Uprising in Mississippi

LA TIMES Friday, November 1, 1996

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Authorities declared a state of emergency in the Mississippi Delta town of Leland after hundreds of angry residents rioted over the mysterious death of a black motorist. After surveying a trail of damaged police cars and businesses, Mayor Sam Thomas imposed a 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew through the weekend. Leland is a town of about 6,300 people on the western cusp of the state's impoverished Delta region. The disturbance began late Wednesday when about 400 protesters marched on the local police department in hopes of addressing officials about the Oct. 17 death of 29-year-old motorist Aaron White, authorities said. Initially, police said an officer killed White in an exchange of gunfire after the man crashed into a tree at night in a rural area. But on Monday, authorities ruled White's death a suicide.

Copyright Los Angeles Times

The Boston Globe Curfew Arrests Cause More Anger After Violence Over Shooting Death By Gina Holland, Associated Press, 11/01/96; 11:23

LELAND, Miss. (AP) - A curfew that was supposed to quell rioting led to 19 arrests on Halloween night and more racial animosity today in this town where a black motorist died under disputed circumstances. Protesters contend a white police officer shot the man two weeks ago; police said he accidentally killed himself. After angry marauders pitched firebombs and bricks into downtown store fronts Wednesday night, the town's mostly white leadership imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew through Monday.

More than a hundred officers descended on the town at dusk Thursday, handcuffing and jailing people walking down the street. State Rep. Jimmy Thornton, accused police of handling one person roughly and jailing people who were innocently returning home. Thornton, county leader for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Mayor Sam Thomas, who is white, misled the black community by saying the curfew would only apply to people ages 18 and under.

``There was a misunderstanding on that,'' Thomas said. ``It applies to everybody. A curfew is a curfew.'' Thornton said he and other black leaders would meet with city officials Saturday to discuss the unrest only if authorities apologized and released those arrested. Two homemade firebombs were tossed at a house and a business Thursday night, but with no damage or injuries. ``They were definitely protesting the curfew,'' said James Hastings of the Leland Volunteer Fire Department.

Roadblocks kept visitors out of this west-central Mississippi town of 6,000. Officers with flashlights and riot shields questioned pedestrians and stopped passing cars. Stores were shut and the only light was the red and blue flashes of patrol cars.

Children in costume went trick-or-treating earlier than normal.

``The young people are fed up,'' said a protest organizer, L.C. Gatewood, who said the curfew and arrests are ``just provoking more trouble.'' ``They're locking us in the house like animals,'' Virdie Cannon said. ``If we let them treat us like that, we'll become animals.'' The violence erupted after a group met at a high school, marched Wednesday night to the police headquarters and was rebuffed in an effort to meet with officials about the Oct. 17 shooting.

Protesters threw bottles and rocks at the building, and then marched to the downtown area where they destroyed the window fronts of 10 businesses. Two businesses were hit with Molotov cocktails but the fires were quickly extinguished, Police Chief Mike Dees said. The marchers were protesting the death of Aaron White, 29, owner of a TV repair shop. White died from a gunshot wound to the head after he fled a traffic accident, police said. Gatewood and other protesters claimed that police killed White and were trying to cover it up.

Police originally said White was shot when a white officer, Jackie Blaylock, returned fire after a gun went off in the dark as Blaylock was looking for the driver of the car that had crashed.

Police later concluded that what Blaylock had heard was White's gun accidentally going off as he crawled through bushes while trying to avoid the officers. Police said it was that shot that killed White. The medical examiner said White died from a .38-caliber bullet, the caliber of the gun found in his hand. Blaylock's was a .40-caliber gun, they said.

Dees blamed the rioting on ``young drug dealers, gang members.'' ``They don't care anything about that man or his family,'' he said.

The unrest came a week after riots in St. Petersburg, Fla., which began when a white officer shot a black man to death during a traffic stop. This information is passed along for non-profit research purposes only.

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