Last Saturday was a lovely afternoon for a stroll along the Hillsborough River, an occasion for celebrating the near-completion of Tampa’s highly touted RiverWalk. But shortly after 2 p.m., attendees at Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s Mac N Cheese Throwdown heard the din of dozens of protesters chanting for an end to police violence against African Americans.
The demonstration, provoked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, was one of many in cities across the country to raise concerns about treatment of black citizens by the police.
Meanwhile, local tensions simmer.
Tampa Bay’s historically stark racial divisions, and the often-tense relationships between its police officers and minority residents, raise the question of whether the rioting that took place in Baltimore could happen here.
Some think so.
“The conditions are the same. There’s a lack of resources being invested in the black community,” Chardonnay Singleton of Bay Area Activist Coalition said at a protest outside Tropicana Field Friday night, ahead of a Rays-Orioles game originally slated for Baltimore but moved to avoid the riots.
“I think the real catalyst that could build up to Baltimore happening would be a death.”
Not that it would be the first time.
In 1967, Tampa police shot 19-year-old Martin Chambers in the back, killing him and sparking riots. The deaths of black men in police custody in Tampa led to violent protests in 1987 and 1989. A St. Petersburg police officer’s fatal shooting of TyRon Lewis in 1996 ignited even more rage.
At a recent forum on race relations in Tampa organized by lawyer Barry Cohen, Buckhorn called the events in Baltimore heartbreaking, but familiar, and allowed that they could happen anywhere.
“I was there, in the midst of the rocks and the bottles, in  when we had a series of similar disturbances here in this community for a lot of the same reasons,” he said. “And it wasn’t just the police in the community. It was poverty, it was drugs, it was guns, it was violence, it was a breakdown of the family. It was a lack of opportunities in our communities, particularly of color.”
Poverty, and all that comes with it, persists in Tampa Bay.
“The question for me is not are the ‘Baltimore riots’ possible in St. Petersburg, but what issues need to be addressed and what needs to happen to move towards a more inclusive and equitable city,” said Lisa Wheeler-Brown in an email. She is a candidate for St. Pete’s District 7 council seat.
Wheeler-Brown said there’s a litany of issues to be confronted — failing schools, “real-life challenges families grapple with every day like choosing between paying their bills and buying food,” and lack of services that residents in more prosperous parts of town take for granted.
Areas like Tampa’s Sulphur Springs suffer from high unemployment, violence and lack of access to adequate nutrition and health care. Countywide, according to a recent New York Times analysis, Hillsborough ranks close to last in the nation in terms of economic mobility.
That could be why some people think Tampa is investing money in areas that don’t need it.
“We have put so much money into the RiverWalk, downtown, and have neglected other parts of the community,” said Tampa City Council Chair Frank Reddick, whose district largely comprises East Tampa. “In order to have a great city you’ve got to equally divide the resources into other areas of the city.”
That imbalance mirrors Baltimore, he said.
Perhaps having a multiplier effect on the frustration was the recent Tampa Bay Times analysis that suggested Tampa police cite poor black residents who ride bicycles more than they do whites.
“If something is not done about ticketing those people in bicycles, anything could escalate,” said Reddick, who has called for an immediate end to the practice.
Tampa’s new police chief, Eric Ward, was born and raised in East Tampa, one of the areas targeted. He has said he has no plans to halt the practice as the U.S. Department of Justice determines whether it is discriminatory.
Residents of St. Pete’s Midtown area have a similarly strained relationship with police.
“For the young people, there’s a lot of fear,” said Carla Bristol, owner of Gallery 909, which sits just off of 22nd Street South in St. Pete.
For Mother’s Day, Bristol, a 46-year-old mother, said her own mother sent her a dash cam to record interactions with police if she gets pulled over. Bristol said police frequently stop her brother, a doctor.
Aaron Sharpe, who’s also running for St. Pete’s 7th council district, said he met a young man who was pulled over 24 times and only ticketed twice last year, and ultimately left Midtown because of it. But he cautioned against casting all police officers in a bad light, given how many work with local leaders to make neighborhoods safer.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of St Pete’s officers are highly engaged and work very hard everyday to ‘protect and serve,’” Sharpe wrote in an email.
Even so, Sharpe said, residual tensions put us “one cell phone video away” from the type of unrest we’ve seen here and in other cities.
