TAMPA — A man rode a bike across Fowler Avenue, a mask around his mouth and an American flag bandana around his head.
Champs Sports sat nearby in ashes, baking in the heat next to the devastated Saigon Bay Vietnamese Restaurant. Workers boarded doors at Panda Express. “Black Lives Matter” was sprayed across Sears Auto Center.
In every sense, America is burning. Protesters are bereft from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, boiling over after so many black lives lost before. New York. Dallas. Baltimore. Los Angeles, Washington D.C. There are peaceful protests and good police, looters and bad police, agitators and infiltrators.
And in the light of day, cities in pain are pressing on, waiting for what comes next.
So it was in Tampa Sunday, in the communities surrounding the University of South Florida. It’s called the University Area, an obvious if unceremonious name. It’s better than “Suitcase City,” a fading nickname that nodded to the area’s high crime, low resources and transient population.
The neighborhood has had positive change in 20 years. There are street lights and summer camps, food pantries and a new library. The blighted mall is destined to become a city center with offices, apartments and stores.
I lived here for several years while going to USF, renting an apartment off Fletcher Avenue. I shopped at the grocery stores and took philosophy classes in the mall movie theater. It always felt like the center of some universe, a microcosm for the world. The racial makeup, according to the last census, is fairly evenly black, white and Hispanic. Poverty fans out around a university that continues to grow. Shake a stick and you’ll hit Tampa Palms, with its gated communities and manicured lawns.
It was in this place with such diversity that things imploded. And it was here that people picked up the pieces and moved on. A woman carried a bundle of birthday balloons. A mother and her toddler went to lunch.
Behind the Dollar Tree on Fowler, a family of four perched along the wall — David Lufkin, Dora Hudson and their sons. Devin Hudson, 33, said he was just out of prison. He saw the protests turn Saturday, watched Champs burn. He spotted merchandise all over the ground.
Kenneth Hudson, 18, slumped along the wall, sketching in a notepad. He works at the Dollar Tree and was gripped with panic when the looting started. Lufkin has a job at a frozen foods company, he said, and the family is on a wait list to get assistance for an apartment. They’ve been sleeping in the mall parking lot.
“But not tonight,” he said. “It’s already bad enough, but this just made it 10 times worse.”
“You all right?” he called to a couple walking by with a shopping cart. “It’s The Purge tonight.”
I drove to the University Community Center. I remember voting there in the 2008 matchup of Barack Obama and John McCain. The line stretched onto the sidewalk that day, and it took an hour to get inside. I thought the scene was bursting with optimism. In hindsight, those voters were likely steeped in the same fear and fatigue permeating these tragic days.
The community center sat empty Sunday, save for a few kids on swings.
Be kind to one another, the marquee said. This too shall pass.