By Alex Pickett, Published 07.02.08
Sphere of influence: Since Yeshitela (formerly Joe Waller) tore down a racist mural in St. Petersburg's City Hall, he has earned the respect (and ire) of St. Petersburg residents both black and white. Though once praised by high-profile politicians, he has distanced himself from City Hall and prominent African-American organizations in recent years. He continues to remain active in promoting African self-determination in other U.S. cities and Africa.
How he makes a difference: Some historians credit Yeshitela for ushering in the civil-rights movement in St. Pete, and even some white politicians admit he has empowered the city's black community. Through the Uhuru Movement, he has helped create retail stores, a gym, sports leagues and a radio station. Whenever there is an issue involving African-Americans and police, he becomes involved; a day after the shooting death of Javon Dawson by a St. Petersburg police officer earlier this month, he called a press conference condemning the shooting and telling witnesses that they could talk to a lawyer representing Dawson's mother.
CL: Describe to me what led you to tearing down the City Hall painting in the 1960s. Was it a turning point for you?
Yeshitela: I don't think tearing the mural down was a turning point for me. I had already come to a turning point. That's why I was down there. I was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I had made a clear choice that was the organization I would be associated with because of its black power demand, and because of its boldness and willingness to take on struggle where traditional civil rights organizations seemed unable to go.We had been involved in letter-writing campaigns to the mayor about that mural, because the mural was horrible. It was an 8-by-4-foot display in the center of city power. It represented to us a relationship. It was like locking this relationship that they perceived as one between the African and white community that should exist forever. It was a caricature of black people. It wasn't a caricature of all the people; it was black people that were caricatured on there.
So after a series of letter writings and a number of marches down to City Hall, on one occasion, I walked into City Hall with five other Africans and tore it from the wall. I'll never forget this nice woman who was standing upstairs and she says, "You black bastard!" And we walked out with the painting.
This was where the whole concept of black power was still exciting to a lot of people around the world and police were unaccustomed to dealing with forces like us. So we started marching down the street carrying the mural. We made it to Central [Avenue] -- I don't remember how far on Central -- and this cop grabbed me. I'll never forget he was trembling. He grabbed me, and he was literally trembling. Others pulled me away and I ended up running down the street, dragging the mural behind me. I got to the back parking lot of Webb City and was stopped and arrested and went to jail.
It was an uproar. It was media from everywhere. They held some of the longest court hearings that went on late into the night. They were historic in terms of their duration into the night. I was charged with I think 11 offenses: disturbing the peace, inciting a riot, resisting arrest with violence, resisting arrest without violence, destruction of public property, just a whole array of charges were thrown at me. I think I was tried for disturbing the peace and probably destruction of public property and sentenced on one of those to six months. I spent a lot of time in the city jail first. They used to keep me isolated, because if I was with other black prisoners it created a problem for them. So they put me in this basement that they had in the city jail and on occasion they would bring little white students through on tours through the jail. And they would bring them down to the hole to see me.
It was an alarming thing for the city officials, and for the state as well, because what happened is it mobilized citizens throughout the state of Florida. Because it was kind of direct action that was talked about a lot philosophically at that time in the civil rights movement.
What was the turning point for you?
I used to -- before there were sit ins and things like this, before Rosa Parks, when there was the little yellow line in the back of the city buses here -- I refused to go behind the yellow line when my mother wasn't with me, to her dismay. I'm the guy who would go to Webb City and would refuse to drink out of the colored water fountains and would go on the fourth floor, where they had the snack bar. Africans on the first floor could eat as long as we were standing, but we could not eat at the snack bar where they sit down. I would go and do it and sit down and they'd kick me out and what have you. Until my high school English teacher learned what I was doing and sort of intervened to stop me from doing that.
It seems like there's been a history of sorts. In fact, one of the reasons I left high school -- I quit high school in my senior year because I was in one of these special classes that's supposedly for bright people and I had this professor who was well recognized as being a top notch professor. He made the statement in class one day that Africans would have to earn the respect of white people and I had a serious disagreement. ... We had struggles around that.
My text for learning how to read was the St. Petersburg Times, and I could read while I was still in diapers. And the stories I grew up reading were of lynchings and other terrible things happening to African people. So it was something that I was always conscious of and to the dismay of my parents, never comfortable with, and always struggled against.
Since Mayor Baker began his Midtown initiatives, have things gotten better in Midtown?
Worse. In the sense that what Baker has done is he co-opted much of the apparent leadership in this community. I don't have to mention Darryl Rouson, but one figure that was of great significance to this community was Goliath Davis. Because he did a tremendous job of containing that terrible police organization temporarily and because of that created a lot of hostility in certain sectors of the white community and certain ideological components of that community. This was an aspect of the city that Baker needed to win as well. To pacify that community without alienating the African community, he kicked Goliath Davis upstairs. I say "kicked upstairs" but I think it was like an elevator because Goliath didn't seem to mind it too much, this concept of deputy mayor. Without a budget. We've seen this kind of thing happen and the conditions of the community continue to deteriorate.
