Thuggish Handful Casts Ugly Shadow Over An Entire Community
Mary Jo Melone, St. Petersburg Times Online, June 2
Right or wrong, Kathryn Cooper can’t help but see the incident in racial terms. The two men who attacked her 20-year-old son Daniel were black. Cooper and her son are white.
It happened May 12, the night of racial unrest in St. Petersburg’s Midtown section, near the time when a small group of blacks threw rocks, set fires and attacked passing motorists.
About 2 miles north of the disturbance, two men followed Cooper’s son into a hallway of his apartment complex, put a gun to his head and took his wallet, cell phone and car keys. Then they fled in his 2001 Toyota.
Kathryn Cooper is still shaken. “If anybody had come off the elevator, if there had been any distraction, they could have pulled the trigger,” Cooper says.
They. As in, the bad guys.
I see nothing to link the disturbance with the carjacking, and police have no way of knowing, either. But Cooper thinks the men who attacked her son were taking advantage of the chaos. Distracted in Midtown, police would be unable to respond quickly to other crimes, she reasoned.
That night has propelled Cooper into thinking about race — more so, perhaps, than about robbery or car theft. She seems almost apologetic about her thoughts. She says she is no racist and chokes up in a mixture of fear and anger.
But she wants to know. “When criminals riot in their own community, hurting people, places and things,” she asks, “it makes me wonder what is it they really want?”
They. That word again. It hardly fits the circumstances of that night, May 12. It seems too large, too collective. The disturbances, like the attack on Cooper’s son, were carried out by a few, not a majority. Cooper knows that. But she still talks about them.
She does not think of black people as criminals, she said. But to her, the police shooting of TyRon Lewis and the lawsuit that set off the May 12 disturbances are wrapped up in a troubling package.
Why, in her words, “exalt” Lewis, who had cocaine in his possession and was facing outstanding warrants when police stopped him?
Why does Mayor Rick Baker talk about giving a college scholarship to Lewis’ son?
“My son is no criminal,” she said, noting, “a criminal’s son is possibly getting a college education.”
She wonders: What would have happened that night in 1996 if the officers who stopped Lewis had been black? Would he have trusted a black officer more than a white simply because of color? Would he have surrendered and lived?
“Who’s practicing racism there?” Cooper asked. “You can’t have it both ways.”
I have heard other whites talk like Kathryn Cooper. They are deeply frustrated. They sense they are not permitted to express their views on race, for fear they will be shut down by somebody calling them a bigot. So they say nothing. Every time they opt for silence, the potency of the subject defeats us. It gets only harder to reach some understanding.
“I just wish they would understand,” Cooper said, using that pronoun again “If you want respect from other people, you have to act accordingly.”
There is a deeper tragedy in what happened on May 12 in Midtown. The damage went well beyond broken windows and stolen goods. In the eyes of people like Cooper, a few criminals came, incorrectly, to represent the law-abiding majority. They widened its hold. Those who broke the law made it harder for those who obey it.
I’m not saying it’s right or fair. I’m not saying I’d want to be blamed for the actions of all whites. I’m just saying that’s what happened.
Cooper’s son is working his way through St. Petersburg College. His Toyota contained his textbooks, a costly calculator, his high school jacket, a portable CD player and CDs, even a Crock-Pot. All of it is gone. His mother had to pay $500, earmarked for bills, to replace some of what he lost, chiefly the textbooks and calculator.
His Toyota was found in Midtown the morning after it was stolen. It had been set on fire and was a total loss. Insurance will pay for most of the physical damage. Some of the rest — this fear and anger — will be harder to fix.