Burning tensions

A fire raged in St. Petersburg as the residents of Marcus House Studios watched their home and five years of work go up in flames. The studio and home of two members of the reggae band, Lion Face, was completely destroyed on the night of June 12. The fire was not caused by faulty wiring, a kitchen accident or even a cigarette left burning. The blaze that destroyed the building was caused by the city’s police force.The event has caused a stir in St. Petersburg, which suffered riots after the shooting of Tyrone Lewis in 1996 by police officer James Knight. Lewis was the sixth black man shot by police officers in that year. Now, five years later, many in the community wonder whether this most recent questionable event performed by the city’s police is evidence that officers are being trained to put themselves and the community in danger. St. Petersburg Police Chief Goliath Davis said he wants the community to focus on why the police were at the house. The police were carrying a warrant to search the premises. The search warrant affidavit claimed that “large quantities of marijuana were being sold from within the residence on a constant basis.”Citizens United for Shared Prosperity (CUSP) is a St. Pete organization whose mission is to change unfavorable conditions to minorities and others descriminated against.”I know they had a search warrant, but that’s a hell of a way to serve it,” said Omali Yeshitela, chairman of CUSP.CUSP’s Web site “demands reparations to the African citizens whose home was burned by a police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.”Members of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (NPDUM) have voiced a belief that this most recent incident is evidence of the residues of the colonialism that brought most of their ancestors to America.”We live in a period when the main public policy of the U.S. government toward the African community is police containment,” one contributor wrote in the February-June 2001 issue of the NPDUM magazine, The Burning Spear. The Tactical Apprehension and Control team, a SWAT style organization led by Sgt. Gary Robbins, was at the location to secure the house before vice detectives served a search warrant. The police knocked at the door before breaking it down and tossed a DefTec “flash-bang distraction device” into the room. The device ignited soundproof tiling used in the studio, and the fire rapidly grew beyond control. Lion Face singer Idris “Dreese” Williams, 21, told the St. Petersburg Times that he did not have time to answer the door before the SWAT team burst in and tossed the flash-bang device. Robbins told the same Times reporter that officers feared the men who fled downstairs were arming themselves. The device was thrown to stun anyone inside, not to set a fire.”It’s unfortunate those guys packed that house with materials that were flammable,” Robbins said. A month later, neither resident has been charged with a crime and the city has yet to offer to reimburse either the owner for the property or the residents for the loss of their equipment, tapes, and belongings. George Kajtsa, assistant to St. Petersburg police spokesman Rick Stelljes, said marijuana was found by investigators after the fire, but no one had been charged because police could not prove who owned the substance. Kajtsa told the reporter the situation was under “administrative review,” but could not elaborate as to how this was being conducted. “The review needs to determine whether the officer was in fear,” Kajtsa said. If this is demonstrated, then Kajtsa said the use of the distraction device was justified according to department policy. USF sophomore Stacey King said she didn’t believe this same tactic would have been used so readily in a predominately middle-class white neighborhood. “They’re going to get a lawyer,” King said. She said she believed residents in lower class neighborhoods might be more prone to resort to violence due to a lack of other resources.Junior Moses Desdomme, said it is not only the police who hold misconceptions about economically-depressed neighborhoods. Desdomme said people walk through an economically- depressed neighborhood and assume there’s an amount of criminal activity. “I’m pretty sure if it had been a white community, the (St. Petersburg police) wouldn’t have gone about it that way,” Desdomme said. CUSP seeks to tackle the difficult task of overcoming such disparate expectations in America by addressing the situations that spawn them at a local level. CUSP’s founding convention will be held Sept. 14 and 15 at Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. In the meantime, Craig Johnson and Idris Williams are not charged and have lost the last five years of their musical careers in flames. “The city government is being quiet about it,” said Sobukwe Bambaata, editor of The Burning Spear. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see what we have to do.”