ST. PETERSBURG — To deliver the message, he drove from his home in East Tampa, over the Howard Frankland Bridge and down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.
The corner where Maress Scott stopped was unusually quiet that May afternoon. It’s known for blaring music and smoke spewing from the grill charring the “best food in town.”
On 22nd Avenue S, Scott paced out front of Atwater’s Best BBQ & Soul Food with a stack of paper in his hands, intercepting people strolling past.
“Hey man, tell me what you think about this,” Scott said as he handed a sheet to a man eating a hot dog wrapped in foil, then to two teenage boys, one with a basketball tucked underneath his arm.
BSPP, his white T-shirt said. Black St. Pete Pledge. On the back, the words of an oath fit into the outline of a scroll.
As a black man in St. Petersburg, I understand that the violence committed by us, against us, is hurting us all. In the spirit of this belief: I pledge to give someone a pass at least once a month for the rest of this year (meaning I would walk away from and refuse to participate in any disagreement that may lead to violence).
In addition: I pledge not to murder another black person for the rest of the year.
Many stopped for Scott, denouncing recent gun violence in the city. They jotted down their names in one of two white binders. Some grabbed stacks of the pledge to take home to their grandchildren. Rarely did people continue without pause.
Every discussion energized him. Each was a chance to pinpoint the problem, alter the course, trust in God and honor his son Marquis.
This year’s 26 homicides in St. Petersburg already exceed the 15 counted by the police department throughout 2020. At the current rate, by year’s end, the death toll will blow past the highest in record over the last two decades, 30 in 2005.
Eighteen of the victims in this year’s homicides were Black, 12 of them Black men.
In September 2019, Scott’s 20-year-old son, Marquis, was shot and killed a few blocks from his grandmother’s house while riding a bike his father had given him.
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It was the evening before he was set to begin a construction certification program, a step toward turning his life around and becoming a welder. Marquis had been arrested the previous December on an attempted murder charge. His trial was looming, set to start in November.
No one has been arrested for his slaying at Queensboro Avenue S and Yale Street.
A man police called a person of interest in his death, Dominique Harris, was shot and killed by officers in December when they attempted to arrest him in an unrelated case.
Could a pledge stop the violence?
Maress Scott wanted to plant the seed.
On the same day he’d been at Atwater’s, he’d driven a few blocks down a neighborhood street, in search of more conversation.
Scott wedged his Dodge Ram pickup between the cars parked along the road then walked up to two young men leaning against a car. They agreed that guns were a problem in St. Petersburg. But it wasn’t that simple, one said.
“You gotta protect you and yours, not your neighbors,” he said.
Neighborhoods were at war. A body for a body.
Sometimes, simple arguments ended in violence, an all too familiar form of conflict resolution. And children were getting drawn in, influenced by peers to grab money and bragging rights.
He acknowledged that too many people were dying.
“It’s more than that,” Scott said. “It’s too many good people dying.”
Scott remembered his old life, growing up on Chicago’s westside.
He feels lucky to be alive.
Scott is 6-foot-1, a former Florida A&M University defensive end whose presence is hard to ignore. His words arrive soft yet with conviction.
He is 52 now.
By his count, at least 16 people have put a gun to his head or shot at him in his lifetime. Sometimes, he’d talk the attacker out of shooting. Sometimes, he stepped in to protect other people. Once, a bullet grazed his back. Another time, he was stabbed.
His sister Corrine Scott, now 55 and living in Milwaukee, said their everyday life was a war zone. “Bodies everywhere,” she said.
Their childhood apartment sat at the end of the hall on the 8th floor of a Chicago project. Seven children crammed in, along with their mother and sometimes, a grandmother.
Mom, however, occasionally vanished for what felt like days, weeks, sometimes months. Maybe it was drugs, thought Maress Scott. Maybe drinking.
Either way, the children spent days running on empty stomachs, baking flour and water to scrounge up a dash of energy.
Their mother was as loving as she could be, Scott said. She listened to him more than anyone else. But, sometimes, fights with her boyfriends got physical, and Scott busted into the bedroom to take the blows for her. Sometimes, she had manic days.
