ST. PETERSBURG—A six-hour period of black on white violence 19 months ago has earned St. Petersburg an unflattering distinction in a new state report: the city with the most hate crimes in 2004.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon cut short his holiday vacation to hold a news conference about the numbers, contained in an annual report by Attorney General Charlie Crist. The figures were an aberration, Harmon said, largely the result of one evening of civil unrest on May 12, in which a group of about 125 people, mostly black, threw bricks and bottles at drivers, mostly white. One man’s face was beaten so badly that he needed reconstructive surgery.
Harmon noted that the disturbance accounted for 29 of the city’s 49 reported hate crime victims. Without those, the number would have been 20, similar to the previous year. In 2005, police said, the number of reported hate crime victims in St. Petersburg has fallen to 13.
The violence started shortly after 9 p.m., when members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement staged a protest in front of their headquarters at 1245 18th Ave. S. On their minds: the May 2 fatal shooting of Marquell McCullough, a black teen who was shot by two sheriff’s deputies who said he was driving toward them in a pickup truck.
For the Uhurus, the case resembled that of TyRon Lewis, an 18-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white St. Petersburg police officer during a traffic stop in 1996, sparking two nights of violence. A trial was under way in a lawsuit Lewis’ mother filed against the city in the death of her son when the disturbance started.
Groups of black residents, many of them teens, hurled bottles, bricks and concrete blocks at passing cars, damaging at least 60 vehicles, police said. Some people fired shots at police officers. At least 16 people were treated at hospitals.
Some community leaders said the report is not a reliable barometer of race relations in St. Petersburg. “There are a lot of comfortably integrated neighborhoods,” said Karl Nurse, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, which represents 73 city neighborhoods.
In part, he blames the Uhurus for giving the city a bad name.
“I don’t think it’s very much about race, I just think it’s about punks,” Nurse said. “To me, the Uhurus is a hate group.”