Not much has changed, says TyRon Lewis’ brother
By Susan Godfrey, Times Correspondent
Thursday, February 5, 2015 11:39am
Eighteen years ago, a black man jumped out of his car at a north St. Petersburg intersection and confronted a dozen white people holding signs.
The man was the brother of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis, who had been shot and killed by a white police officer three weeks earlier — an incident that triggered violent disturbances and an estimated $6 million in damage.
The people’s signs offered support for the police, and that outraged Roderick Pringles, 27 at the time. “My little brother was killed and y’all are out here with this!” he screamed. “You know what it is like to see your little brother cut open for an autopsy?”
The next morning, a photo of the confrontation was on the front page of the then-St. Petersburg Times. It seemed to capture the raw, ragged edges of a city torn asunder by race.
In the years that followed, city officials have responded with studies, action plans and millions of dollars in spending in the city’s poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. Four mayors have made revitalization of those neighborhoods a priority, and two have appointed black police chiefs.
And Pringles? He is just disappointed and still impassioned.
“Twenty years later, the same thing is still going on,” Pringles said. “Look at Ferguson (Mo.) and New York.”
In St. Petersburg, the taxpayer money was wasted, he said. The officer who fired the fatal shot is still a member of the Police Department. People’s attitudes are the same.
“Everything that didn’t burn down (in 1996) should have burned down,” he said. “So many kids are still lost out there.”
The only reminder of his brother’s short life is a gym at 1327 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S that bears his name, Pringles said.
“He lost his life and that’s all he gets,” Pringles said. “If a hundred people go to that gym, only 15 to 20 even know what the real reason is for the gym.”
Although Pringles was nine years older than Lewis, he said he and his half-brother were close. Pringles lived with his grandmother and Lewis lived with their mother, but the brothers saw each other almost every day.
Pringles lives now in a diverse neighborhood four miles from his boyhood home. He works for a company that sells appliances. He never married but dotes on his two teenage sons. He says his passion now is his work. A homebody, he likes to spend down time watching movies.
Pringles, who once considered a career in law enforcement, has had brushes with the law. But since a five-year stint in prison for a 1997 drug conviction, he said, he has turned his life around.
The events of 1996 are never far from his thoughts. He filled three scrapbooks with newspaper clippings about the shooting, the funeral, the disturbances, the grand jury that cleared the officer and some of the changes that those events brought to St. Petersburg.
The half-brother he still grieves for was, by most accounts, a young man drifting through life, a minor drug dealer who had an arrest record going back nine years. Lewis had been in foster care for a time, and he served a year in a juvenile facility near Ocala.
On Oct. 24, 1996, he was driving without a license. There were crack cocaine rocks in his pocket and outstanding warrants for his arrest.
When Lewis and a companion, going east on 18th Avenue S, sped past police at an estimated 70 mph, two officers — both white — followed him until he pulled up behind another car at a stoplight on 16th Street.
The accounts of what happened next, offered by Lewis’ companion, the two officers and witnesses, were widely divergent.
This much is indisputable: Lewis locked his car doors and refused to get out. Officer James Knight, 35, pulled out his gun and got in front of the car. When the car started rolling slowly forward, Knight fired three times through the windshield, killing Lewis.
Within minutes, an angry crowd gathered. Rocks and bottles began flying, leading to two nights of disturbances that made St. Petersburg a national story.
Police administrators ruled that Knight had violated policy by getting in front of Lewis’ car, and suspended him without pay for 60 days. But a grand jury concluded that because Knight “was in reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm,” he was justified in killing Lewis.
When the grand jury’s decision was announced three weeks after Lewis’ death, there were two more nights of disturbances.
It was after the second round, with feelings running high in both white and black St. Petersburg, that Pringles had the encounter with the people carrying signs.
Still reeling with grief and anger, Pringles screamed at them. One, a 59-year-old retiree, yelled back.
“We must support the police,” Patricia Barber said. “They’re trying to do their job. He (Lewis) was a criminal.”
“My brother is in the ground and y’all are talking about support the police,” Pringles yelled.
Knight’s two-month suspension was rescinded after an arbitrator exonerated him, and state and federal investigators cleared him of wrongdoing. But he is not allowed to patrol in the district that includes most of the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. Through police spokesman Mike Puetz, he declined to speak to a reporter about this article.
Sandra Minor, the other officer in the incident, is still on the force, too. Through Puetz, she also declined to comment.
Erik Neikens, 48, was one of the people holding signs in support of the police.
“Race relations just keep going down and down because that’s how the media portray it,” said Neikens, who moved to North Carolina eight years ago. “I lived there for 40 years and I’ve seen it.”
The neighborhoods where Lewis was raised and killed are still marked by unemployment, poverty, crime and distrust of police. But millions of public and private dollars have been invested there.
In the past 15 years, the Midtown area has gotten a library, a post office, a chain grocery store and a credit union. With the help of taxpayer dollars, the iconic Manhattan Casino reopened, the long-shuttered Mercy Hospital has been expanded into a public health center, an old train station has become an arts facility, and a historic school building has become a Head Start center. The Jordan Park public housing project was renovated, a nine-building Job Corps training facility was built, and St. Petersburg College is quadrupling the size of its campus there.
In 2013, city staff estimated that major public and private investment in Midtown between 1999 and 2012 totaled $207 million.
Pringles, who scoffs at the impact of those expenditures, said he has two regrets about those days 18 years ago.
He regrets that he screamed at the white woman in the photograph. She was the only one of the sign-carrying people to stand up to him, he said, and he was consumed by anger and grief.
He also regrets ignoring a funny feeling he had while driving south on Interstate 275 about the time Lewis was killed.
“Something told me to get off I-275 on Ninth Street S, which would have brought me up to 18th Avenue where Ron was, but I second-guessed myself and turned (off) on 28th Street instead,” he said.
“I could have told him to get out of the car or gotten in front of the cop. Either way Ron wouldn’t be dead.”
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files. Susan Godfrey is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at (727) 253-2367.
Not much has changed, says TyRon Lewis’ brother 02/05/15