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For so few, Uhuru claims the attention of so many

Published Nov. 15, 1996|Updated Sep. 17, 2005

They're so few, and their confrontational style has won them so few friends to now, but the Uhurus have become the lightning rod in this battle for control of some fight-weary neighborhoods.

To hear how the city's police chief, a grand jury and some City Council members describe them, members of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement must be part of something vast, powerful and sinister.

"I really don't know why you don't have an arrest warrant for just about every one of those leaders," council member Bea Griswold said Thursday of the Uhuru group.

The reality, though, is that Uhuru (pronounced oo-HOO-roo, Swahili for "freedom") members typically number about 40 when they show up to stage a rally or demonstration.

In the three weeks since the shooting, more mainstream black organizations have rallied strongly to the Uhurus, even though their methods widely diverge. As police intensify their attempts to isolate the Uhurus, the other groups embrace them all the more.

In a nutshell, the other groups are finding it easy to identify themselves as the minority that the police would isolate from the mainstream. As African-Americans, they already are, in fact, a minority in a majority world.

"We're a small organization. That's all I'll say," Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela said Thursday. "We don't talk numbers."

Despite their meager numbers, "They are calling the shots right now. This city is in utter turmoil over this one small, militant group," said Council of Neighborhood Associations president Karen Mullins. She expressed shock at how much attention and how much tolerance the Uhuru members have received in recent weeks.

Her exasperation stems from the fact that even with their tiny numbers, the Uhurus seem to command much attention from the news media.

News outlets, though, have been paying attention to the group because the police, local public officials, a sitting grand jury and the groups that have rallied around the Uhurus have urged it.

At least two City Council members said Thursday that they have wondered why Uhuru leaders were not arrested long ago for urging violence.

On Tuesday, for example, at a forum to promote citizen input, Uhuru members had faced the council and predicted more violence if the grand jury cleared St. Petersburg police Officer James Knight in the Oct. 24 shooting death of TyRon Lewis, a young black man initially stopped for an auto violation.

It was that same grand jury that determined Wednesday that Knight was justified in the shooting. A night of shooting, looting and arson ensued, and the grand jury's report was ready to single out the perpetrators. In so many words, it was the Uhurus.

"We are concerned that there is a certain group in St. Petersburg that continues to advocate violence as a remedy for perceived or real social problems," the report said, noting the calls for executions and for civil violence.

"We reject this attempt to intimidate this body and we, the members of the Pinellas Grand Jury, call upon all citizens of this community to likewise reject this call for violence and anarchy," the jurors wrote.

In press conferences this week, police Chief Darrel Stephens has regularly pointed to the group as the one to watch should violence erupt. On Wednesday, Stephens and other officials held up for television cameras a leaflet distributed by the Uhurus that talks about "killer cops James Knight and Sandra Minor."

The Uhuru group is largely the creation of Yeshitela, a 55-year-old St. Petersburg native known until the early 1980s as Joe Waller Jr. He has advocated revolutionary black political, economic and social liberation causes since the mid-1960s, when he pulled down a City Hall mural that he and others found racially offensive.

In the early 1980s, Yeshitela took his organization to Oakland, Calif., where it served as a radical gadfly in local issues. Last year, he moved the African People's Socialist Party back to St. Petersburg, with the Uhurus as an adjunct of that group.

Yeshitela's rhetoric is so hot that he often alienates others in the black community. He has had little use for religious leaders, for example, whom he dismisses as those who would urge their followers to pray, be calm, quiet and controlled: just the way police officers would want them to be.

But after the Oct. 24 shooting and the subsequent unrest, several religious leaders, Yeshitela and a handful of other activists banded together to say they would not be divided on the issue of social justice for all African-Americans.

At a Thursday press conference called by the alliance members, it was classic Yeshitela.

Stephens, for instance, has said that one reason police targeted certain Uhuru members on Wednesday was because of threats made, including threats to execute the police officers involved in the shooting as well as Stephens and Mayor David Fischer.

Yeshitela said those were not threats of a street execution.

Instead, he said, the Uhurus held a mock trial, declared the officers and officials guilty and said they should be executed in the state electric chair "as are many blacks who are found guilty of murder," he said. "We don't have an electric chair."

_ Staff writers Adam C. Smith and Sue Landry contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press.