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Officials Remain on Alert in Riot-Scarred St. Petersburg

Violence: In wake of second clash in three weeks, police chief points finger at black separatist group. However, his tactics also come under fire.

November 15, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For the second time in three weeks, riot-gear-equipped police patrolled a predominantly black neighborhood in south St. Petersburg on Thursday, after an outbreak of arson and mayhem in which officers and firefighters came under "heavy gunfire."

In the aftermath of the rioting, city officials seemed stunned by the escalation of the violence that has rocked this Gulf Coast city, which until recently was best known for its retirees and sandy beaches.

Two police officers were wounded by gunshots, at least 29 homes and commercial buildings were firebombed and destroyed, and clouds of tear gas cloaked the streets after a grand jury announced Wednesday that it had chosen not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a black motorist in the same neighborhood Oct. 24. That shooting also touched off rioting.

"We had a situation last night that we've not seen before in our community," said Police Chief Darrel Stephens. "We had four or five officers pinned down by heavy gunfire. [Police] returned that gunfire." Apparently no one was injured in that exchange, which the chief said was instigated by leaders of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, a black separatist group.

"We've got a continuing crisis in our community," Stephens said.

Shortly after the grand jury decision was made known, police attempted to arrest three members of the movement, who police said had threatened to promote violence if no indictment was forthcoming. Those arrests--on misdemeanor traffic warrants--in an already angry neighborhood led to a melee that soon turned riotous.

In fliers widely distributed in south St Petersburg in recent weeks, leaders of the Uhuru Movement have called for the "execution" of Stephens, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and the two officers involved in the fatal shooting of TyRon Lewis, 18, after he was stopped for speeding.

At a press conference Thursday, Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela did not deny that a "people's tribunal" had found the four guilty of "murdering" Lewis, and that the word "execution" had been used. But he said that did not mean citizens were being asked to kill the four men.

"Our community has been demonized and criminalized" by the police, said Yeshitela, 55. "You picked the wrong group if you think you could intimidate us."

Stephens refused to second-guess his decision to arrest the Uhuru Movement members, although he acknowledged that the police plan went awry when one of the men to be picked up fled to the movement's headquarters, where a crowd had already gathered. "It was our hope that the arrests would not be made at that location," Stephens said. But, he said, "I do not believe it was a precipitating event that caused the violence."

On the streets of south St. Petersburg, however, many residents disagreed. Sevell C. Brown III, head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, accused the police of "irresponsible behavior" toward the black community with the arrests, as well as by engaging in a pattern of harassment that has gone on for years.

Stephens' decisions also came under fire Thursday when he faced a City Council meeting. "I'm furious. I am sorry, but I am furious," said Councilwoman Connie Kane. "Why have we waited so long to say that law and order is going to prevail?"

Ironically, relations between police and the black community here--about 20% of the 240,000 residents are African American--had seemed improved after Stephens was hired in 1992 to replace Ernest Curtsinger, a onetime Los Angeles police commander known for commando-style tactics.

But the shooting of Lewis, the grand jury's decision not to indict James Knight--the officer who shot him--and the ill-timed arrests of three Uhuru Movement members have tensions between blacks and city officials here at a new high.

Stephens bristled at the suggestion that he had mismanaged police response to the crisis. "The police department is being appropriately managed and is performing very well," he said. "We've been dealing with a tense situation for three weeks."

More than 300 police officers were on duty as night fell Thursday, and the Florida National Guard had been placed on alert but was not called up. No curfew was announced.

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