Several Pinellas County elected officials on Monday urged the community to let the investigation of the police shooting of a St. Petersburg teenager run its course and not resort to violence.
Titled "An Open Letter to Our Community," the statement was spearheaded by Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who said it was "something that's been on my mind for quite a long time."
Besides Welch, the letter was signed by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett and City Council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse.
The statement criticized "recent comments alluding to 'uprising' or violence" that might happen when Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe completes his investigation of the June 7 death of 17-year-old Javon Dawson.
"In some parts of the community, there are some frustrations about the investigative process," Welch said.
He said he was reacting to recent statements by a spokesman for the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which has criticized police and prosecutors and asserted that Dawson's death was tied to efforts to "turn St. Petersburg into an enclave for wealthy white people." The group said it does not encourage violence.
Welch said he drafted the statement late last week and circulated it among other elected officials.
It was Baker's first public statement on the Dawson case. "People need to wait for the facts to come in and for the investigation," he said.
Newton said he signed the letter partly out of frustration with the Uhurus for protesting Dawson's death while remaining quiet about black-on-black crime.
There were 26 murders in St. Petersburg in 2007, many of them black-on-black crimes.
"It's like those don't matter," Newton said. "This particular one with Dawson is still open, and we're asking people to remain calm."
Last week, Uhuru members protested outside the Pinellas criminal courthouse where they shouted: "Two shots to the back because he was black" and "Bernie McCabe, you can't hide. We charge you with homicide."
Welch said he heard an Uhuru leader on WWBA-AM 1040 last week referring to the 1996 riots as a possible outcome if McCabe clears police Officer Terrence Nemeth.
"Any escalation of violence, or even the threat of such, would be a self-defeating setback to the economic development, education and job opportunities that so many have worked to bring to our economically disadvantaged neighborhoods," the letter states.
But Diop Olugbala, a recent guest on Next! with Dro Silva on WWBA, said his comments were not meant to incite violence.
"History is the best teacher," Olugbala, the group's international organizer, said Monday. "All I said is, if they want to know what the outcome would be, they should look at the situation that was created under the TyRon Lewis case."
Officer Nemeth said he shot Dawson to death after the teen pointed a gun at him as he fled a raucous graduation party June 7.
In 1996, TyRon Lewis was fatally shot by a police officer, touching off three nights of riots. More riots followed after the officer who shot Lewis was cleared.
The Uhurus say McCabe has a conflict of interest in the Dawson case because Nemeth has testified in state trials before. McCabe denies he has a conflict.
McCabe said his investigation is nearing the end but would not give a time frame.
He also said he was unaware of the open letter before it was released. "It's unfortunate that circumstances have developed that would cause them to feel the need do that," McCabe said.