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The night of rioting that erupted after a black motorist was shot dead by a white policeman reflects years of tension in a sunny enclave once seen as the prototype for America's new Sunbelt cities.

After a meeting with local black leaders Friday, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer expressed the sad confusion felt by many in his city of 240,000 in the wake of the riot.

"I'm very disappointed this happened, because we thought we were doing real well," he said.

But the explosion of violence by hundreds of black residents of inner St. Petersburg exposed the growing anger of the black 20 percent of the population in a city best known as a sunny resort mecca for retirees and tourists.

The city earlier this month was host to the campaign debate between Vice President Gore and Republican challenger Jack F. Kemp, an event civic leaders hoped would boost its image as one of the communities of the future.

"It's ironic, since the city has always been a mixture of Northern and Southern cultures -- a prototype for the new Sunbelt cities," said Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida, current president of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter and author of a history of St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg's civil rights roots run deep. Its newspaper was one of the first in the South to back moves for school desegregation, and black residents had a powerful political voice.

"In those days, blacks voted here in larger numbers than in almost any other city in the south," Arsenault said.

But as the city grew, its race relations grew more strained and broke into outright hostility in 1978, when a race riot erupted after police shot a young black man to death during an attempted arrest.

Simmering black resentment of police continued throughout the 1980s, exacerbated by increasingly strained relations between the police and the black community.

St. Petersburg's volatile racial mix also includes vocal militant black nationalists such as Joe Waller, an activist who founded the local African People's Socialist Party, modeled upon the Black Panthers, and advocated total separation of the races.

Some of sympathizers of this group took to the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on Friday to call for an outside investigation of the shooting. Some advocated release of everyone arrested during the rioting.

"They (police) have been asking for it for a long time. The people get harassed and arrested. Our community gym gets raided. You see the people respond against police terror," said Sobukewe Bambaata, a local spokesman for the militant National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

But other residents, black and white, went about their business Friday in the city, where only a few blocks can separate the neo-Mediterranean mansions of the wealthy from the crumbling bungalows of the poor.

Lewis Johnson, a black employee at Connies BBQ, a restaurant near the scene of the shooting, said he was working as usual but blamed the police for the violence.

"The police did nothing to dispel the crowd, no police went into the crowd to talk to people, tell them they would investigate," he said. "No senior officials came with megaphones to talk to the people. By separating themselves like that, the police allowed the polarization to take effect."

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