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Face of Uhuru Movement sparked Obama debate

Diop Olugbala, 31, has become the public face of the Uhurus in St. Petersburg. He confronted Barack Obama on race issues.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Diop Olugbala, 31, has become the public face of the Uhurus in St. Petersburg. He confronted Barack Obama on race issues.

ST. PETERSBURG — Diop Olugbala did what even Jesse Jackson wouldn't do.

As Barack Obama spoke in a crowded auditorium in St. Petersburg earlier this month, Olugbala, 31, publicly accused the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee of ignoring problems in the black community.

"Why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on the behalf of the oppressed and exploited?" Olugbala asked Obama.

The exchange was brief but fueled a national debate over whether Obama has shied away from problems facing blacks. Olugbala, an organizer with the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement and a recent St. Petersburg transplant, received dozens of calls from supporters and critics.

The controversy cemented Olugbala's role as the new public face of the local Uhurus, headed by founder Omali Yeshitela.

Olugbala said Monday he wasn't surprised his criticism of Obama received so much attention. He was more surprised someone hadn't confronted Obama before.

"There is no evidence that Barack will address any of the concerns of the African community, but because he is black, he gets instant support," Olugbala said. "If John McCain was to attack the black community like Obama has, he would come under fire."

He was referring to Obama's Father's Day speech, in which he urged black fathers to be more engaged with their children.

Olugbala said Obama could have addressed social problems that make it difficult for black fathers to stick around.

The Obama confrontation was carefully planned. More than 50 protesters with posters and banners rallied outside Gibbs High School. Inside, Olugbala and five others carried a banner reading, "What about the black community?" They interrupted Obama, demanding attention. The crowd heckled them, but Obama allowed Olugbala to speak.

Olugbala asked Obama why he was not giving speeches about predatory lenders, Hurricane Katrina, the Jena 6 and police shootings.

Obama said he had spoken out on those issues: "Now, I may not have spoken out the way that you would have wanted me to speak out, which is fine."

Olugbala drew more attention Monday when five Pinellas County officials issued a public plea for calm as prosecutors investigate the police shooting death of 17-year-old Javon Dawson in June. The plea was issued in response to Olugbala's recent statements about the shooting.

Olugbala was born Wali Rahman to a Muslim mother in Brooklyn in 1977. He graduated from the University of Texas-Austin in 2000 with a bachelor of arts in linguistics.

After college, he returned to New York and worked as a labor union organizer, he said. He attended the Uhurus' national convention in St. Petersburg in 2001 and was inspired by its focus on black sovereignty and socialism.

Olugbala changed his name and rose quickly through the organization, with one setback. In 2005, he was demoted from Northeast region coordinator.

"He was removed for his participation in social contradictions that have the capacity to demoralize and undermine the image of the party," according to an Uhuru newsletter. Olugbala declined to elaborate.

Olugbala was eventually appointed to the Uhurus' executive committee and named international organizer, a paid post that took him to Ghana, California and England. "He is one of a number of young Africans in this country who we are working with now who are completely dissatisfied with politics as usual," Yeshitela said.

Olugbala moved to Midtown four months ago with his wife and two children.

Days before he publicly rebuked Obama, Olugbala rallied a group at City Hall protesting the Dawson case.

"Regardless of nationality, you have a responsibility to be on the right side of justice," Olugbala said. "There's a Javon Dawson in every city. There's a Barack Obama in every city, too."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Face of Uhuru Movement sparked Obama debate 08/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:28pm]
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