Decision in St. Petersburg Riot Case Sparks New Clashes
Hours after a white policeman was cleared in a shooting that sparked a race riot last month, angry mobs returned to the same streets Wednesday, wounding two officers and attacking passersby.
One of the officers was shot in the leg, and a sheriff’s helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after a bullet pierced the windshield and grazed the co-pilot’s arm. At least seven other people were injured.
Angry groups of youths pelted passing cars with rocks and chunks of concrete and set trash bins and piles of debris ablaze in predominantly black south St. Petersburg. Police responded with volleys of tear gas.
Police Chief Darrel Stephens blamed it on a small group that had advocated violence if Officer Jim Knight were not indicted for fatally shooting a black motorist who had bumped him four times in a stolen car.
“A good part of the activity that is taking place on the streets tonight was planned,” Stephens said at a late-night news conference. “I don’t believe that this was a spontaneous event.”
Others injured included a white man in his 20s or 30s who appeared to be the victim of a drive-by shooting; a black man in his 40s who was hit in the face by a bottle as he drove through the area; and a white man in his 60s who was beaten up in a coin laundry.
The violence broke out after a grand jury ruled that Knight’s shooting was justified, partly because Lewis refused to follow orders to surrender.
The panel explained its decision in a nine-page statement that appealed for calm and said the shooting had not been racially motivated. Stephens also suspended Knight for 60 days, with pay, saying he had “placed himself in a position of disadvantage and danger.”
The trouble began shortly after 6 p.m., when a police officer was shot in the leg outside a house where members of a black separatist group, the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, meet. The group has called for the executions of the police officers involved in last month’s shooting.
The streets were immediately blocked off, and moments later dozens of gunshots were heard. There were shouts of “Get down, get down,” and tear gas filled the area.
“KILLER COP GOES FREE,” read a flier the group handed out after the grand jury ruling. “We will not be shot down in the streets like dogs. Neither will we be pushed into jails for defending our community. . . . GET ORGANIZED!’
Police arrested three leaders of the group Wednesday to try to prevent violence and collected more than 6 tons of rocks and bottles stashed in trash bins and other spots in the neighborhood, Stephens said.
Within half an hour after the officer was shot, groups of youths began crowding the streets, throwing rocks and bottles at passing cars in a scene that, while smaller and more contained, resembled last month’s night of violence.
The left rear window of Kim Freeman’s car was shot out as she drove through the area with her 11-year-old son and two others. She managed to quickly drive away and no one in her car was hurt.
About 300 people roamed the streets after the Oct. 24 shooting, hurling firebombs, rocks and bottles, setting 29 fires and causing more than $5 million in damage. Several police officers and firefighters were injured.
People in the neighborhood were tense and angry about the decision not to indict the officer.
“It’s unfair. Any time a white cop shoots a black man who’s unarmed, they say it’s OK,” said Joyce Gibson, a 56-year-old nurse who lives near the site of last month’s rioting. “He took a life, and they’re taking it so lightly.”
Authorities said TyRon Lewis failed to respond several times when Knight ordered him out of a car that Knight and his partner had stopped for speeding.
When Knight moved to the front of the car to peer inside, Lewis moved the vehicle toward him, bumping him twice “in an apparent effort to intimidate or challenge the officer,” the grand jury said.
The panel said Knight’s partner, Sandra Minor, broke a car window to gain entry and the car moved forward and hit Knight again. He ordered the driver to stop or he’d shoot. The car then turned sharply to the left, hitting Knight a fourth time and dropping him onto the car’s hood. Knight fired three times, hitting Lewis twice in the right arm and once in the chest.