The Yeshitela Disconnect

The Omali Yeshitela I know isn't the Yeshitela I see in the media

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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.

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