The night a Florida town burned

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The Independent Online
At least five people were wounded by gunfire as the Florida retirement town of St Petersburg erupted in rioting for the second time in three weeks.

Groups of black youths roamed the streets, burning buildings and shooting at white policemen and motorists, after a white policeman was cleared of blame for shooting a black youth last month. Police responded with tear gas.

After the verdict was announced, black youths shot a 39-year-old white policeman in the leg. Another officer flying a helicopter was grazed by a bullet and three civilians were also wounded. Bullets were fired at four small helicopters hired by local television cameramen but none was reported hit.

The usually staid coastal town across the bay from Tampa - where blacks form 20 per cent of the 240,000 population - was stunned by the latest violence in a predominantly black district south of the town centre.

Although the rioting was less widespread than on 24 October, when 11 people were hurt and 28 buildings set alight, it appeared to involve more shooting and less rock-throwing.

Police and city officials blamed a radical black group known as the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which had warned that "the town is going to burn" if a jury acquitted the white officer, James Knight, of killing Tyron Lewis, 18.

The officer fired into Lewis's car after the youth refused to roll down his tinted windows and allegedly edged the car forward towards the policeman.

Although the jury of 15 whites and one black ruled on Wednesday that the shooting was "justifiable homicide", a police investigation ruled that Mr Knight should have retreated instead of shooting. He was suspended without pay for two months.

A local equal-rights activist, Perkins Shelton, said: "All the officer had to do was step aside. Instead, he shot and killed that boy. That shows how valueless black people's lives are in this community." Truman Smith, who raised Lewis, said: "To kill my son and then clear the officer is unthinkable."

After the verdict, the Uhuru movement - apparently named after the Swahili word for "freedom" - distributed leaflets calling for a "community meeting" on Wednesday evening."We will not be shot down in the streets like dogs," it said. "Get organised!" The shooting erupted around the time the meeting was due to start.

St Petersburg's mayor, David Fischer, called early yesterday for tolerance but criticised Uhuru. Fearing that the riots might spread throughout Florida, the state governor, Lawton Chiles, said the state's National Guard was on alert.

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