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Central Avenue’s stories: How George Floyd’s death conjures memories of 1967, 2014 deaths of unarmed Black men in Tampa

"The reason for unrest and people being frustrated with law enforcement is that this has been a cyclical problem for decades,” said Travis Bell of USF.

The harrowing video of George Floyd’s slow, agonizing death sparked riots, weeks of protests and cries for justice. For many, it showed what Black America has protested for years: that police brutality was an ongoing problem in their communities, including accusations of it in Tampa.

"The reason for unrest and people being frustrated with law enforcement is that this has been a cyclical problem for decades,” said Travis Bell, assistant professor at the University of South Florida.

In Tampa, one of the most pivotal moments was the shooting death of Martin Chambers by a white officer in 1967.

"In June of 1967, and he and some of his friends were running away from a site of a burglary in downtown Tampa,” said historian Fred Hearns. “They lived in Central Park Village, at least Martin did. And he was running back toward his home when he was shot and killed by a police officer, a white police officer."

“He had been shot in the back,” said Hearns.

After learning Chambers had been shot and killed by law enforcement, chaos ensued along Central Avenue, Tampa’s business and entertainment district during times of segregation.

“There were four days of civil disturbances after that,” said Hearns. “Buildings were burned down, businesses had to close. Most of them never reopened. Central Avenue got a terrible reputation after that.”

But some remember Central Avenue’s better days.

“There are a lot of good memories from Central Avenue,” said Frank Gray. “I just remember the camaraderie.”

Gray was an officer with the Tampa Police Department. On June 11, 1967, he was returning to work from a bad accident. His first day back made up for the lost time.

"It comes over that there was a break-in at Tampa Photo Supply,” Gray said. "The officers were chasing three or four Black males who were running towards the projects."

One of them was 19-year-old Martin Chambers.

“Because of the seriousness of the injury, the young man was put into the police car of the officers that shot him. And the officer that shot him, drove him to Tampa General Hospital,” said Gray.

Gray navigated a dual world. As an African American police officer, he was both Black and “blue.” He understood the struggles and dangers of being in law enforcement but also understood the struggles and dangers of being Black.

“When you understand is something going on for 400 years. It's not something that just happened today in this time,” Gray said of racism that has spilled over to strained relationships in law enforcement with the Black community. “I think a lot of people…did not understand the frustrations that within the Black community. When they saw what happened to George Floyd on video...now they…see that there is really a problem.”

Travis Bell, who released a documentary on Central Avenue, underscored the connections between Chambers’ and Floyd’s deaths.

"The sad truth is that the story of Martin Chambers, we just see repeated every year in each city, right? Different cities have different names as a result,” he said.

So, the outcry over George Floyd's death is something experts say predates what happened in Minneapolis a year ago.

"It hasn't just been a flashpoint moment with George Floyd…the story sadly continues…” said Bell. “To me, that's the interesting part about why it's important for us to recognize history."

Tampa was one of more than 150 cities with racial unrest in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson formed the Kerner Commission that same year to examine the cause. The group studied eight cities. Tampa was the first listed in the report.

"It traces a lot of these historical moments of police brutality and then what they termed as riots,” said Bell.

One of the most cited passages of the Kerner Commission report reads: "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal." The report blamed discrimination and said segregation and poverty have created destructive conditions in black ghettoes totally unknown to white Americans.

"The Kerner Commission report points a finger basically at the United States and says look, this is going on in these racialized communities, and we should do something about it,” said Bell.

The report says Tampa leaders prided themselves on good race relations. However, in 1967, there were no Blacks in power to represent their needs, most Black children never reached the eighth grade and more than half of Black men worked in unskilled jobs.

"There was a lot of frustration that came out, and it was expressed through the disturbance,” said Gray.

Hearns said the unrest of 2020 is been bubbling for years, and cites the riot of 1967 in Tampa is an example.

"That's all they could see, was the violence. But, that was a reaction to decades and decades of segregation and discrimination and racism. And that's the same story today,” he said. “That's why these young people (are) out marching. George Floyd, of course, that was the match that lit the fire that burned down the house of, I guess, neglect and denial..."

George Floyd's death sparked worldwide outrage. Cellphones and social media made that possible.

However, for a similar death in 2014, there were no hashtags or viral videos, just the dashcam video from a Tampa police cruiser off Central Avenue…a few miles from where Martin Chambers was killed.

"There's a certain level of manhood that was lost,” Kareem Young told 10 Tampa Bay in 2020 after George Floyd’s death.

His father, 63-year-old Arthur Green Jr., was driving near Central Avenue and Paris when someone called 911. The police report says he was driving erratically and hit two cars. When police arrived, the officers tried to get Green out of the car but said he refused commands. Eventually, they used force to get him on the ground.

Green was having a diabetic emergency.

"Officer Portman put his knee on Mr. Green's back and neck while the other officer pushed his knees forward. This caused what's called positional asphyxiation,” Paul Rebein told 10 Tampa Bay in 2020. “It's the same thing that happened to George Floyd, where your lungs are compressed. You're unable to breathe, and sadly, Mr. Green died as a result of the actions of the police department."

The official autopsy from Hillsborough County says Green died a natural death from an acute hypoglycemic episode due to diabetes. An independent report adds restraint asphyxia and says officers held Green down for three minutes and 21 seconds.

There are no criminal charges in the case.

The Green family is suing the city of Tampa. A city representative said no one could comment on the case due to pending litigation.

"It's disappointing for something to happen systematically and continuously…Sadly enough, our case isn't the only case like this...” said Young.

"During the time of my father's demise and here today as we look at George Floyd but we look all across the nation, we start seeing the commonality...” he said. “And if it takes these types of sacrificial moments for people to notice...then, we are reluctantly in a position to say, 'Okay, let's make this mean something greater than just what happened to our family...'"

The civil trial related to Arthur Green Jr.’s death is slated for December 2021.

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