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How 3 killings by police sparked past Tampa Bay riots

As the world turns its gaze to Minneapolis, a look back on the civil unrest that followed the deaths of black men in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Protests sprung up in over 140 cities across America after George Floyd was killed in police custody on May 25. The momentum is still steady even after almost a week of chanting and marching through the streets.

In some ways, this feels different from past protests, said historian Fred Hearns, a retired human rights director for the city of Tampa.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like what we’re seeing now," Hearns said.

“You see how many white people are out in the crowd yelling ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And you see law enforcement officers taking a knee in some cities.”

The pattern, however, is part of the fabric of Tampa Bay’s history: In Tampa Bay, cases where a white police officer killed a black resident and set off days of civil unrest happened in 1967, 1987 and 1996.

“History is instructive,” Hearns said. “And that’s one of the reasons we keep making the same mistakes.”

Here’s a look back at civil unrest from Tampa Bay’s past.

Martin Chambers, 1967

Martin Chambers, killed by Tampa Police in 1967. The shooting touched off riots. [ Times (1967) ]

Martin Chambers was 19 when he was shot in the back by a white officer.

On the evening of June 11, 1967, police were looking for three suspects after the burglary of a Tampa photo shop.

They chased the suspects through the Central Park Village housing project. Police officer James Calvert fired — he later said he had been aiming for Chambers’ shoulder.

Chambers’ last words were, “Get me to a hospital, please, mister.”

“He never had an opportunity to go to trial to find out whether or not he was actually involved in that burglary or whether he was just running," Hearns said. “We’ll never really know the truth. He didn’t have his day in court.”

As people gathered near the scene, word spread. Rioting began that evening, with a fire set to the white-owned Central Avenue Market that spread to several other neighborhood businesses.

A crowd gathered near the area where Martin Chambers was shot in the back by a Tampa patrolman. The crowd was watching as police officers examined the area. The shooting of the black man by a white officer led to several days of violence. [ Times (1967) ]

Three days of protests followed, with fire and looting ravaging the black entertainment district along Central Avenue. An FDLE report said about 400 people rocked a police car and yelled “kill them.”

To contain the riots, 250 local officers, 235 Florida Highway Patrol Troopers and 500 Florida National Guardsman were summoned. But historians say it was members of the black community that ushered in a sense of calm and diffused the crowds.

Former Blake High School football coach Jim Williams, Dr. J.O. Brookins and Attorney Delano Stewart approached Hillsborough Sheriff Malcolm Beard with the idea of recruiting black youth from the community to maintain peace.

About 130 black residents were gathered to help. They were called the White Hats, named after the protective helmets that they wore.

The White Hats worked to keep the peace, including on the day after the riots when a review declared that Officer Calvert was justified in shooting Chambers because the teen didn’t stop running when ordered.

Members of the youth group known as the White Hats help disperse a crowd that gathered after a women was stabbed during a family argument. The White Hats, brought together by leaders of the black community, helped calm the Central Avenue area following the 1967 riots.

Tampa’s Central Avenue had been a bustling black business district, featuring over 100 restaurants and stores as well as clubs that attracted big-name jazz and soul entertainers. But it never fully recovered from the riots.

Dialogue that followed the events opened up housing and employment opportunities for black people, Hearns said.

“You don’t want to think it took the death of somebody to get the nation’s attention," he said. "But that certainly happened here in Tampa in 1967.”

Melvin Hair, 1987

Velma Bailey and her son, Melvin Hair. [ Courtesy of Velma Bailey ]

On the night of Feb.18, 1987, Melvin Hair’s mother, Velma Bailey, was playing cards with a group of friends at the College Hill Homes housing project in Tampa.

Hair, a 23-year-old black man, had long been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He liked to draw pictures of spaceships and follow his mother around. They would wear towels around their necks and pretend to be television characters like the Greatest American Hero and Wonder Woman. Sometimes, he heard voices.

That night, Hair started reading the cards each player had in their hand. His mother said to stop and he tried to burn someone with a cigarette. There was a fight — she slapped him, and he threw her against a fridge. One of the guests called the police to take him to the mental health crisis center. To get an officer to come quickly, they said that Hair had a knife. He did not.

A rookie police officer named David D’Agresta was called as the backup officer. He said a man grabbed him through his car window.

They wrestled in the dirt and leaves of the housing project yard as a crowd gathered. D’Agresta lost his gun. Two female officers were unsuccessful in attempts to restrain Hair.

To subdue Hair, D’Agresta put him in a carotid artery restraint he learned in police academy.

"You're killing him," Bailey said. "He's a mental patient. Turn him loose."

Hair went limp. To get him away from the crowd, officers drove him to a gas station and tried to resuscitate him. But he wasn’t breathing.

For three nights, anger reverberated throughout the community. Hundreds of young protesters set trash cans and cars on fire, hurling rocks and bottles at officers and drivers. The only grocery store in the neighborhood was looted and burned. The violence in Tampa became a national news story.

Firefights try to douse flames shooting up from a meat market at 22 St. and 25th Avenue. [ Times (1987) ]
Times file photos from the riots in Tampa surrounding the death of Melvin Hair. The C & C Supermarket was looted during the rioting. [ Times (1987) ]

D’Agresta was suspended without pay and the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office charged him in the death. An all-white jury acquitted him. He returned to work, but was later suspended for eight days after posing next to graffiti in College Hill that called him a murderer.

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman banned the use of the neck hold. She implemented a strict racial slur policy for city employees and introduced a home loan program for poor people. The police chief resigned.

Two more black men would be killed over the next two months.

Melvin Hair was laid to rest in the same cemetery as Martin Chambers.

TyRon Lewis, 1996

Photo provided by the parents of TyRon Lewis (a.k.a. Tay Michael Cox) who died of gunshot wounds triggering the October 1996 disturbance. [ Courtesy of the Lewis family ]

TyRon Lewis died before he had a chance to meet his infant son. The 18-year-old St. Petersburg resident was in foster care and had an arrest record that stretched back nine years. He was driving without a license on October 24, 1996, when he sped through an intersection at 16th Street and 18th Avenue South at an estimated 70 mph.

Two white St. Petersburg police officers, James Knight and Sandra Minor, pulled him over for speeding.

Lewis had a passenger in the car and crack cocaine rocks in his pockets. There were outstanding warrants for his arrest.

Lewis refused to get out of the car, locking the doors. Knight took out his gun and stood in front of the car. The vehicle started to roll forward, knocking the officer onto the hood. Knight fired three times, killing Lewis.

It didn’t take long for a crowd to form and start throwing bottles and rocks. There were two nights of riots in the Midtown area. A car was set on fire and stores were looted. The story made national headlines.

A protester in St. Petersburg in the aftermath of TyRon Lewis' death. [ Times (1996) ]
A Pinellas County sheriff's deputy in riot gear stands watch as fightfighters battle a blaze late Wednesday, Nov.13, 1996, in St. Petersburg, Fla. [ AP ]

“I don’t think destruction of property is the way to go. I don’t think that’s ever the answer," Hearns said. "But it does get people’s attention. You have to admit, the cameras come out. Newspaper reporters come out.”

Knight was suspended without pay for 60 days. Three weeks after Lewis’ death, a grand jury would conclude that Knight, “in reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm,” was justified in killing Lewis. The decision set off another two days of riots.

A Lewis family lawsuit against the city was rejected by a Pinellas jury in 2004. Twenty years later, members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement changed the name of 18th Avenue S to TyRon Lewis Avenue — without the city’s permission. The city ordered them to remove it.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. This story was reported using Times archives.