St. Petersburg seeks solutions after eruption of violence Riot followed exoneration of officer in driver's death


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Fires still smoldered, residents still seethed and civic leaders still searched for solutions and serenity yesterday, one day after another eruption of racial violence in a city once proud of its tranquillity.

Said Darrel Stephens, the police chief: "We had a situation we have never seen before -- rocks and bottles joined by heavy gunfire. We were pinned down."

Said Omali Yeshitela, leader of a group blamed for inciting violence: "We are not going to live as fearful people. You picked the wrong group if you think you are going to intimidate us."

No new unrest was reported as darkness settled over the city last night. Three hundred police officers patrolled the streets; their marching orders: Arrest every troublemaker. Firefighters remained on duty at the smoldering remains of buildings.

"We have to be in a position to respond to anything that might happen," Stephens said. "In our training, we never contemplated the level of gunfire we had [Wednesday night]."

Two police officers were wounded and seven other people were injured Wednesday night during a disturbance punctuated by hundreds of shots, accented by scores of hurled rocks and bottles, illuminated by 29 fires ignited mostly by Molotov cocktails.

A homeless man was burned when an abandoned house caught fire, and two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, according to officials who tallied at least $1 million in damage.

The unrest followed the exoneration by a grand jury of a white police officer who fatally shot a black motorist. It also echoed a larger disturbance that flared after the Oct. 24 shooting.

Black leaders urged the police to lower their profile.

"If you want to see change in the community, then get the cops out of here and let us settle it down," said the Rev. Jerry Alexander, pastor of the Baptist Union Missionary Church.

City leaders expressed frustration with the police force.

"I'm furious. I am sorry, but I am furious," council member Connie Kane told Stephens. "Why have we waited so long to say that law and order is going to prevail?"

Stephens blamed the violence on a black separatist group, the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. Members had fTC threatened to kill police officers if the grand jury did not issue an indictment.

Citizens voiced resentment of authorities and the mobs.

Rubar Magwood, 66, sifted through the ashes of his one-story home, searching for anything he could salvage. His house was destroyed Wednesday when someone set a fence and a garage on fire during the disturbance. Firefighters did not respond, saying the neighborhood was too unstable.

L "This violence is uncalled for," said Magwood, who is black.

A few hours earlier, swarms of people had roamed the streets of his neighborhood south of downtown St. Petersburg.

They set fires, attacked passers-by with bottles and chunks of concrete, and shot at a police helicopter, wounding the co-pilot. Another officer was shot in the calf. Both were treated and released from local hospitals.

More than 200 police officers took to the streets, firing canisters of tear gas. The National Guard was placed on standby.

Firefighters tracked 100 reports of fires. Most were either multiple reports of the same fire or false alarms, though 29 actual blazes were found.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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