According to Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies, youths running amok at the state fair is nothing new — yet they've never told the media about what they call "wilding" until what happened on the night of February 7, when hundreds of teens began fighting and terrorizing other fairgoers, forcing the fair to shut down early while ejecting 99 patrons and arresting 12, most of them black youths.
One of those ejected, 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III, was hit and killed by an SUV while crossing I-4 several hours later.
In the aftermath, fair officials changed their policies and required youths under 17 to be accompanied by an adult after 7 p.m. until the conclusion of the fair on Monday night. And they called for a community meeting to discuss what could be done to prevent future events like this.
So on Tuesday night, representatives of the fair, as well as law enforcement officers, elected officials and other members of the community came together for a town hall meeting at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in West Tampa.
Emotions ran thick throughout the two-hour meeting, called by Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who started it off by saying that it was all about the children. "We're not here to blame," he insisted "We’re not here to point fingers. We’re here to find solutions."
But there were some who wanted to blame. Activist Connie Burton protested outside the church minutes before the meeting took place, saying that the Sheriff's Department was directly responsible for Joseph's death.
"They are the first vanguards there to see behavior patterns, right?" she asked. "But because it might not net an arrest or not net a conviction in court, a lot of times, it's just 'Shoot you on home.' But now that Andrew Joseph is dead, now it is put in the lap of the African community that if African children were acting like this — if we weren't thugs, if we weren't gangs, he wouldn't be dead. No! They are responsible for his death."
That certainly wasn't the overwhelming sentiment inside the meeting, which was highlighted by Colonel Jim Previtera from the Sheriff's Office describing the atmosphere on that Friday (which was also "Student Day," where children from Hillsborough County schools are allowed to attend the fair for free).
Previtera said attendance at the fair that day had been lackluster because of the all-day rain, but by sundown things started getting excessively rowdy. By 8 p.m., deputies had ejected 31 youths; by 9 p.m. the number was up to 57. "Deputies were outmanned or overpowered, " he said.
Previtera acknowledged that his office has been asked repeatedly why law enforcement officials didn't call the parents of those ejected from the fairgrounds. "We were taxed to our limit," he said.
He then showed short video clips filmed by vendors or captured off social media. Although the clips were intended to buttress his narrative that the night was out of control, most of the five videos aired showed little mayhem or violence, prompting some unease among the 100 or so people in the audience. "They're not bad kids," Previtera said reassuringly. "[They're] just good kids caught up in a mob mentality."
Other invited officials then spoke for a few minutes.
"We have a parenting problem," declared Reverend Dr. W. James Favorite, president of Pastors on Patrol. "We cannot blame the school system. We have not effectively parented our children."
The second hour was devoted to audience questions or comments. A woman named Latoya Carter referred to Florida's Stand Your Ground law and said the kids who were out of control that night lacked respect. "But respect starts at home. Where's there's no respect, this will end being a massive funeral of our young men and women."
Another man expressed outrage that the activities going on at the fair were to be labeled as "wilding," which he accurately noted was first employed as a phrase back in 1989 when the Central Park Jogger was raped. New York City Police used that term after that incident, leading, he said, to young black youths being incarcerated unfairly, referring to the Central Park Five case.
Some speakers said that there weren't enough activities designed to engage the children, particularly black youths. But Fred Hearns pointed out there's Cracker Country.
Longtime West Tampa gadfly Joe Robinson straight up called the fair racist, and said representatives from the fair needed some diversity training.
The Hillsborough County NAACP will host another meeting on the issue on Thursday night at the Ambassadors of Christ Inc. Temple of Prayer at 704 E. Humphrey St. in Tampa. Commissioner Miller said in working with the Sheriff's Office he hopes to have a set of new policies to address what happened at the fair by May. "Understand, it's going to have to take all of us to get this done."