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Unlike in 1996, calm prevailed after shooting in St. Petersburg

Standing in front of his office in St. Petersburg last week, Lou Brown says he doesn’t understand the lack of outrage in the community after a young black man was killed by police this summer. He was part of a group that formed after a shooting in 1996.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Standing in front of his office in St. Petersburg last week, Lou Brown says he doesn’t understand the lack of outrage in the community after a young black man was killed by police this summer. He was part of a group that formed after a shooting in 1996.

ST. PETERSBURG — In 1996, Jonathan Anderson was a 25-year-old working in Clearwater when he heard the news: Rioting had erupted in his St. Petersburg neighborhood. People were angry because a young black man had been shot and killed by a white police officer.

That night, Anderson wondered how he was going to get home.

Almost 12 years later, the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer would again cause Anderson concern. The same tension and distrust of the police hung over this latest incident. And word on the street was that trouble would follow the death of 17-year-old Javon Dawson.

Anderson, now a pastor, called police. All would be calm, they said.

What's changed since 1996, when buildings and cars were torched, innocent people attacked and mobs roamed St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods reacting to the police shooting of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis?

In the words of some who live or work in Midtown, the answer is very little. People are still jobless and poor and schools are still failing to teach their children. Few substantive benefits have come from a new supermarket, post office, medical clinic, satellite college campus and other improvements made since the 1996 riots, they say.

Others, though, point to those very efforts as reason for calm in the wake of the recent shooting.

Many agree there's little to be gained by violence.

"The injustice is plain to see. Whether they do something, protest or get rowdy, it's not going to do anything. It's like when you're in kindergarten, if you throw a fit, you get sent to timeout," said Shauna Jones, 24, a graduate of Florida International University and owner of an entertainment booking company.

Jones, who said the 1996 disturbances happened near her home, believes many have since learned to express their anger more constructively.

Businessman Lou Brown, 52, is concerned about the apparent lack of outrage over the June shooting.

"One of the things I fear is that people are complacent, and that's probably about the worse thing," said Brown, president of Lou Brown Realty and former chairman of the defunct Coalition of African-American Leadership, which formed after the 1996 disturbances. "One thing that sticks in my craw is (the shooting of young men by law enforcement officials) doesn't happen in other communities," Brown said.

The deadly encounter took place outside a graduation party in June. Dawson, a Gibbs High School student, was shot in the upper and lower back. Police say he aimed a gun at an officer and refused orders to drop the weapon.

Last week Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe issued a report citing physical evidence — DNA and gunshot residue — supporting police accounts that the teenager had a gun. According to the report, an analysis of DNA on the gun found a mixture that was consistent with Dawson's DNA.

Gov. Charlie Crist has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review McCabe's investigation, and the local NAACP has asked the Justice Department to intervene.

At a news conference Friday, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which has been at the forefront of protests against the shooting, called the governor's request a victory for the "Justice for Javon Dawson" effort. The group wondered why the NAACP had taken so long to become involved.

Critics of the Uhurus have questions of their own.

They ask why the radical group and its founder, Omali Yeshitela, fail to express outrage when blacks commit crimes against blacks.

"How many Saturdays I have had to go to funerals for young black men and I don't recall seeing the Omalis or the Uhurus when it is black-on-black crime. Why are you not in the camera telling the community we got to stop this?" asked local activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, 52.

Former mayoral candidate Maria Scruggs-Weston, 50, believes she knows why reaction to the recent police shooting has been subdued.

"People are caught up with trying to survive, and let's be real, there was really one group that facilitated the violence. That was the Uhurus. It was not the south St. Petersburg community," said Scruggs-Weston, who commutes to work as a supervisor for the inmate programs unit at the Orange County Corrections Department.

She adamantly disagrees with those who say her neighborhood's restraint is the result of improved living conditions.

"I'm looking at people drug out and crack out and just dead. The community has gotten worse," she said.

"When we look at the amount of public dollars that have been put in south St. Petersburg, when you total up that money, you drive up 22nd Street and you tell me what quality of life you see? Come and sit on my street. Let's look at the ones who are jobless and hopeless. Those dying of AIDS."

After the 1996 disturbances, city officials vowed to improve conditions in the depressed community. Some see hope in improvements such as the new James Weldon Johnson Branch Library, Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, Sweetbay Supermarket, full-service post office and fresh landscaping.

"I think that a lot of people in the community are taking pride in what they're seeing taking place in Midtown," Lassiter said.

The Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, who organized a forum for young people to talk about the graduation party shooting, agrees.

"I think perhaps we do have a mayor that's really worked hard to try to have a seamless city, if you will — one St. Petersburg. I think that a lot of people do recognize that," said Murphy, 50.

The violence that erupted after the death of TyRon Lewis cost taxpayers $1.2-million for law enforcement and resulted in $3.17-million in damage and destroyed property.

Lewis was shot three times on Oct. 24, 1996, during a traffic stop at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S. He had been driving a stolen car. The year Lewis died, St. Petersburg police fired at people nine times, and eight of them were black.

Deanne Lewis, 35, said nothing has changed for St. Petersburg's black community since her brother's death. There has been no outcry following the recent police shooting, because people are "scared of being murdered (by police) themselves," she said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch has another view.

"I think the circumstances in this case are different, even though some folks didn't agree with the state attorney's findings. I think that perhaps we've matured as a community and we understand that if we disagree with the actions of government or the decisions of the legal system, that there is a positive way to deal with that rather than choosing a self-defeating line of action," said Welch, 44.

''Destroying our own community, attacking businesses that have invested in our community, attacking innocent people in the community or people who are traveling through the community is unproductive and flies in the face of justice. And so my hope is that we have matured as a community and that's one of the reasons we are seeing peaceful means of addressing grievances."

Friday, the Uhurus called for reparations for the families of four black men killed by law enforcement officials in recent years: Lewis, in 1996; Marquell McCullough, in 2004; Jarrell S. Walker, in 2005; and Dawson, in 2008.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Unlike in 1996, calm prevailed after shooting in St. Petersburg 08/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 8:12pm]

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