St Petersburg removes Uhuru's illegal street sign dedicated to TyRon Lewis without incident
ST. PETERSBURG –– A city worker on Tuesday removed an illegal street sign dedicated to a black man who died after being shot by a white police officer in 1996 without a confrontation with the group that put it up, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
So ends the standoff — for now — between the Uhurus and Mayor Rick Kriseman.
The group installed the sign last month to memorialize 18-year-old TyRon Lewis at the intersection of 18th Avenue S and 16th Street S. That was the location where a white police officer fatally shot Lewis while he was behind the wheel of a stolen car that lurched at the officer during a 1996 traffic stop. His death sparked two days of riots in the Midtown area and remains a defining point in race relations in the city.
Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela stood at that intersection Tuesday afternoon and accused St. Petersburg officials of holding his group to a double-standard: The city “stole” the Uhuru’s sign, he said, yet allows dozens of others that memorialize people killed in accidents.
The difference in this case, Yeshitela said, is that it was the St. Petersburg Police Department that killed Lewis — not another motorist.
He accused Kriseman of being a “stooge” and “puppet” for the police union, which called for the sign to be taken down, and for ignoring black residents after they helped him win office in 2013.
“Kriseman has no loyalty to the African-American community,” Yeshitela said. “If a memorial is good in one instance, why is it bad in this instance?”
The day before the sign was removed, the Uhurus held a protest Monday to warn Kriseman that taking it down would be “a huge political mistake” for the mayor. The group said it would go to great lengths to keep the sign standing and, at some point, even had supporters chained to the sign.
However, the sign was left unattended when the worker took it down Tuesday morning.
“The mayor approves of the Uhuru’s right of free speech and to peaceably assemble,” Kriseman’s spokesman Ben Kirby said in response to the group.
Although Yeshitela said the group will not retrieve the sign, Kirby said: “I believe we are storing the sign. If someone wanted to approach the city for it and claim it, they could.”
The sign has stirred anger among the city’s police force, and the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association urged Kriseman to immediately remove it.
PBA President George Lofton, a detective with the St. Petersburg Police Department, criticized Kriseman on Monday for not removing the sign as soon as it went up on Oct. 24.
“City Hall is not going to rub the Uhurus the wrong way,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “They’re sticking their head in the sand.”
But on Tuesday he applauded the mayor for finally taking action.
“Mayor Kriseman is a mayor who isn’t going to be pushed around or bullied,” Lofton said. “His decision to remove the sign in the time and manner that he did shows that he is a strong mayor.”
The Uhurus called on African-Americans to hold a protest at the intersection at 8 p.m. Friday.
In 1996, Lewis was driving a stolen car when pulled over by St. Petersburg police. He and a passenger refused to unlock their doors or roll down their windows. The car rolled forward, knocking Officer James Knight onto the hood. The officer then fired three shots, killing Lewis.
Afterward, crowds gathered around the car. The incident quickly became a flashpoint between the city’s black neighborhoods and St. Petersburg police. Violence erupted, and then did so again a month later when a grand jury determined that the officer broke no laws.
Police administrators later suspended Knight for two months for putting himself in danger by standing in front of the car, but that decision was later overruled by an arbitrator. In 2004, a Pinellas jury rejected the Lewis family’s $1.65 million lawsuit against the city. Officials called for calm, and violence did not break out again.