MAXWELL: Trial puts a dent in Midtown’s culture of fear

2/7/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Here, in part, is how the Lonely Planet travel guide advises tourists planning to visit the black sections of Cape Town, South Africa, a city I visited in October: “Paranoia is not required but common sense is. There is tremendous poverty on the peninsula and the informal redistribution of wealth is reasonably common. The townships on the Cape Flats have an appalling crime rate and unless you have a trustworthy guide or are on a tour they are off-limits.”
I often wonder how an objective travel guide would advise people planning to visit Midtown, the crime-ridden predominately black section of St. Petersburg.
It probably would go something like this: “A healthy dose of caution is advised; having your wits about you is a must. Most neighborhoods have high rates of unemployment and poverty and dangerous crime to match. Drug trafficking is rampant. Murders go unsolved each year because witnesses are too scared to identify the killers and testify in court. Venture into Midtown warily, especially after dark.”
Any elected official or civic leader who plays down or denies these dangers and fears in Midtown is being dishonest and irresponsible.
Events surrounding the case of 19-year-old Marcus Oliver highlight the fear that violent crime has engendered in this community where generations of families know one another, where “snitchers” – those who tell law enforcement what they know – and the police are viewed as the enemy of the people.
Last week, Oliver was convicted of shooting to death Kurt Bryant, the 35-year-old owner of a luxury car business, and sentenced to life in prison. To get the conviction, law enforcement authorities went to extraordinary lengths, including paying informants and keeping witnesses for hours at the courthouse to ensure that they testified.
Fear has deformed Midtown, producing a self-destructive culture of silence. “It’s been gradually getting worse every year,” St. Petersburg police Detective Ron Noodwang told the St. Petersburg Times. “People just don’t want to get involved anymore.”
Would-be witnesses, along with their relatives and friends, were threatened with physical harm or death if they snitched on Oliver. Some were so traumatized that they initially lied to investigators about what they had seen. Even from his jail cell, as a video shows, Oliver mimicked pulling a trigger as a warning to snitchers.
Few Midtown residents have gone, or will go, untouched by the violence and its ramifications. The other night, for example, after I spoke to a group at the James Weldon Johnson Branch Library in Midtown, an older woman said: “I’m glad you bought up Kurt Bryant. My grandson used one of Kurt’s limos for his prom. I was glad those people went to court and got that crazy boy (Oliver) off the street.”
Many other Midtown residents are glad that Oliver is off the street, and those who testified should be applauded for their courage. If Midtown is to become a safer place to live and visit, people there will need to write a new social contract. The cornerstone of this new contract will be divulging the names and whereabouts of criminals, especially murderers.
A good example has been established with the conviction of Oliver. The police, residents and the court worked together to establish a climate of trust that will be required if the fear of retaliation is to be stopped and the culture of silence is to be reversed.
No one should be permitted to harass and threaten witnesses. The rule of law must prevail at all costs.
“We, the black people, have to get strong and take back our neighborhood,” the older woman said. “It takes a brave person to stand up to these bad people, but we have to stand up. We have to take back our neighborhood.”