no laws, further rioting occurred. Two police officers and two firefighters were injured, and 35 arsons were reported.
On Tuesday, after McCabe’s decision, I drove around Midtown looking for signs of unrest like 12 years ago. At the Enoch Davis Center, dozens of people came and went as they did every other day. Customers shopped as usual at the Family Dollar Store in the new Oaks Plaza on 18th Avenue S. Tangerine Plaza, home to the new Sweetbay supermarket, was bustling.
At the Frank Pierce Recreation Center in Bartlett Park, hundreds of children, accompanied by adults, gathered to register and practice for the Silver Raiders Youth Football and Cheerleading Program. The St. Pete Tennis Center at 18th Avenue S and Fourth Street was as busy as ever.
Before the state attorney’s announcement hit the airwaves that afternoon, I asked the manager of a store that was torched in 1996 if he was worried that riots might break out.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t think the owners would rebuild this time. Not worth it.”
I drove to the post office on 18th Avenue, where I asked a woman if she had heard about the state attorney’s decision and if so, what did she think.
“I heard about it on radio,” she said. “If that boy pointed a gun at that cop, that cop didn’t have a choice.”
I asked if she thought people would riot like in 1996.
“Probably not,” she said. “A lot of people are tired of that kind of violence.”
She said she had not heard about the letter signed by Pinellas County elected officials pleading for calm. I spoke with about 20 other Midtown residents, and only three had heard about the letter. None had expected riots like those of 1996 if Nemeth was cleared.
Based on my observations and my talks with residents during the last two years, I believe that people reacted differently this time because several circumstances and conditions have improved significantly in Midtown.
For example, although many of the promises officials made following the 1996 riots were not kept, such as the creation of 2,500 new jobs in the area, the general quality of life has improved. Businesses and facilities, such as the full-service post office, the Sweetbay supermarket, the Walgreen’s drugstore, the public library, WorkNet Pinellas, the St. Petersburg College Midtown Campus and the remake of the Royal Theater have made a positive difference.
Small business loans, landscaping, street lighting, new housing, renovations and the removal of eyesores have raised hopes and instilled a level of community and individual pride that did not exist before 1996.
I am convinced that many Midtown residents have repudiated the tactics of the Uhurus. In 1996, many people, especially the young, rallied around the organization and took their frustrations to the street.
Another difference between then and now is that the status of black leaders has changed. In 1996, most people, including white elected officials, looked to the black clergy for guidance. Now, black elected officials, such as County Commissioner Ken Welch, state Rep. Darryl Rouson and City Council member Wengay Newton have assumed vocal leadership roles. They do not hesitate to disagree with the Uhurus and their tactics, while asking blacks to assume more responsibility for their plight.
A woman I spoke with outside Lorene’s Fish House on 22nd Street S summed up the new dynamic well.
“People just don’t see any reason why we should tear up the place where we have to live,” she said. “We don’t have anywhere else to live. Burning down a store and throwing rocks at cars won’t bring that child back.”