I do not understand the philosophy or the mission of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. A few times, I have groused when local news outlets have given the group a lot of ink and air time.
Each time, though, after coming to my senses, I realize anew that the Uhurus play a useful, perhaps essential, role in our social and political conduct.
Their very presence and their protests and irksome statements remind the rest of us of our core values as a democracy, forcing us to grudgingly put those values into practice. When, for example, Uhuru members challenge school board and judicial decisions or protest police actions — especially the shootings of young black males — we must acknowledge their right to legally demonstrate and speak freely.
The organization was its controversial self last week when seven of its members disrupted Sen. Barack Obama's speech at the Gibbs High School gymnasium
They yelled at the senator for his reluctance to vigorously address black issues. They pointed at him and raised a banner with the taunting query: "What about the black community, Obama?" It was vintage America.
The Democratic presidential hopeful was clearly surprised by the demonstration. This was, after all, the first time a group of blacks had dared to publicly protest at an Obama rally. Until now, supporters nationwide have uncritically imbibed Obama's prophetic rhetoric, cheering and chanting and applauding.
As expected, the crowd of nearly 1,000 worshipers screamed down the Uhuru members. Someone seized the banner, and the Secret Service intervened. Ever the shrewd politician and knowing that the untidy scene was being televised for the 24-hour news cycle, Obama invited one of the protesters, Diop Olugbala, to ask a question.
When his devotees booed the man, Obama admonished them, saying, "Hold on a second. I want everybody to be respectful."
Olugbala's question — alluding to police shootings, predatory lenders, the Jena 6 and Hurricane Katrina — was one that should be asked each time Obama woos a predominantly black audience to remind him that he cannot run from race no more than he can transcend it.
"In the face of all these attacks that are clearly being made on the African community," Olugbala said, "why is it that you have not had the ability to not, one time, speak to the interests and even speak on behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or the black community in this country?"
Obama's response was a bit of talking down to and a bit of a lecture: "On each of these issues that you've mentioned, I have spoken out, and I've spoken out forcefully. Now, I may not have spoken out the way that you would have wanted me to speak, which is fine."
The crowd went crazy with approval.
Earnest civil libertarians appreciate the democratic esprit the Uhurus brought to the Gibbs gymnasium. Heckling is the American way. Hecklers have shown up at some events for Sen. John McCain, and his supporters have not reacted as angrily as those of Obama. McCain's supporters apparently understand the spontaneous give-and-take inherent to the political process, especially on the stump. Obama's folk seem to think their man is beyond heckling.
A letter published in the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday represents the anti-free speech strain among Obama supporters. The writer attacks the Uhurus for heckling Obama and the Times for its coverage.
Here is part of the letter: "The opening of Saturday's article in the Tampa Bay section puts the focus on heckling by the Uhuru group. Actually, the group disrupted less than 15 minutes of more than an hourlong event. Your imbalanced article plus an unnecessary photo of an Uhuru leader gave the group the success it could not achieve by itself: promoting itself as an important leader for the African-American community in St. Petersburg.
"The overwhelming and consistent booing by the largely black audience demonstrated they were present to support Obama, not the Uhurus.
"Do you always give equal time to hecklers at major speeches?"
Obviously, the largely black audience was there to worship Obama, not the Uhurus. The unacknowledged irony, however, is that American blacks should be the very last minority to boo an exercise of free speech and civil disobedience — even when Obama is the target.
Jim Crow was dismantled primarily because blacks, along with their loyal white friends, demonstrated and otherwise agitated, knowing full well that they would be attacked by white cops and dogs and by white firemen with high-pressure water hoses.
Obama's black supporters should never lose sight of this special part of their protest heritage. They also should remember that vigilance is the price of freedom; that protest is a clear sign of being vigilant. The Uhurus understand this dynamic.