If we can outlaw fireworks like cherry bombs and other such things in the state of Florida because it's dangerous, and their tools of death and destruction, certainly we can outlaw pipes —the charade is they are just a tobacco accessory. And the fact is, I don't want to stop at the headshops. I want the manufacturers who distribute to the headshops. ...
Across the country, organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League are losing members. What do these organizations need to do to remain relevant?
First of all, we have a great new president, Ben Jealous, who is 35 years old and a friend of my brother. But from what I remember, the NAACP for me had become irrelevant. It had become an elitist organization of older people who seemed to be content to just every now and again show up on something. They were drawing on their memories of the civil rights movement, of Bloody Sunday, of Selma, of the water hoses and the dogs and those kinds of things. But those memories were foreign to some of the younger people growing up who didn't live through them, and therefore the organization to them was irrelevant. I went back to the basics. I looked at the mission statement. It said the NAACP is supposed to not keep the peace, but ensure the PESE — the political, the education, the social and the economic plight of minorities. And within that framework, to identify racism, and every time it rears its ugly head, knock it out.
I saw the branch here as one concentrating on education. Well, the president for 21 years, Garnelle Jenkins, was a teacher. She was an educator. Education was her passion. That's what [the NAACP] was really involved in around here. But there were three other things that were in the mission statement. So what I did was create a different emphasis. I said the younger group of people care about economics, they care about social and some of them even care about political. So, as the new branch president for the first time in 21 years, I redirected the focus away from education so much to include economic, social and political.
What is social? You can't get a company to come into Midtown because there are drugs and crime and they don't want to subject their employees to it. So we have to deal with that social discrimination. And how do we deal with it? Clean up the drugs and crime and then companies will want to come. Political was we can't get certain people elected; we don't have representation on certain political bodies. Change it. Economics is holding significant jobs and positions in corporate America as well as getting certain dollars directed to African Americans and the black community. To me that is what we did. That was the secret of the St. Petersburg branch becoming a vocal and visible force.
Do you think Sweetbay has had a significant impact on economic development and quality of life in Midtown?
Without a doubt. You have folks who can shop there now rather than going way to 34th Street, or going way down to Ninth Street, or going to Coquina Key. People can now shop in the 'hood at a quality store like Sweetbay. It's created jobs. Over 100 jobs were created in that shopping center.
Most importantly, it's created hope. A vision that change can be done, and a hope that there can be a better future in a distressed neighborhood. It is now a seed and a catalyst for the other two corners. So I think it's made a significant impact.
You've received a lot of criticism for making money off that Sweetbay deal.
The only thing you saw that criticized that is the Uhurus' statement. That's the only thing that's on the Internet or on the blogs that accused me of that, and criticized me for that. You will not find anyone in America — and I will pay you $1,000 if you do — any other credible organization or person who made that statement, because the true powers know that is absolutely false and it was hype talk by [the Uhurus].
The fact of the matter is they wouldn't let us do it to the extent of profiting. Not Republic Bank. Not Bank of America. Not AmSouth. Not SouthTrust. Not even some of the majority developers that we sought assistance from. They forced us to go and do it as a nonprofit. Which meant there was no stock. Which meant you couldn't benefit financially. We had to give away a certain amount of money. Did we make some money on it? Yeah, we made a little money. Did we make what other developers make when they do private venture development? Hell, no.