Mayhem again

Published Nov. 14, 1996|Updated Sept. 17, 2005

After a white police officer was cleared in the fatal shooting of a black man, Mayor David Fischer begged for peace Wednesday.

His city didn't listen.

As night fell, some streets in St. Petersburg sounded like a war zone, echoing with bullets, sirens and anguished screams.

Police officers took cover from automatic gunfire, but one officer was shot in the leg.

Police helicopters circled looking for rooftop snipers, but one helicopter was hit by gunfire in the windshield and floor. A bullet grazed the pilot's elbow.

Officers raced in groups from intersection to intersection trying to get control of the streets, but they ducked Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles.

Police counted at least 50 rounds of gunfire at one intersection alone.

"If need be, take the troops out!" one scared officer screamed over his radio. "They can't take heavy gunfire out there!"

Police officers pleaded for more backup, more riot gear, more tear gas. "We don't have shields!" one yelled. "Some of us don't have gas masks!"

There were casualties: St. Petersburg police Officer Keith Glasgow, 39, was taken to Bayfront Medical Center with a gunshot wound to his left calf.

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office pilot Joe Lassen, 36, was treated at Bayfront for a slight bullet wound to his elbow. Both he and Glasgow were treated and released.

Four other people were treated at Bayfront. One man was shot in the right calf. A second man drove up with a smashed windshield and blood streaming down his face. Two other men were assaulted in the disturbance.

None of the injuries appeared life-threatening.

Hours later, three people with gunshot wounds were taken to Bayfront, victims of an armed robbery at a Publix supermarket at the Northeast Shopping Center.

The evening was an ugly reprise of the violence that swept the city Oct. 24 after Officer James Knight shot and killed TyRon Mark Lewis during a traffic stop at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S.

"Another night of disappointment for St. Petersburg," Mayor Fischer called it. He said the city had worked hard to restore the "building blocks" of community in the area affected by the violence after Lewis' death.

"Apparently," Fischer said, "there are those who would rather throw the blocks than build the blocks."

As with the night Lewis was shot, much of the violence Wednesday was at first concentrated near the area of the shooting. Unlike that night, the violence did not spread far and wide. Nor were there near as many buildings torched. Twenty-eight arsons were reported in the October violence; fewer than 10 fires were verified Wednesday.

Fire officials would not send squads to fires and medical emergencies until the police first assured them the scenes were safe. Specially trained SWAT medics wearing bulletproof vests responded to all calls in the area paramedics dubbed the "hot zone."

Though there were fewer fires, many more gunshots were fired, and that made the night all the more terrifying for residents and police.

Some residents accused police of inflaming an already tense situation with heavy-handed tactics.

"This is overkill, outright overkill," said John Watson, a member of a city advisory committee that reviews complaints against police, as he watched the street violence. "They thought they were going to go down there and stop something before it got started, and all they did was start something."

St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Doniel defended the police response: "If we let the criminals take over the streets we're all going to die."

The first violence erupted mid-afternoon after police arrested a member of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement for driving with an expired tag.

Uhuru member Keith Stewart, 27, had just pulled up to the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave. S, which contains the group's headquarters and a gym. Within seconds, at least seven police officers from a rapid response team were there.

Stewart's arrest and the presence of the specially outfitted response team angered Uhuru members, who earlier this month called for the execution of the officers involved in the shooting of TyRon Lewis.

A crowd gathered quickly. Earlier, police had arrested another Uhuru member for driving with an expired license. Uhuru members started yelling and swearing at the officers.

"It ain't over yet," one person yelled. "That s--- ain't over with." Several others were screaming, "Why are you here?"

Tensions escalated even more when police tried to arrest another man, Linzy Sherwood Williams, 27, who arrived at the Uhuru house with Omali Yeshitela, a leader of Uhuru movement.

As police moved toward Williams, wanted for violation of probation in Hillsborough County, he backed up against the wall of the building and a handful of Uhuru members surrounded him.

Police tried to push their way through. A couple of Uhuru members pushed back. Several officers pulled out their riot sticks. More police cars pulled up. One, then another, then three more.

