On Oct. 24, 1996 St. Petersburg Police Officers James Knight and Sandra Min stopped a car for speeding in a black section of Saint Petersburg known as Midtown. There are conflicting accounts of what happened but the result is that Officer Knight tragically shot and killed the driver of the vehicle, a young black man named TyRon Lewis. A subsequent grand jury investigation absolved Officer Knight of any wrong doing which set off a race riot in Saint Petersburg that resulted in $6 million worth of damage and almost cost then Mayor David Fischer his mayorship. Many feel that the Uhuru, a political party seeking social justice for blacks, was at the heart of the protests. A subsequent report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that, among other causes, the destruction of black neighborhoods in order to build Tropicana Field to lure major league baseball to St. Petersburg compounded the frustrations of the rioters. Tropicana Field is sponsored by The St. Petersburg Times which seems nowadays more interested in becoming a big business than a news agency. (The Uhuru claim that the Times sides with the police in its issues with law enforcement.) In February two Uhuru men including a man named Keith Stewart, nephew of the local Uhuru leader, were arrested in a scuffle with the police at an apartment complex formerly named Bethel Community Heights. Today the Uhuru have a gym named for TyRon Lewis.
On October 3, 2003 the Saint Petersburg Police arrested three black men for causing a disturbance, they say, in Wet Willies Bar at BayWalk, the $40 million shopping center built and operated by Sembler Company. One of those men was the same Uhuru Keith Stewart that had been arrested in 1997. Stewart has been charged this time with inciting a riot--a felony. Ever since the Uhuru have been picketing BayWalk on Friday nights carrying signs like BayWalk Is For Whites Only. The Uhuru accuse the police of racial profiling in the matter and accuse the Saint Petersburg Times of siding with police in the matter. The story of the Uhuru complaint is here.
There have been other complaints against Sembler venues. Last March, John Sugg, writing for Creative Loafing--Atlanta [03.12.03] about Sembler's shopping center in Tampa's Centro Ybor, wrote that [Sembler Company] "made clear that it didn't much want the artists, kids, frolickers and minorities who had long called the area home. The company has Gestapo rules for patrons -- wearing your baseball cap turned backward will get you booted (I'm serious)." This sentiment was echoed recently by Uhuru member Cassandra Floyd who made this public statement: "The police are harassing Africans, telling them they can't wear their hats sideways."
Statistics released by the St. Petersburg Police Department last December show that of a total of 62 black kids and white kids under the age 18 who have been banned from BayWalk through September, 60% are black even though only 1 out of every four citizens of St. Petersburg are African Americans. Steve Althoff, vice president of Sembler Co., publicly announced that, "This summer, we took back BayWalk. We were overrun with teenagers, and we went in and stopped the kids with unruly behavior, and so a lot of kids all around St. Petersburg and Pinellas County felt like they were being harassed."
Coalition Building. In 1978 Floridas Bureau of Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance issued a special report on Straight - St. Petersburg which stated that in its first 18 months of operation Straight had enrolled 450 youths but only one had been black. By contrast Operation PAR, another Pinellas County juvenile drug rehab program, had a population base which varied from 40 - 50 youthsALL WERE BLACK. In 1993 Mel and his wife Betty closed their white-based Straight under mounting civil suits and criminal investigations. Then Betty joined the board of directors of Operation Par! [See The Infiltration of Operation PAR by former Straight Officials.] Today, Rudy Bradley, R-Representative from St. Petersburg, is on the Advisory Board for Drug Free America Foundation (Straight's latest name). Mr. Bradley is black. Betty Sembler was the keynote speaker at the June 5, 1999 St. Petersburg NAACP Awards Banquet!
Mel Sembler and Walter Loebenberg who was president of Straight Foundation belong to Temple Beth El, a synagogue in St. Petersburg. Craig Sher, CEO of Sembler Company, is the former vice president of the synagogue and his wife chairs the school board for the temple. Leonard Englander, Sembler's attorney, is the former president of the temple. Former temple Rabbi Stephen Moch established a relationship between Temple Beth El and the predominantly black Bethel Community Baptist Church. More recently, in 2003 Rabbi Michael Torop persuaded local NAACP president Daryl Rouson to give a talk at Temple Beth El on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. (Garnelle Jenkins was NAACP president when Betty gave her speech for the NAACP. Ms. Jenkins retired in January 2001 and was replaced by attorney Daryl Rouson.)
