ST. PETERSBURG — When 63-year-old Chimurenga Waller watches the turmoil unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., he thinks about St. Petersburg in 1996.
He was there when nearly 200 city blocks erupted in outrage over the shooting death of an 18-year-old black man by a white police officer. He participated in the protests, saw the fires, breathed the tear gas. The people called for an end to racism. The National Guard swooped in and the White House made a statement. The nation watched.
Just like Ferguson.
Nearly 20 years later, after a black teen was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, cities, including St. Petersburg, are asking — could that happen here?
Representatives from Florida's Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathered Tuesday afternoon to reflect on the past and plan for the future. Waller was there, representing the African People's Socialist Party, an organization at the center of the controversy in 1996. Local politicians and business owners joined.
"Ferguson can happen anywhere," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "Instead of having press conferences after events, we want to have prevention conferences before they happen."
SCLC state chairman Art Rocker Sr. and state president R.L. Gundy called upon the Department of Justice to create a hotline for citizens to report abuses of power by police. They also suggested the formation of an oversight body to conduct independent investigations of alleged police misconduct.
"We can no longer allow the sheriff's departments and the police departments to allow the foxes to inspect the hen house," Gundy said.
Jeffrey Copeland, executive director of the SCLC's Pinellas County chapter, said race relations in St. Petersburg have improved but tensions still exist. The city has invested in economic development, but Copeland said it has been "crumbs to keep us quiet."
He is encouraged, however, by the efforts of Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin. He also thinks the appointment of police Chief Tony Holloway will mend the relationship between law enforcement and the community.
"He really believes in officers knowing their communities," Copeland said.
Holloway met with NAACP officials and the public Tuesday at the Enoch Davis Center, where a resident asked how he felt about a police officer shooting an unarmed teenager.
"I think we all need to learn how to talk to people," the chief replied, adding that much about Ferguson remains unknown.
"The brutality people talk about, sometimes we only see half the story," Holloway said.
Members of the African People's Socialist Party will depart Thursday for Ferguson.
"In St. Pete, the people understood it because we helped them understand it," Waller said. "Hopefully, we can help people understand that we've been there and done that."
Times staff writer Andrew Meacham contributed to this report.