ST. PETERSBURG –– The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement said Tuesday its members will vigorously campaign against a nearly $700,000 plan to bolster security and upgrade the sidewalks and other areas around BayWalk, the city's struggling downtown entertainment complex.
The organization called on city officials to redirect the funding toward economic development in African-American neighborhoods. They also criticized Mayor Rick Baker's plan to privatize the north sidewalk of Second Avenue N because the effort aims to stymie free speech.
"They are not going to peacefully give a sidewalk away to BayWalk, a failing institution," said president Chimurenga Waller during a news conference outside City Hall Tuesday morning.
Pressed for further detail, Waller would only say, "It's not going to be peace if they give the sidewalk away."
Waller said he hopes to organize a protest at City Hall Thursday when the City Council meets to take an initial vote on the plan.
Kobina Bantushango, an Uhuru organizer, called BayWalk "an institution symbolic of white economic development."
"The white bosses are now willing to violate First Amendment rights and ban free speech for corporate interests," he said.
Waller said the BayWalk effort is part of City Hall's larger plan to push black people out of St. Petersburg.
"We do believe that it is directly tied to the gentrification of the African community," he said.
The Uhuru organization has a long, complicated relationship with City Hall and its efforts to curb what critics perceive as disruptive behavior at BayWalk.
At one point, Uhuru members demonstrated at BayWalk weekly for eight months after one group member was arrested there.
The organization also protested previous efforts to privatize the sidewalks along BayWalk.
Rick Mussett, the city's development administrator, said the entire city has a stake in the revitalization of BayWalk, which was built with at least $20 million in public dollars.
"We have been working a long time to turn BayWalk around," he said.
The $700,000 investment would be used to improve city property, such as new lighting in the nearby parking garage, street signs and sidewalk improvements, Mussett said.
Some of the money can only be used for specific purposes. $280,000 comes from federal dollars earmarked for energy improvement projects. $144,000 can only be used for parking projects, he said.
The city does not have a plan to push blacks out of St. Petersburg, Mussett said.
Protestors will still be able to gather on the south sidewalk along BayWalk, he said.
"The new owners feel that it is absolutely crucial for them to manage the center and BayWalk will not be turned around if that does not happen," Mussett said. "It's pure crowd control."
Baker has said there is a perception that BayWalk is not safe for families.
"We have to be aggressive to respond to the community's concerns over security," Baker said last month when he unveiled the BayWalk plan. "There's a perception of security issues at BayWalk. We have to address that perception, whether it's the reality or not."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.