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St. Petersburg’s Black community searches for answers after shootings

Activists ask what can be done to help a community reeling from a deadly November and a fatal police shooting.
A St. Petersburg police officer and another person were wounded in a shooting that took place Wednesday. Officers can be seen here gathering at the scene of the shooting at in the 1400 block of 18th Avenue S.
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A St. Petersburg police officer and another person were wounded in a shooting that took place Wednesday. Officers can be seen here gathering at the scene of the shooting at in the 1400 block of 18th Avenue S. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Marvin Gaye’s transformative 1971 hit, “What’s Going On,” captured the pains of poverty, drug abuse and racial strife in the shadow of the Vietnam War.

Four decades later, activist Brother John Muhammad invoked the poignant lyrics in a conversation this week about opportunity and racial injustice in the wake of a string of fatal shootings — including one incident where police officers killed a man linked to a homicide investigation — that has shaken the city’s Black community and left residents searching for answers:

Father, father

We don’t need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer

For only love can conquer hate

You know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some lovin’ here today

He invoked Gaye’s lyrics at Monday’s virtual panel conversation, hosted by Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and moderated by Esther Eugene, president-elect of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. The conversation echoed the efforts of Enough is Enough, a campaign City Council members Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman launched to address gun violence after a deadly November in which seven shootings left three dead and seven wounded.

Related: Man killed by St. Petersburg police hit by 38 bullets, was linked to 2019 homicide

Then, on Dec. 2, St. Petersburg officers fired 50 shots at 20-year-old Dominique Harris outside a 18th Avenue S grocery store. Police say he was trying to evade arrest by ramming police vehicles and shot an officer at close-range. Harris died after being struck 38 times. He was wanted on a felony charge in connection to an altercation on a basketball court with a teen and, police say, he was a “person of interest” in a 2019 homicide.

The panelists were state Sen. Darryl Rouson, incoming state Rep. Michele Rayner, pastors Louis Murphy and Manuel Sykes, the Pinellas County Urban League’s Watson Haynes, attorney Tamara Felton-Howard, activist Bruce “Reno” Moore and Muhammad. Figgs-Sanders and Wheeler-Bowman were “honorary listening hosts.”

Eugene began the discussion by asking: “What do you feel the collective community response should be?”

Related: Suspect in mother’s fatal shooting had argued with her boyfriend, police say

“We should march, we should protest, we should light candles, we should have vigils for those who have lost their lives,” said Muhammad, the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association. “I also feel that 50 shots during rush hour on a main thoroughfare was excessive.

“I felt chills run down my spine when I heard the young man scream ‘That’s my brother’ as officers emptied their clips into his body.” He was referring to the reactions heard on a Facebook video that captured a portion of the shooting.

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Muhammad also proposed reaching out to families who have lost loved ones to violence or to prison to “help them process it.”

Outreach was a consistent theme during the two-hour Zoom call, which garnered more than 80 viewers.

“Some of these families and young people feel like ‘I’m in this by myself, nobody cares,’” Murphy said. “We’ve got to come out of our comfort zone and adopt families.”

Related: St. Petersburg leaders grapple with spate of November shootings

The discussion hit many different angles: the importance of reaching kids and putting them on the right path earlier, before their teen years; increasing opportunity for economic prosperity; addressing mental illness and addiction; changing laws to enhance gun control and reduce qualified immunity for police officers; and boosting employment for felons.

Participants acknowledged that the root issues afflicting the city’s Black community and the proposed solutions aren’t new, and that a comprehensive and sustainable solution remains elusive. And there were some disagreements, including about whether guns were at the root of the problem or a symptom of a deeper one, and whether it was possible to work with city officials and other constituencies.

The discussion followed a similar Enough is Enough Zoom conversation, held last week, that focused more on 16th Street S, where weekly unsanctioned parties go late into the night. Arnieceia Milton, a 23-year-old mother of two, was killed at one those parties on Nov. 15. The two discussions shared many of the same participants.

Related: Parking lot argument leads to deadly shooting in St. Petersburg

During Monday’s call, Sykes stressed the importance of holding local city leaders accountable. He said the problems lay with “institutional racism on a grand scale,” citing the explosion of growth in downtown while the city’s poorest communities have been left bereft of opportunities, which pushes young people into illegal and dangerous enterprises like drug dealing.

“In South St. Petersburg, the story didn’t change, neither did the outlook of the people,” Sykes said. “What they have done in this city could have done many times over in 28 years in that small area. What we have to have are people in leadership whose vision is for the entire city, to bring about parity.”

“If we don’t change that script,” Sykes warned, “it’s going to be the same songs. Marvin Gaye’s song will be a hit in the next 40 years.”

Mother, mother

There’s too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There’s far too many of you dying

You know we’ve got to find a way

To bring some lovin’ here today