One officer used pepper spray, striking Yeshitela, who doubled over, clearly in pain.

Officers grabbed Williams and took him to a police car. The scuffling stopped.

Police left quickly. Anger remained.

"It's a provocative act," Yeshitela told reporters, his eyes still watering from the pepper spray. "It's clear the police are intending to provoke this community."

He claimed police were trying to remove Uhuru members from the street before night fell to help decrease the chance of violence.

Police Chief Darrel Stephens said later that the department had made plans to arrest key members of the Uhuru group to get them off the streets if Officer Knight was not indicted by the grand jury.

The Uhuru house continued to be a focal point of police attention as darkness came.

Police closed off 18th Avenue S, between 13th Street and 16th Street, effectively isolating the Uhuru house. The Uhurus, however, had scheduled a meeting for 6:30 p.m. They publicized the meeting with fliers that said "Killer Cop Goes Free . . . Get Organized."

Wanda Grant, 28, arrived at the house when the meeting was to start. She said 65 to 75 people showed up, including small children and babies.

But before the meeting began, police told them they needed to leave. They said there were too many people assembled and that it was unsafe.

Yeshitela, the Uhuru leader, said the police gave the group five minutes to leave. They began moving, he said, but about 30 seconds later tear gas was fired into the building.

Grant said police set off tear gas at the front and back exits of the house. Everyone ran, a frightened crush of people trying to flee the gas.

Babies and small children gasped, she said.

In the streets around the Uhuru house, an angry crowd of several hundred people gathered.

Bullets were fired into the air from somewhere in the crowd.

Police in riot gear shot tear gas toward the crowd and called for reinforcements. The violence did not subside. Rocks and bottles flew.

It was about then that Officer Glasgow was shot in the leg.

Police tried to shut off more streets in the area. Six cruisers blocked the intersection of 16th Street and 18th Avenue S, the scene of the October 24 shooting.

Police clashed with more than 50 people at the intersection. Residents hurled bottles. Police fired 10 volleys of tear gas. The rounds of tear gas caused a small fire that was quickly extinguished.

A large group of residents returned to the intersection 15 minutes later and threw rocks at several parked news trucks.

At another intersection, police officers moved groups of young black teenagers away. One officer stood in middle of the street, holding up a shotgun. Another leaned against his cruiser, also holding shotgun.

One teenager yelled to reporters: "Don't let 'em kill us! You gonna let 'em kill us?"

Down the street, the Enoch Davis Center was caught in the tear gas and gunfire. About a dozen children and five adults were in the center. Most of the children ran to the center after the Uhuru house was tear-gassed.

About 7:45 p.m. a SWAT team unloaded from a van with about 10 to 12 officers in the unit. Leontyne Middleton, supervisor of the center, asked what was going on.

Through his gas mask, an officer said that an officer had been shot.

An hour later, back at the intersection where TyRon Lewis was killed, a building burned out of control. Gunfire could be heard everywhere. An abandoned van was riddled with bullet holes. Rocks and shards of glass were strewn across the road.

In the glow of the fire, a wreath stood in remembrance of TyRon Lewis.

There was no sign of firefighters.

Police were leaving the scene, apparently because gunfire made it unsafe.

At a press conference late Wednesday night, Police Chief Stephens denied that the arrests at the Uhuru house touched off the violence.

"All I can say is that I think the people are very naive to believe that these incidents and the violence that's taking place tonight was the result of those arrests," he said.

Stephens said his department had worked continuously since the last round of violence to prevent precisely what occurred Wednesday night. Police made runs through south St. Petersburg, emptying caches of rocks and bottles from dumpsters.

"We've recovered stashes of rocks and bottles in that area of about six tons," he said.

"Unfortunately the effort that we've made, the efforts the community has made to urge the community not to engage in violence, has been ignored."

_ Staff writers Bill Adair, Tim Roche, Mike Jackson, Kelly Ryan, Anne Lindberg, Brad Goldstein, Adam C. Smith, Carol Marbin Miller, Sharon Tubbs, David K. Rogers, Elijah Gosier and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

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