Bristol said if there is an incident that sets off violent protests and rioting, she’s concerned Midtown would be the epicenter.
“Unfortunately, it seems like it happens right in the neighborhood where incidents happen or where the concentration of the people live,” she said. On the other hand, she said, the community is small enough that few would want to vandalize a business owned by someone they know.
Hired last summer, St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway is trying to ease tensions with programs like Park, Walk and Talk, which sends officers out into neighborhoods on foot to get to know residents.
“We like to think we’re all making progress,” said Mike Petz, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department. “But at the end of the day you have to take things day by day with this stuff.”
He said the idea that local tensions could boil over as they did in Baltimore assumes parallels between the two cities that don’t exist.
“We don’t want to lump people into one group,” Petz said. “Every community’s got different issues.”
Groups like the African People’s Socialist Movement, widely known as the Uhurus, say the black community needs to take control of its own policing, or else the tension will never go away.
Unlike many economically depressed areas, Midtown has seen some investment. Local restaurateurs Carolyn and Elihu Brayboy recently launched Chief’s Creole Cafe. Developer Larry Newsome opened Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food in the refurbished, historic Manhattan Casino building. St. Petersburg College has a new campus in the area. A Walmart grocery store opened last year.
All have brought jobs, but the area still has high unemployment and crime.
“You still find dilapidated houses,” Singleton said. “You still find rec centers being closed. You still find kids running around in the streets after school without anything to do.”
“The proactive measures that could be taken here aren’t being taken,” she said, though she applauds efforts like retired teacher James Oliver’s nascent mentor program. “The community needs to be organized and mobilize.”
The city is crafting a Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) for Midtown that would set aside property tax dollars raised locally for job training and opportunities in the district.
“The CRA process, in a sense, is a process to mitigate these things in advance so we don’t have a Baltimore or Ferguson,” said activist
Kurt Donley, who cautions the money should go directly back into the community rather than buying more squad cars to patrol it.
Also underway is the sweeping 2020 Plan, which aims to cut poverty in Midtown by nearly a third by 2020.
West Tampa is also slated for a CRA to revamp the area’s struggling neighborhoods.
Skeptics of investing directly in areas with high concentrations of poverty say the practice isn’t all that effective.
“You can’t redevelop your way out of concentrated poverty,” said Sheryll Cashin, a Georgetown law professor and author of the book Place, Not Race. “Markets avoid those places. Employers don’t move to these neighborhoods. They don’t locate a Chili’s in these neighborhoods.”
Instead, she said, the best way to ensure economic growth for all is probably the one to which people are most resistant: complete desegregation.
“I’m a huge advocate for integration because all the studies show that it works,” she said.
Community leaders say what economically depressed areas need most are jobs.
“You got money in your pocket, you ain’t going to be going to be doing [illegal] things,” said Dr. Bernie Small, president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP. “If you can feed people at your table, that cuts down on lots of things. These people making minimum wage, 49 percent of that minimum wage is going to rent. That don’t leave anything else for the kids, to get their t-shirt or go to the movies or whatever.”
Keeping kids occupied over the summer is also a priority.
“We hope to establish job opportunities for a lot of the youth,” Reddick said. “This is possible. We think we can get a lot of the youths off the street during the summer.”
Education is key, especially for young people who don’t know the consequences of bad decisions.
Lily McCarty-Gonzalez, a Tampa lawyer and adjunct professor at Stetson Law, is involved in a program to help reduce youth arrests.
“It starts when they’re young,” she said at Cohen’s forum, adding it’s easy to get roped into a cycle of crime and poverty after a single felony, given that having a felony severely limits your employment prospects. “Kids don’t realize if you go into a home and take a gun it’s an armed burglary.”
Nonprofits are trying to fill in the gaps left by government budget cuts and parents who are absent because they work multiple jobs or, in some cases, are incarcerated.
Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise is a network of more than 30 organizations that aims to help disadvantaged residents. The organization promotes homeownership, quality education and better relationships with police.
“It’s this huge community collaborative,” said Sheff Crowder, that program’s chair.
A recent success was getting Sulphur Springs Elementary to add grades five through eight; Crowder said students have been funneling into two middle schools that consistently got F grades. Sulphur Springs got a C grade last year after receiving Ds two years in a row.
“We’ve come a long way and we’re making momentum,” said Crowder, “but we’ve still got a long way to go.”