The Thursday night riots in a predominantly black area just south of the town centre followed the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white policeman who had flagged him down for speeding.
After calm returned at dawn yesterday, town officials and black community leaders met to discuss black grievances and try to prevent further violence. With only 11 days to go until the presidential election, the White House expressed concern over the riots, which are among the worst in Florida since civil rights confrontations of the Sixties.
After an election campaign in which race issues had rarely surfaced, the violence came as an ugly reminder of what may be the most serious simmering problem in the United States. Florida was among several southern states hit by the burning of black churches earlier this year. The cases were never solved but were widely blamed on white extremist groups.
The trouble began shortly after dark on Thursday near the Thunderdome baseball and ice hockey stadium just south of the town centre. Witnesses said two white police officers, a man and a woman, stopped two black teenagers for apparent speeding. Police said later that the male officer opened fire after the teenage driver tried to run him over. Local residents insisted the car had simply rolled or lurched forward, possibly after the driver stalled it in gear. One officer fired several shots at the driver, Tyron Lewis, 18, who later died in hospital.
Over the next few hours, hundreds of blacks took to the streets, torching 28 buildings including houses, a post office and a community centre also serving as a local police station. Rioters showered police and firemen with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. One policeman was shot in the arm, a photographer was beaten and 20 people were arrested.
Howard Troxler, political editor of the St Petersburg Times said: "There were simmering tensions between residents and the previous police chief, who was fired amid allegations he was a racist."Reuse content