Mayhem again

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

Mayor David Fischer begged for peace Wednesday after a grand jury cleared a white police officer who shot a black man to death during a traffic stop.

His city didn't listen.

As night fell, some streets in St. Petersburg sounded like a war zone.

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 in the windshield. The bullet pierced the pilot's clothing and grazed his 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.

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

Police officers pleaded on their radios 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 injuries: St. Petersburg police Officer Keith Glasgow 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.

Three 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. A third man was 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 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 the intersection of 16th Street and 18th Avenue S.

As with that night, much of the violence was at first concentrated near the area of the shooting. Unlike that night, the violence did not spread far and wide. Twenty-eight arson were reported in the October violence, only three were verified Wednesday.

But there were many more gunshots 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."

Uhuru arrests

The first violence erupted midafternoon 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, 30-year-old David Charles Willard _ also 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?"

About 35 people started chanting, "Murderers! Murderers!"

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, who was 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 and Kinara Zima, president of the local Uhuru group. Yeshitela doubled over 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 charged police were trying to remove Uhuru members from the street before night fell to help decrease the chance of violence.

Doniel, the police spokesman, would not say whether police were targeting Uhuru members for arrest.

Tear gas fired

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 it. The Uhurus, however, had scheduled a meeting for 6:30 p.m.

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, 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.

"The only thing we've done is exercise what are supposed to be basic rights, the right to free speech and the right to assembly," Yeshitela said in an interview later. "It is unpopular speech in particular that needs to be protected."

Angry crowd gathers

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 Oct. 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?"

An hour later, back at the intersection where TyRon Lewis was killed, a building burned out of control. Gunfire could be heard. 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 Lewis.

There was no sign of firefighters.

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