The Yeshitela Disconnect

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

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"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.

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