Eight months after the 1996 riots, the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg hired me to work with the city and the affected neighborhoods. I had never met Omali Yeshitela or anyone from his International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, but the impression I had from the media was that he was a radical thug who had caused the riots. I know that people are often much different than how they are portrayed in the media, but when I starting talking with Yeshitela in 1997 I was stunned by the disconnect between what he was saying and what I was reading. For example, the local media never reported (until now) that when the riots surrounding the police killing of TyRon Lewis occurred on Oct. 24, 1996, Yeshitela was in Oakland, Calif., and did not return to St. Petersburg until Oct. 27. The media never reported that while Yeshitela is not a pacifist — like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, he believes democracy, freedom and justice are worth physically fighting for — he and the Uhuru Movement do not use or advocate violence to achieve their political and economic goals. The media had also underreported the Uhuru Movement's anti-drug, pro-family, pro-education and physical fitness programs.
When a new round of disturbances occurred in St. Petersburg on May 12, I was again struck by the disconnect between media reports of Yeshitela's role and what I was hearing and seeing on the streets. Democracy requires a big tent, the willingness to hear and honestly engage different perspectives, and news media that help citizens access complete and accurate information.
The Uhuru Movement's perspective on what happened May 12 has not yet been told (until now).
Omali Yeshitela went home late that Wednesday afternoon, hoping to get some sleep. He had been working intensely for two days assisting the TyRon Lewis family and attorneys in their civil suit against the city, and facilitating back-channel negotiations between city representatives and the family in a failed attempt to find a compromise.Yeshitela and his city contact were concerned that a trial less than two weeks after sheriff's deputies had killed another black teenager, Marquell McCullough, under similar circumstances was asking for trouble. But they were given only two days' notice before the trial was to begin, and the family's emotions combined with the city's internal politics were proving difficult to overcome. By Wednesday evening Yeshitela and his contact agreed to step back and take a break.
Every Wednesday and Friday night the Uhuru Movement organizes informational demonstrations in St. Petersburg, "sorta like street theater," Yeshitela said last week in an interview at his St. Petersburg office on 18th Avenue and 12th Street S. Friday nights are at BayWalk and focus on how the complex treats black youth, and Wednesdays occur in various St. Pete black neighborhoods and stress the need for more economic development in those neighborhoods.
Yeshitela did not expect this Wednesday night to be eventful. "I didn't even go to the meeting on Wednesday," Yeshitela said, "and then I started getting phone calls saying the cops were out."
About two weeks prior to May 12, Yeshitela says the Uhuru Movement started getting two to three complaints a day from black residents about increased police surveillance and harassment. He did not know the TyRon Lewis civil suit was going to start in two weeks, but in hindsight Yeshitela thinks the city did and the police were preemptively clamping down. "They were stopping folks and asking, 'Are you going to start a riot?' It was bizarre," Yeshitela said, "and we were perplexed."
Tensions were building, and Yeshitela had no idea why. "They had lit the fuse and we don't know the damn fuse is lit because nobody is talking to us."
St. Petersburg Police Department Major Tim Story confirmed that the city's lawyers had notified the department "weeks in advance" that the Lewis trial was upcoming and that officers were on "heightened awareness." But Story denied the department made any "intentional" changes in their policing practices. Story also confirmed that the department heard some black residents were complaining about more aggressive policing in the weeks leading up to the trial.
After their regular 6:30 p.m. meeting on the 12th, seven Uhuru Movement members began to march through the neighborhood behind their 18th Avenue S. headquarters, and then started up 18th Avenue toward 16th Street. They hadn't gotten more than two blocks from their building when the crowd started to swell dramatically.
A local high school basketball star, who asked not to be identified, was one of the original seven marchers. "People often come out from their homes to join us," she said, "but this night was different. People were angry about Marquell McCullough being killed and the recent increases in police harassment. Kids were on their cell phones telling their friends 'it's on, it's on,' and people were coming from everywhere. Our bullhorns were soon useless because the crowd was so large and angry. We tried to get them to go back to the Uhuru house but we couldn't. As soon as we saw someone pick up a brick, we got out of there."
Police spokesman Bill Proffitt confirmed that the department has "no evidence" that Uhuru Movement members were involved in any aspects of the disturbances after this initial march.
Yeshitela's home and cell phones were now ringing constantly with the same message. "The cops are everywhere and people are flowing into the streets."
"And I'm saying, 'Get the people to the Uhuru house, get the people to the Uhuru house,'" Yeshitela recalled, his voice rising in intensity. "I want all the people off the streets. Get the people into the Uhuru house.
"Then I began to hear that the cops are every-where, the police are everywhere the people have begun to fight with the police department."