“But when she was good,” he said, “she was great.”
To get through school, he stopped questioning if she was okay, tried to keep from worrying.
It wasn’t until her passing that Scott learned she had been schizophrenic. And that when she would go missing, she’d been checked into a mental health unit.
Maybe she passed in 2006. Or 2007. Scott blocked it out of his mind.
School doubled as a refuge.
He wrestled, played football and ran track in high school. He’d catch the train to school, using his keys to the weight room whenever he wanted, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m.
In the midwest winters, he made his way to class in torn shoes. His hand raised so often teachers called on anyone but him. He didn’t see himself as smart but knowledge came easy. “That boy had strong determination,” said his sister Corrine.
He was the only one of his siblings to graduate high school and attend college.
But his troubles didn’t end there.
Just past 6 on a late May evening, Scott gave the pledge to two men standing in a stairway at the Citrus Grove Apartments. The men disappeared without saying much. Scott, walking deeper into the complex, thought he’d spooked them.
He gave pledges to a group of four unwinding on lawn chairs. A little boy looked out from behind a glass window, staring as the conversation about the city’s gun violence rolled on.
A young man with curly hair and a pack of Newports in his hand said he was multiracial. “Can I still sign?” he wondered. Of course, said Scott, before circling the last building and making his way out of the complex.
By the swing set, kids stopped Scott and showered him with questions.
“I wanna sign it,” one boy said.
“Do I get money?” another said.
“Where’s the marker?”
“Do we give this back to you after we sign it?”
“No, man, that’s yours,” replied Scott. The kids, from 6 to 14, took turns leaning against the slide to sign their names at the bottom.
With one pledge left in his hand, Scott turned to leave. A little girl ran up behind.
“You get one?” asked Scott.
She shook her head, braids bouncing. “This is yours.”
He hoped, as he walked back to the stand he’d set up across the street at a Campbell Park kickball game, that the encounters had sparked thought. Maybe he’d convinced someone to put down a gun. All he wanted was to keep another parent from going through the grief of losing a child to a bullet.
He’s sure it’s what Marquis would have expected of his father. “We made him believe that being a Scott meant something in this world,” he said. “What happened to him and what he stands for makes me go out there.”
Scott moved to Florida hoping, eventually, to raise his children somewhere safe.
He realized he had gotten this far without a father. What could his kids accomplish with his guidance?
He volunteered at school, got to know his kids’ teachers, cheered at football games. With his wife, Marjorie, he raised seven children, who help with the pledge when they can. When the kids were growing up, there was always an opportunity to teach, as far as Scott was concerned.
Marquis was the youngest boy among the siblings, itching to find his identity. Although he struggled in school, he graduated with his class in 2018. But his scholarship to Georgia Military College was rescinded after a marijuana possession charge.
His father’s old street life fascinated him, as did rap lyrics and the music videos that came with them. Father and son were so alike. “He wanted to be tough,” his father said. “He drifted, and it cost him his life.”
At Marquis’ funeral, teammates and classmates gushed about the friend and mentor they knew. He’d been Northeast High’s football captain, known for his wide smile and laughter. He became the motivation for a nonprofit his parents formed called Quis For Life, aimed at raising awareness about gun violence.
“I was able to see that my son was actually the person I was trying to teach him to be,” said Scott. “He just needed a little more time.”
The spring of Maress Scott’s first year in college, he found his friends shooting off a handgun from a dorm window in Tallahassee and asked if he could shoot, too. He shot it once and dropped it onto the ground when campus police barged in.
Unless someone confessed, they’d all get in trouble. But when Scott confessed, the university kicked all 10 out anyway.
A school security guard gave him a place to stay for the summer, and he went back to Chicago that fall. He’d hang on until another opportunity arose. But his house in Chicago’s Henry Horner project — notorious as one of the city’s most dangerous housing complexes — stopped feeling like home.
So he wrote to then-university president Frederick Humphries for a second chance. He was the only one of the crew to return. Another had been killed.
In 1989, he led the football team in sacks.
