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St. Petersburg Returns to Calm After Racial Violence

October 26, 1996

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ Scores of extra police patrolled the streets of this bayfront city early today to prevent a repeat of the racial violence that erupted after a white police officer shot and killed a black motorist.

Authorities reported a few isolated rock and bottle-throwing incidents and garbage fires. Otherwise, police said, it was quieter than usual.

``A normal Friday night usually sees more arrests than this,″ police Chief Darrel Stephens said. ``We’re really relieved that the calm has prevailed into the dark hours.″

The city remained under a state of emergency that restricted the sale of guns and gasoline in containers until Monday afternoon. About 200 officers patrolled the streets on the south side of St. Petersburg, about four times the normal number.

Another 200 officers and 200 National Guardsmen were on standby, but after the quiet night Stephens said the need for the extra officers may be scaled back ``as warranted.″

Earlier Friday, police with bullhorns ordered young blacks off the streets. Youths shouted obscenities at police officers. Others paced the street corner where the shooting happened, carrying signs with messages like ``Stop the Genocide″ and ``You can’t kill us all.″

The brother of the slain motorist, 18-year-old Tyron Lewis, asked people to stay calm.

``My little brother is gone,″ Roderick Pringles said. ``I don’t think burning down no buildings is going to bring him back.″

Crowds began swarming Thursday night minutes after a traffic stop where Officer Jim Knight shot Lewis, the sixth victim of a police shooting in St. Petersburg this year.

Stephens said the officers stopped a car for speeding and the driver refused to roll down his heavily tinted windows or obey any police commands. Knight, who is white, fired several times when the car lurched at him, Stephens said.

Witnesses said the car inched forward and was not moving fast enough to injure Knight.

At least 11 people were injured and 28 buildings were burned in a 25-square-block area. Twenty people were arrested, police said.

The Justice Department sent a conflict resolution team and began a preliminary inquiry into the riot. Mayor David Fischer called on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to evaluate the city’s race relations, again.

In 1992, the commission gave the city a failing grade for race relations but bumped it to a `B’ in an evaluation two years later.

This Gulf Coast retirement haven, where the population of 240,000 is roughly 20 percent black, had basked in the national spotlight two weeks ago as host of the vice presidential debate.

Now, the spotlight captured streets on fire, police officers in riot gear, and mobs throwing rocks and bottles.

``I’m baffled,″ city human relations director Jim Yates said. ``The feeling was that things had greatly improved, but we could have been wrong.″

The mobs burned a patrol car, two TV vehicles, a police substation and a post office. Black-owned businesses were spared on either side of a looted Vietnamese-owned grocery.

``I think I will be moving away,″ said Thuan Van Tran, in a trembling voice. ``I’ve been here two years, and they selected my store to loot and destroy.″

Rioters were only hurting themselves, said Leon Russell, president of the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches.

``Burning and looting your own neighborhood doesn’t solve anything,″ he said. ``It only leaves scars.″

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