Having resigned himself to another night without sleep, Yeshitela spent the rest of the evening receiving phone updates and communicating with his city liaison. The city wanted more calm and Yeshitela wanted more justice, so they discussed ways of accomplishing both goals, focusing primarily on a settlement in the Lewis case that would show the black community that justice was possible. "In addition to dealing with Wednesday night," he said, "we were concerned about Thursday night and the weekend."
The next night, Thursday, also was intense, Yeshitela said. "Thursday night was hotter than they said it was; Thursday was hot out here. A lot of skirmishes going down with the police department." The police had gotten smarter and reduced their visibility, Yeshitela said, by pulling back their squad cars and relying much more heavily on unmarked cars. "But every time there was a target out there, it got hit."
Major Story confirmed that the police department did redeploy marked and unmarked units Thursday night, but he preferred not to discuss specific tactics.
The Uhuru Movement's primary goal each night was to pull people off the streets and into organizational meetings, Yeshitela continued.
"And that was hard, harder this time than it was in '96, because they've created something out here that's much more complicated than they can possibly imagine. One thing that I know is different now than it was in '96 is that there are young people now who are guerillas. These guys were not out to loot — the looters on the 12th were opportunists. These guys were not looters; these guys wanted to confront the occupation, and they did it eagerly and enthusiastically."
Yeshitela said the city is mistaken to think that better-trained, more heavily armed paramilitary police units are the answer. More violence from the city will be met with more violence from black youth, he said, which will then lead to even further violence from the city and then even further violence from black youth.
"They will not be able to conquer this community using military means," he said. "It just won't happen."
To strengthen the black community and avoid this escalating cycle of violence, the Uhuru Movement is trying to organize these angry black youth around a political agenda that focuses on economic development for St. Pete's poorest black neighborhoods.But these young people are skeptical the system will ever work for them, Yeshitela said. "All they see is hopelessness and despair, and a paramilitary force that is determined to control and crush them." Ironically, when Yeshitela warns the city that overly aggressive policing is making violence more likely, city leaders and some in the media blame him for advocating or inciting violence. In a May 14 editorial, the St. Petersburg Times wrote that "when Yeshitela threatens St. Petersburg, he also threatens many black residents. The Midtown residents whom Yeshitela claims to represent were the victims of most of the violence eight years ago, and they would suffer most from further tensions. They also have the greatest reason to be offended by the Uhurus' tired rhetoric "
Warning someone that throwing a match on dry kindling will cause a fire is the not the same as advocating a fire; in fact, Yeshitela said, his intent is just the opposite. "But they like to blame me because it allows them to avoid any responsibility.
"They continually act to undermine their own best interest," Yeshitela said of city leaders. "They refuse to learn."
In the meantime, the Uhuru Movement continues to pursue its agenda of strengthening — economically and politically — St. Petersburg's poor and working-class black neighborhoods. Their furniture and physical fitness businesses in St. Petersburg and around the country are thriving, their organizational membership is growing locally, nationally and internationally, and they'll be breaking ground on a $600,000 renovation to their headquarters this summer.
"And we are going to start a school next year," Yeshitela said, smiling.
But Yeshitela says the unwillingness of St. Petersburg's political and business leaders to permanently change how they interact with poor and working-class blacks continues to hinder his quest for progress. "These economic and political interests are ossified," he said. "No matter how many liberal speeches they make, they don't have a will to permanently change their approach."
For about four years after the TyRon Lewis shooting in 1996, the city's approach did change. Those changes led Yeshitela to publicly state in 1999, on the anniversary of the 1996 riots, that improvement opportunities for the city's poor and working-class blacks were greater than at any other time in his lifetime. Tensions with the police had significantly diminished, crime rates were down, and Yeshitela was working openly with the city to secure and implement community development resources.
But a new mayor was elected and a new police chief appointed, and all that collaboration ended, Yeshitela said.
"They are like the person who has a heart attack," he continued, "and for the first three months or so they eat right, exercise and follow their doctor's advice. But soon they forget about the heart attack and start doing the same old things again. And that's what we got here."
Immediately after Rick Baker was elected St. Pete's mayor in 2000, two senior city officials told me Baker had decided to marginalize Omali Yeshitela. And now the St. Pete Times editorial board is using incomplete news reporting to rationalize his demonization. Both of these actions are wrong. The politics of exclusion and division harms us all. St. Petersburg, like all communities, functions best when everyone is valued and included.
For his part, Yeshitela believes the Uhuru Movement's organizing in St. Petersburg's poor and working-class black communities will eventually make progress possible. This organizing will change the city's political calculations, he says, and cause them to seek political and economic solutions.
But until then, conflicts between the city's paramilitary police units and its poor black youth will continue, Yeshitela said. As will our sleepless nights.
As Director of the USF-St. Petersburg's Urban Initiative, Doug Tuthill partnered with the Federal Inter-agency Task Force to address the root causes of the 1996 disturbances. Tuthill is now a senior vice president with Creative Loafing Inc., which owns the Weekly Planet.