Rick Baker is the Republican mayor of Saint Petersburg. He is also on the Advisory Board for Straight under its current name (Drug Free America Foundation). Before he ran successfully for mayor in 2001, Rick Baker had his two children baptized in an African-American church. During his campaign Baker visited black churches on Sundays. Daryl Rouson supported Rick Baker and even accompanied Baker to Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church where pastor Rev. Joaquin Marvin called Baker "Brother Mayor" before turning over the microphone to him.
Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church may be a sought after prize for white candidates seeking black votes, but not all pastors there have been entirely immune from the corruption that seems so pandemic in Pinellas County, Florida. Soon after Rev. Marvin came to Bethel in 1999 it was learned that in 1991 he had been sentenced to two years of community control for forgery. According to the Saint Petersburg Times, state records show that Rev. Marvin was arrested several times between 1986 and 1991 on charges including "shoplifting, assault, and possession of crack and marijuana."
Rev. Marvin had been selected to replace Rev. Henry J. Lyons. Rev. Lyons had been a high level official of the National Baptist Convention (NBC) and a member of the board of directors for the national NAACP in addition to being pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. Like Vernon Jordan he was a confidant of Bill Clinton. He was a principal of the Florida Institute on Black Substance Abuse, Inc. and the Florida Institute on Drugs and Substance Abuse, Inc. On Feb. 27, 1999 Rev. Henry J. Lyons was convicted by a Pinellas-Pasco jury of grand theft and racketeering charges. The jury concluded that Rev. Lyons had swindled millions from the NBC's corporate partners. Lyons and a codefendant were accused of using the NBC's good name to swindle more than $4-million from corporations eager to market items to NBC's 8.5-million members. Lyons was also charged with two counts of grand theft for pocketing most of the $244,500 the Anti-Defamation League gave to him in 1996 to distribute to burned black churches. Lyons had some high profile attorneys including F. Lee Bailey and Anthony Battaglia. After his conviction in state court Rev. Lyons plead guilty to 5 of 54 counts in federal court in return for having 49 counts dropped. He admitted to committing bank fraud, submitting forged documents to the federal government and failing to report $1.3-million in income.
Sembler and Rouson form a coalition. The Uhuru are protesting Sembler's BayWalk for alleged racism including policies, they say, that regulate dress code which they feel are directed against blacks. Ironically, before Rouson became director of the NAACP he himself had organized protests at another St. Petersburg shopping venue, Tyrone Square Mall, to challenge what he perceived to be racially discriminatory enforcement of that mall's dress code. Rouson helped organize a diversity event at BayWalk in February 2004 where he gave a speech in which he declared, "I know Craig Sher; I know Mel Sembler. I believe these are fine, caring, committed individuals and community people. I would accuse neither of being a racist."
Earlier this year the city of St. Petersburg paid $1 million for 3.7 acres of land in Midtown. Mayor Rick Baker has said that the city intends to have a shopping center built there which will include a grocery store. The city purchased the land as an inducement to get potential developers to bid on the project. During the week of September 8 the city asked for bids to develop the site giving high noon October 17 as the bid cutoff date. The Saint Petersburg Times reported on the city's plan in an article dated September 14. In preparing that story Times reporter Sharon Bond called Craig Sher, CEO of Sembler Company, to ask him his thoughts on the city's plan for Midtown since at the groundbreaking for the University Village shopping center he had said it's time development ideas focused on Midtown. Sher responded that he had no comment on it right now.
somehow, just before high noon on October 17, the day of the bid cutoff,
the Saint Petersburg Times learned that Larry J. Newsome of Urban Development
Solutions Inc. had stated that his company would be placing a bid to develop
the Midtown property. That they hope to build a Kash n' Karry supermarket
on the site. What's more the Times reported that Darryl Rouson, director
of the local chapter of the NAACP, was a member of Urban Development Solutions
and that Sembler Company had partnered with Urban Development Solutions
for the Midtown bid! The apparent significance of this is that win or
lose the bid the Sembler Company would be advertised to the public as
a company that forms partnerships with blacks. In other words a newspaper
normally reports on the winning bidder of a contract--not on just one
potential bidder for a contract. This would seem to make the St. Petersburg
Times a coconspirator with Sembler to help him bolster his public image
in dealings with minorities. It would have been awkward for the St. Petersburg
Times to have reported on October 18 that there were eight bidders, that
XYZ company was the winning bidder, and that Sembler Company had partnered
with a minority firm which includes the director of the NAACP to unsuccessfully
bid on the contract. [Turns out Sembler Company-Urban Development was
the only bidder and got the contract anyway.]