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Uhurus vow to remove any mural that replaces one torn down 50 years ago in St. Petersburg

Gazi Kodzo, 26, the President of the local chapter of the Uhuru Movement, stands on a table Tuesday while he and a group of about two dozen protestors shut down a public arts committee meeting in St. Petersburg. They were protesting the city's attempt to replace a City Hall mural that Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela tore down 50 years ago. For that act of protest, Yeshitela was sentenced to 2?-years in prison. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Gazi Kodzo, 26, the President of the local chapter of the Uhuru Movement, stands on a table Tuesday while he and a group of about two dozen protestors shut down a public arts committee meeting in St. Petersburg. They were protesting the city's attempt to replace a City Hall mural that Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela tore down 50 years ago. For that act of protest, Yeshitela was sentenced to 2?-years in prison. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jul. 20, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

The City Hall Stairwell Mural Public Art Project Committee has spent months working to replace a mural torn down in protest 50 years ago by Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela.

In recent weeks, the committee has sought input from Yeshitela, who served 2½ years in prison for tearing down a mural that depicted black entertainers in caricature entertaining white beachgoers.

On Tuesday, the committee got its answer: Two dozen Uhuru protesters shut down the meeting just four minutes after it started.

Members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement declared that only they can pick the next mural — and they'll tear down anything the city puts up.

As committee chairwoman Gwendolyn Reese began to approve the past meeting's minutes, Gazi Kodzo, president of the local Uhuru chapter, shouted over her and criticized the entire process.

"The city of St. Pete thinks that it has the legitimacy to replace that mural," Kodzo said. "The same city that locked up (Yeshitela) for his heroic act."

Committee members had tried to tell Kodzo to wait until the public could speak. When he refused, Reese continued to approve minutes while Kodzo, 26, read a statement.

Kodzo didn't let up. Reese canceled the meeting.

As committee members began to pack up and leave, Kodzo jumped on the meeting table while protesters cheered him on.

"Tear it down! Tear it down!" the group chanted as it stormed out of the room.

Reese said all the committee was doing was following its own meeting rules.

"Public comment was next," she said. "And public comment could have gone on all day, but they didn't let us do that."

Yeshitela did not attend the meeting.

In February, the Uhurus interrupted the committee and protested the city's attempt to replace the mural. The committee invited Yeshitela to participate. But neither he nor his organization showed up to a June 28 public meeting. So the committee sent a formal invitation on June 29.

When the committee followed up on July 7, requesting a response by the next day, a Uhuru spokeswoman called the deadline "an insult." Yeshitela told the Tampa Bay Times on July 8 that the request for a response was the first correspondence from the arts committee that he'd received.

As protesters shouted in the lobby and on the steps in front of City Hall on Tuesday, an artist shouted back. Geary Taylor of St. Petersburg said he came to the meeting with a resume, hoping he could work on the replacement.

As he and Kodzo yelled at each other, protesters shouted "sellout" and a racial slur at Taylor, who is black.

"I didn't expect that," Taylor said.

He said he thought the Uhurus, the city and local artists should work together in the selection process.

"You aren't the only deciding factor on this," he said of the protesters.

But Kodzo said the group is uninterested in working with the city.

"We are here to let this arts committee know that they are illegitimate," he said.

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"If they decide to put anything else up … and we don't agree with it, we're tearing it down," he added.

He said the group has decided on what will replace the mural and will announce its plans Sunday at the Uhuru house on 18th Avenue S.

After the meeting, committee member Herb Snitzer said he wasn't surprised by the protest, which he called "grand theater."

"They have a tendency of doing that," he said.

Contact Langston Taylor at 727-893-8368. Follow @LangstonITaylor.

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