The 1996 St Petersburg FL Riots

It has become a depressingly familiar story in 21st century America. A young unarmed black man is shot and killed by a white policeman. Street protests turn into rioting, arson, and looting. And it all repeats two weeks later when the police officer is cleared by a grand jury and is not charged.

But this isn’t Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014–it’s St Petersburg, Florida, in 1996.

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16th Street and 18th Avenue South, in the Midtown neighborhood of St Pete FL, where TyRon Lewis was killed.

At about 5:30 pm on October 24, 1996, two police officers in St Petersburg, Florida, spotted a gold-colored Pontiac LeMans speeding on 18th Avenue South, in the Midtown district. Slipping behind it, they entered a computer query on the license plate number, but when the car stopped at a red light on 16th Street, the police seized the opportunity and, without waiting for the results of the search, pulled up behind it and got out. Unknown to the police officers, the car had been reported stolen, and behind the wheel was 18-year old TyRon Lewis and a friend, Eugene Young. Lewis had a juvenile police record, and there were three outstanding felony warrants for him on drug charges. He had just bought the stolen car on the street by trading an amount of cocaine for it. Cocaine and marijuana were later found in the car.

According to the official police reports, Officer Jim Knight and Officer Sandra Minor approached the stopped car, with Knight standing in front of the vehicle and Minor standing off to the side. Knight ordered Lewis to turn off the engine and put his hands up. Instead, he says, Lewis slowly moved the car forward, bumping him at least six times. Knight pulled his service pistol and ordered Minor to use her police baton to break the car’s windshield. At the same time, Lewis yelled “Please don’t shoot! I ain’t even got nothing!” and slowly moved the car forward again, turning it towards Minor. The car’s other occupant, Eugene Young, later told police that he had repeatedly told Lewis to stop. Knight fell onto the hood of the car and then fired at Lewis through the windshield, hitting him three times–twice in the arm and once in the chest. Lewis was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. The whole event had taken less than a minute.

Within half an hour, however, word of the shooting had spread, and a crowd of over 100 protesters appeared at the scene. Five other young black men had already been shot by St Petersburg police officers that year, the latest happening just a week before. Now, protesters gathered on the street corner chanting “Stop the police brutality!” and holding signs that said “You can’t kill us all!” and “End the genocide!” Many of the protesters were from the local chapter of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a militant African-American civil rights group founded by black nationalist Omali Yeshitela.

When rocks and bottles began to be thrown, the police quickly called in reinforcements from the Sheriff’s Department, who showed up dressed in full riot gear and used tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. It only worsened the situation. The protests spread into the surrounding Midtown neighborhood and quickly turned to rioting. During the night, a local police substation was set ablaze, at least 25 other fires were set, and several stores were looted. Over 200 police cordoned off 25 city blocks. One newspaper photographer was beaten by a group of rioters, and 11 people (four journalists, one firefighter and six police) were treated at local hospitals, including a policeman with a gunshot wound in the arm. The rioting continued all night.

The next day, St Pete Mayor David Fischer declared a state of emergency, placed a temporary ban on the sale of firearms and of gasoline in containers, and met with local community leaders to try to defuse the situation. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles sent 200 National Guardsmen to St Pete, where they were placed on standby. The Clinton Administration announced that the Justice Department would conduct an independent investigation into the shooting, and the US Civil Rights Commission was invited in to calm the situation. TyRon Lewis’s brother spoke to the press and pleaded for calm, saying “My little brother is gone, and I don’t think burning down no buildings is going to bring him back.” By the night of October 25, an uneasy calm was maintained.

A few weeks later, on November 13, the grand jury in the case (16 people, including one African-American) announced its findings: Officer Knight had acted in self-defense and had not broken any criminal laws. There would be no indictments. (The police department, on the other hand, concluded in its internal investigation that Officer Knight had violated department policy regarding use of force, and suspended him for 60 days without pay.)

Within hours of the grand jury’s ruling, rioting had broken out again in St Pete. Over 30 fires were started, two police officers and two firefighters were injured (one of them a police helicopter pilot who was hit by gunfire), and dozens of arrests were made. In one confrontation, police surrounded a gathering of the Uhuru Movement, fired tear gas at them, and arrested four people. One police officer was shot in the leg during the confrontation. The rioting lasted all night, and died down the next morning.

In the aftermath of the riots, the city announced a massive program, called “Challenge 2001”, to improve conditions in the Midtown neighborhood and to “build better community relationships”. Over $100 million, much of it from Federal grants, was spent in the area. The city’s first African-American Police Chief, Goliath Davis, was appointed, and made sweeping changes in department policy.

But racial tensions continued between the city’s police and its African-American community. TyRon Lewis’s family filed a lawsuit against the city, and when the jury ruled in favor of the city in March 2004, concluding that the police shooting had been a “justifiable homicide”, a group of protesters gathered and was dispersed by police after two people were arrested for firing shots at the cops. In April 2013, St Pete police wounded two young black men in a stolen car, provoking angry responses from the African-American community. It was the fifth police shooting that year. That December, a rookie St Pete police officer shot and wounded a 17-year old black man that he claimed tried to run him over in a stolen truck, but the police investigation concluded that the officer had lied about what had happened and had shot the young man from behind. The police officer was fired this past May. This past March, police department officials had already met with rank and file officers, clerical staff, and community members who were angry at what they saw as unfair disciplinary actions and lack of promotions among African-Americans. The Assistant Police Chief acknowledged, “We’ve fallen a little short in that area”.

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