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A death, a riot and responsibility // IT'S UP TO EACH OF US

A young black man in St. Petersburg is dead today, and people everywhere are asking questions _ questions of why, questions about police conduct, questions about crime, unemployment and economic despair. We are determined to find answers, and we should find answers.

But who do we blame? Do we blame the police department, whose officer fired the bullet? The city government, which too seldom gives proper attention to the black community? The powerful white economic structure of our society, which has historically shut out the black community? Do we blame young black men for making the decision to willfully participate in crime? Do we blame their families and black community leaders for not doing enough to stop them?

If blame were a pie, we should give everyone a slice. But if St. Petersburg is to move beyond the death of 18-year-old TyRon Mark Lewis, then we need to pay less attention to blame that separates us and more attention to individual responsibility that brings us together.

As I drove to 22th Avenue S in St. Petersburg on the night that Lewis was shot, I first saw the fires. I saw Badcock Furniture burning, and I felt a sense of loss. My loss was not so much for myself but for the young man, TyRon Lewis, and for the despair of our younger people. I know they had some really legitimate concerns, but I also knew there was a better way. I know that the bricks will get you nowhere.

Believe me. I know how they feel. I've walked in some of their shoes. I grew up in the heart of the ghetto, in Jordan Park, and I've dealt drugs on the street, I've spent time in jails and prison, I've been at the other end of a police officer's gun, I've held and fired a gun myself. I can show the bullet marks from where I've been shot.

But I'm a firm believer in individual responsibility. I know there are many odds stacked against young black men, and the system doesn't necessarily embrace them. But in knowing all of this, we must make sure that our actions don't contribute to our own defeat. They may bring the guns and drugs into the country, but we don't have to use them. We can and must reject them.

Don't get me wrong. I think there is much that the city and federal governments should do.

For the police, the scenario always seems to be that the black male begins to advance, and that he is then shot by a white officer. While I don't think there is any extreme problem with racism in the St. Petersburg Police Department, I believe there is some kind of prejudice and racism everywhere, in every police department, in every community. And I think there are different stereotypes in society in general that may cause a police officer to behave differently toward blacks. We must make certain that efforts are being made to remove any racist behavior in the police department.

For the government officials who now say they want to listen to the despair in our community, I wonder where they have been. I've got to tell the teenagers in my community that what they did was wrong. But then they tell me that their actions got the attention of city government. They say it wasn't the letter to City Hall, or the phone calls; it was the bricks and bottles. I hope that's not true.

We must all ask ourselves: Where are the resources that our children and families need? The educational tools? The places for recreation? The job training? The job opportunities? The business development?

The first response has to be on our own, however. It has to be one of personal responsibility. In our community, we've got to decide to put down guns, put down drugs, to cease committing crimes. There's no way we can blame anyone else for that. We must accept the responsibility for it ourselves.

When I was dealing dope and committing crimes, my grandmother never allowed me to blame my actions on anyone else. She made sure that I knew that I was responsible for my wrongdoing. I know also that, in this case, the police must be responsible for any of their wrongdoing. But I'm not responsible for their actions; I'm responsible for my own.

My grandmother spent a lot of time with me, taking me to church, teaching me right from wrong. And I know that ultimately saved me. I was raised with the fear of the Lord, and that was one of the things that allowed me not to deceive myself. I rebelled, but at least I had something to rebel against. I think a lot of the young kids today are not being taught right from wrong. My view is that everyone needs Christ.

In my life, I made an important decision. I decided to reach out to God. As individuals, we must decide what to do in our own lives, and those decisions have to come first.

Outside the black community, I think we need for all people to be more concerned. I don't think that most people are racists; it's the structure of our society. I spoke with a young white man the other night, and asked him when was the last time he went out with a black friend. And he said he didn't have any. It wasn't that he refused black friends. That's just the natural extension of his life. To me, that's the structure of things, and it's a lot harder to deal with the structure of society. I think we need to realize that we live under a structure that separates us, black and white, and we have to make a conscience effort to go against it.

In my own life, I have had white businessmen support me, and I've got to be true to my experiences and not allow racism to blind me.

That's what it's going to take. It's going to take the ability to exchange ideas and help each other. If you help somebody with groceries, it's because you feel the weight in your hands. I've got to be able to feel the white man's weight. He's got to be able to feel mine.

Chico Dials is president of MasterStitch Embroidery Co. and associate pastor at Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.