St. Petersburg chief assistant city attorney accused of making racist comments
ST. PETERSBURG -- Three antiwar protesters alleged Monday that Chief Assistant Attorney Mark Winn made racist comments about black teenagers at BayWalk while off duty last month.
The accusation was made during a last-minute press conference Monday night, just days before the City Council is scheduled to vote on a plan that would turn over some of the public sidewalks around BayWalk to the venue’s private, for-profit owners. The plan would eliminate the public's right to hold protests at the struggling entertainment complex.
The Rev. Bruce Wright said Winn told him he did not feel comfortable going to BayWalk because he did not want to "hang with the bros."
"He also used the words 'thugs' and 'loiterers,' " said Wright, director of the Refuge Ministries and a frequent critic of City Hall. "The statements that he made could be interpreted in no other way."
Wright alleged Winn said many residents preferred to go to the Regal movie theater in Pinellas Park on U.S. 19. Wright, 48, said he told Winn that teenagers also went to that movie theater.
Winn allegedly told Wright, "There is a vast difference between the young people at Pinellas Park and BayWalk."
Wright said the majority of young people at BayWalk are black and the majority of teenagers at Pinellas Park are white, so he inferred that to mean that Winn did not want to be around black teenagers.
"That's just the reality," Wright said.
Winn is white.
Kathleen Mannion, 45, and Jeanie Toth, 44, also said they heard Winn make these comments.
Wright, Mannion and Toth are all white. They are members of St. Pete for Peace, an informal organization that held weekly protests against the war in Iraq at BayWalk until this year.
Asked why they were coming forward with the allegation on the same week the council will vote to vacate the sidewalks near BayWalk, Chris Ernesto, a St. Pete for Peace organizer, said Winn's comments reflect City Hall's true opinion of the crowds at BayWalk.
"They believe that young black people are the cause of the demise of BayWalk," said Ernesto, who said he did not hear Winn make the alleged comments.
Instead, Ernesto said, BayWalk's struggles can be linked to the recession, not protesters or teenagers. Therefore, public sidewalks should not be turned over to a private property owner because doing so will not help BayWalk.
Winn confirmed that he ran into the group at Cafe Bohemia at 937 Central Ave. last month, but denied that he made any racial comments.
"That's not true. I didn't say those things," he said.
The group was casually talking about BayWalk before a movie screening in the popular coffee house's courtyard because Mayor Rick Baker had just unveiled his plan to revive the half-empty downtown landmark.
"I just said some people were not comfortable going down there. I expressed that I did not really feel comfortable going down there Friday or Saturday nights," said Winn. "I didn't say anything about bros or thugs."
Winn said he did provide an explanation for his discomfort.
"I said I didn't like to walk past the protesters. They were not always, but sometimes, loud," he said.
What's more, Winn said he has not been to the movie theater in Pinellas Park in at least four years.
The City Council will vote Thursday morning on the BayWalk plan.
Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer