Life in Seminole Heights: Four victims, four ways forward

Looking for direction in the lives that were lost.

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click to enlarge REMEMBER HIM: A memorial for Ronald Felton outside New Season Apostolic Ministries, where he was headed to help feed the homeless when he was shot. - Cristian Jarrell Davila-Serrano
Cristian Jarrell Davila-Serrano
REMEMBER HIM: A memorial for Ronald Felton outside New Season Apostolic Ministries, where he was headed to help feed the homeless when he was shot.

At about 4:50 a.m., Ronald Felton was crossing the street in front of New Season Apostolic Ministries. He never got there — somebody stopped him. But I’m holding onto the first part of the story. Ronald Felton was headed to a church to help serve people food, long before dawn, in the cold, in the dark, alone. He had hardly missed a day in 10 years.

Here in Seminole Heights, we’re looking for ways to deal with four random murders, and everything that has come with them — the nerves, the police stops, the helicopters’ hocketta-hocketta-hocketta overhead at night. It seems to me that there are a couple of different ways to do that. 

One way is to learn the lessons of the unknown person whom Mayor Bob Buckhorn eloquently named the sonofabitch (cf. “we will hunt this sonofabitch down”). Those lessons would be to stay indoors, be afraid of walking alone after dark, beware of everyone you don’t know, and so on. 

But I don’t really want to learn the sonofabitch’s lessons. Sooner or later that person will get caught, or get shot, or shrivel up and blow away, or whatever it is that cowards with guns do. So I’m trying to learn the victims’ lessons instead. And the astounding thing is how much each of them has to teach us about the very moment we find ourselves in. Each one lived a life that works as a direct antidote to the fear and hate that are threatening the neighborhood.

Benjamin Edward Mitchell was working hard, going to school while holding down a job at IKEA and moonlighting as a rapper. (Long live “Eddie Banks.”) But he still made sure to spend time with his beloved aunt. That’s what he was doing on Oct. 9, the very night he was killed. When was the last time I structured my life around an aunt, an uncle, a loved one? When was your last time?

Fifteenth Street is the main artery of southeast Seminole Heights. It’s also the street that, more than any other, has been terrorized by the killings. It’s the one that now has memorials to Benjamin Edward Mitchell and Anthony Naiboa within a block of each other.

I drove along it near dusk a few weeks ago, unwilling to change routes, feeling angry. The street was not deserted the way you might expect. Many things were just the same. 

There were the old folks sitting on chairs in the corner lot. There was the cheerful man riding back from the grocery store, plastic bags hanging from his handlebars. And there was a work truck parked in front of a house being renovated, with a crew still working at almost 8 o’clock at night. They weren’t going to stop working for some sonofabitch. There was something comforting about it, the people busy with hammers and saws on Fifteenth Street like nothing was wrong. No small amount of good in the world comes about because someone needs the paycheck.

Monica Caridad Hoffa was a waitress at IHOP. She had just gotten off her shift on the night she was killed. The regulars she waited on adored her, came to her funeral. Wouldn’t have missed it. Would I have that amount of radiant positive impact at work, while bringing people hash browns and refilling coffee? Would you?

As I write this it’s late afternoon at the Seminole Heights Public Library. People are checking out books and DVDs. High school kids are waiting on rides and flirting. Last night at Independent Bar and Cafe, every table was full. It was good to see. 

I was more concerned for Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe: it’s only a short distance from where the shooter claimed his latest victim, Felton, on Tuesday. But on Thursday night there were people all along the bar. That’s good, but let’s not get it twisted. Nobody has died while drinking cocktails or eating burgers. They’ve died alone, out on the street, vulnerable. They’ve died working-class, aspirational, unemployed. If you want to know the Seminole Heights community and what’s been happening, you need to know that side first.

Anthony Naiboa was working at a warehouse packing supplies for hurricane relief. Good God. It’s enough to lose an innocent to mindless violence — but this kid spent his last night on earth doing charitable work. How would my last night look, if it came sooner than expected? How would yours?

There’s talk that Anthony’s dad and his family are tracking down the sonofabitch themselves, with a sort of parallel investigation. This is not advisable, says Tampa Police Chief Dugan. Yet Dugan also says he doesn’t blame them. Who could? 

The murder of Anthony Naiboa seems to make people especially angry. The 19-year-old had a mild form of autism. He had been the repeated victim of bullies and criminals in his life. On Oct. 19 he got off of the bus at the wrong stop, in an area where that had never been a dangerous thing to do. But then he was shot, and fell right in front of the house owned by Benjamin Mitchell’s mourning aunt. Yes, all of this will make you angry. But maybe that’s not a bad thing to be.

Ronald Felton was up long before dawn, like the construction worker he was. Time can be rough on 60-year-old construction workers who haven’t had a job in a while. But even if the world wasn’t always kind to him, he decided to be kind anyhow. There he was, every Tuesday and Friday morning, waiting to hand out food. Do I give like Ronald did, even when I think there isn’t much to give? Do you?

On Saturday, there was a mountain of food at New Season Apostolic Ministries. A call for donations in Felton’s honor brought person after person loaded down with grocery bags. Cars circulated through the parking lot, as members and ministers of the church helped unload. They all knew Felton, knew him well.

When asked how he remembers Felton, Minister Isaiah Osborne didn’t hesitate. “Faithful,” he says.

“Faithful,” agreed Brother Christopher Williams. 

Felton got to the food pantry so early that Tuesday morning because he wanted to watch out for the people who would be showing up. 

“He didn’t want anyone to be here by themselves,” said Osborne. So he walked around, patrolling the area on foot. That’s what he was doing when he was gunned down, in the middle of Nebraska Avenue.

News reports have called Felton a kind person, a good man. I would call him something more: a kind of a martyr. A person who laid down his life for his friends. And whatever happens next for this neighborhood, his memory and those of the three other beautiful people who have been taken should stick with us, showing the way.

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