“Ever been shot at?” a Tallahassee Democrat reporter asked in the spring of 1991.
“Lots of times,” Scott said. “Seems like every time I come back, I get shot at, just to remind me that I’m there.”
His game plan always remained the same. To just hang in there.
During his last year, police pulled Scott and a group of old teammates over. They found cocaine. The criminal justice major was arrested and charged with possession and intent to sell. On probation, he returned to school, got his degree and went back to Chicago.
He worked as a substitute teacher during the day and in a group home in the evenings, he said. But after a failure to sign in with his probation officer, he was arrested and brought back South.
He buried one of his co-defendants the morning before he was locked up in the Orlando Correctional Institution. Maurice Epps had been shot and killed.
Eleven months later, out on work release, Scott built bridges, then worked with mortgages. But when his truck was repossessed and his mother died, he found himself lost, dabbling in drugs and alcohol and at times, not wanting to live.
“I thought I had become a failure,” he said, “I didn’t want to show that to my sons.”
He got a job with the city of St. Petersburg as a plant operator, volunteered with community organizations and mentored other men. Years later, though, he checked himself into a six-month alcohol treatment program.
“That opened the door for my son to get murdered,” Scott said. Maybe, he thought, his absence made Marquis feel neglected.
In the months that followed Marquis’ death, Scott’s niece was murdered in Wisconsin and his baby sister died of cancer. He didn’t want to leave treatment with that much trauma, so his six-month stay bled into 28 months.
A little over a year after he left treatment, moved by his son’s legacy and Ezra 10:4, he drafted the pledge.
Arise for this matter is your responsibility, we will be with you, so; be courageous and act now!
On a July afternoon in Child’s Park, four cars trailed behind Scott’s, each filled with men supporting the Black St. Pete Pledge.
“This is going to look scary to them guys when we roll up,” Scott said.
“That’s why I left my car,” replied community activist John Muhammad from the back seat. “They know us, though.”
They parked on the street near a group of men who, leery, stopped talking and turned to check out the incoming crew. The men eventually warmed up.
A young man leaning against a Nissan told them he could put down the guns but questioned whether his enemies would do the same. He could sign the first half of the pledge, agreeing to walk away from a disagreement at least once a month. But pledging not to kill another Black man for the rest of the year? What if he needed to protect himself?
Underneath a summer drizzle, Scott left them with a sheet of community safety tips.
Don’t sit in parked cars; keep it moving.
Avoid known hot spots.
Don’t stand with your back to the streets; stay aware of your surroundings.
As they drove to a second stop, heavy rain blurred the windshield and only the driver’s side wiper swayed, clearing a slit for Scott to see through.
The air conditioner was broken, so rain poured in from the inch-wide crack in the passenger door window, the 90-degree heat transforming the car into a furnace.
Scott parked in front of five men hovering over playing cards and dollar bills spread across a table, shielded from the storm by a blue tent. Mud splashed as Scott and Muhammad jogged over.
He was welcome, one man said, because he recognized Muhammad walking up from behind.
Scott handed each man a pledge.
“I seen that,” one said. “Let me sign it.”
He wasn’t the only one who’d already come across it. A few days ago, Scott ran into a lady in the park who said she had the pledge in her house.
He’s unsure how many people have signed to date. Aunts have grabbed stacks to take home for their nieces and nephews. Many signed their copy and kept it for themselves. More than 600 signatures sit in the white binder that holds a list of community members — young and old — who have committed to not shooting a Black neighbor. Others were wary of having their name on record.
Scott estimates closer to 1,300 people in St. Petersburg have committed to the oath. And community leaders in Chicago, Gainesville and Pittsburgh have reached out for advice, hoping to start pledges in their cities.
The men under the tent signed with no hesitation. Scott could leave a few extras, they said. The area had a lot of foot traffic, and they could help spread the word.
The formula remained simple: Get out. Talk to your people.
Back in the truck, Scott sat in a soaked T-shirt and muddy sneakers. He and Muhammad decided, before wrapping up their rounds, to swing by one more corner.
“It might not be convenient,” he said, “but it’s important.”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.