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Romano: TyRon Lewis street sign — a contrived protest that sparked an overwrought reaction

Published Nov. 21, 2016

Last time I checked, the street sign was still visible at TyRon Lewis Avenue. So was hypocrisy, faux outrage and misplaced priorities.

In case you're confused, there isn't really a TyRon Lewis Avenue in St. Petersburg. That's just the name chosen by activists for the street corner at 16th Street and 18th Avenue S.

They say it's a memorial.

It feels more like a stunt.

The sign is a nod to the riots of 20 years ago. It's a reminder that relations have not always been smooth between black residents and St. Petersburg police. Basically, it's a way to shake a fist at City Hall.

I've got no problem with questioning authority, but there's a huge difference between seeking solutions and provoking confrontation.

And in a community bedeviled by higher crime, lower income and failing schools, is chaining yourself to a street sign really the most strategic way to fight for change?

There's no doubt Lewis' death during a police traffic stop was a tragedy. It was regrettable and preventable. But it was also set in motion by Lewis himself.

He was the one with outstanding warrants. He was the one with crack cocaine in his pocket. He was the one speeding through residential streets, and he was the one who refused police orders to get out of the car. You can dispute — and witnesses did — whether he was trying to run over a police officer when he was shot, but there is no denying he created the circumstances that led to his death.

Here's another way of looking at it:

On the same night of Lewis' death in 1996, a 26-year-old black man was coming home from his job as a chef. He had a dinner of fried shrimp for his girlfriend and daughter on the seat beside him.

When he pulled into his apartment complex in St. Pete, Andre Miller saw three young men breaking into cars. When he confronted one of them, he was shot between the eyes from 3 feet away.

And yet activists are not mourning Miller today.

Making his story even more relevant, St. Pete residents just saw a trial wrap up with the exact same circumstances: a black homeowner shot and killed when three young men tried to break into his car.

Anecdotally, you might argue that little has changed in two decades, and yet the focus is being purposefully shined elsewhere.

Protesting the educational gap in public schools, the absence of substantial economic development, the lack of a voice in city-related issues, are all worthy and potentially life-changing reforms.

The point is we have bigger issues and more important battles. And even if relations between police and residents are still frosty, then picking at 20-year-old wounds will not help.

And, just to be clear, that works both ways. The response to the Lewis street sign from the police union was over-the-top and embarrassing. Police are taught to defuse a volatile situation, and yet the union's letters to St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman sounded like a hysterical Facebook commenter.

The street sign is illegal and in poor taste, but it's neither hazardous nor a crime against anyone. Police make discretionary decisions every day, and there is no need to inflame a community over such a minor offense.

The bottom line is protests are sometimes necessary. Maybe even healthy.

But they work best when they are accompanied by virtue and not opportunism.