The Hope Six thing that got rid of Jordan Park proper in the name of helping the people. Now only half the people that were there are now there. We can't even trace the others because it wasn't required for them to know what happened to other people. In this community, the white guys in pick-up trucks and clipboards coming through, this massive gentrification where so many people have lost their homes and been kicked out, all in the name of helping us.
And in helping us, the Sweetbay along with other things they have done to help us, raised the value of the property, hence the property taxes, makes it difficult for these old women who have been left now to pay the property taxes and some of that has resulted in loss of their homes. So it hasn't been better at all, it's been worse.
And now you have more return to the policing. What the guy whose there now -- Chuck Harmon -- he brought the [Pinellas County] Sheriff's Department back in. And the sheriff's department has a reputation for rabid anti-African sentiments in that department. They did terrible things in this community following the rebellions that happened here. The sheriff's department is notorious in their brutality. Where as Goliath had told them to keep out, Harmon brought them back in. So after eight years -- they had gone eight years without a single African being killed by a cop -- the first was killed by the sheriff's department, two were killed by the sheriff's department, and now this thing with Javon by the [St. Petersburg] Police Department.
The city reminds me of a heart patient. It has a heart attack, and promises the doctor "I'm going to change my ways, and I'm going to live differently now," and then forget and go back to the same things that started it. That's what this city reminds me of. So it's worse than it was before.
What's the answer to economic development in Midtown?
It is something the city cannot do, that is one thing I'm aware of. They cannot participate in it; it would go against interests of some very entrenched economic forces here. The significance of the African population here is that it is a tremendously important kind of labor reserve for us. And it's cheap labor. And at the point that this community can fend for itself then its labor becomes competitive in terms of what has to be paid for it, and it won't ever happen.
African people are going to have make revolution to be free. We are going to have to be a self-determining people, a people that do not have to rely on the goodwill of anybody else. There are no people on the planet Earth that has ever been able to change their circumstances because of somebody else's good will and that's never happened for us. The thing is that the more one learns about one's condition as an African, the more it becomes clear that the conditions I'm suffering from in St. Petersburg are not separate and distinct from the suffering in Haiti or in Jamaica or in Nigeria or in Sudan. The same historical process is responsible for it and part of it is an attack of Africa, dispersal of African people, a separation of African people from each other and from our resources. That is the resolution there is no other resolution.
Something that may have seemed far fetched just a little while ago, is becoming clearer every day to the point that even pundits tied to the ruling class are raising the question of whether the empire is in decline now. And, of course it is. It is in decline as part of a process that sees other peoples around the world whose resources were necessary for the wealth of the empire. And as people rise up everywhere, the empire is in a state of decline and African people will have to rise up and take back our resources before we'll be free. I don't expect, in the final analysis, any meaningful solutions within the context of the existing system. I'm capable of struggling for certain kinds of reform that contribute to positioning the population and enhancing its capacity to resist and transform our condition. But America can't solve our problems.
But on the same token, the Uhuru Movement seems to have lost influence over the last few years.
You talk about influence. I just read an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times that says nobody will talk to the police. Nobody in the African community. There were 200 and some odd people, they said, where they murdered Javon Dawson, but nobody would talk to the police because of Omali Yeshitela and the Uhuru movement. That's what they said. When this crisis happens you will see the person who heads up the Justice For Javon Dawson committee is his stepmother and his cousins and other folks who are members of this organization. We're not as influential as we'd like to be, and we don't have the numbers that we'd like to have.
Have you heard from any witnesses on what exactly happened?
We've heard people. We've also watched Channel 9. I want to mention this because they talk about Omali Yeshitela won't turn over witnesses, they should subpoena Channel 9. Because I saw people on Channel 9, young people, who are saying the boy didn't have a gun. Yes, I have heard people say that they were there and didn't have a gun. I heard one person go further stating that her daughter who was with him earlier on had actually patted him down and there was no weapon in his pockets.
And this whole thing about how we won't let anybody testify is just nonsense, and it's a way to change the subject, because the real deal is that you have a 17-year-old youngster with no criminal history. And the thing that's really interesting about this is every time the police kills somebody in this community, the next day the first thing you see in the newspaper is a mugshot, and the implication there is that the killing was justified because this person has a record. Now, the media that has so much respect for criminal records, in this instance when they can't find a mugshot, they don't say "There's something wrong here. This kid doesn't have a record. That he's never committed a crime in his life, but he decides on this night the first criminal act he's going to engage in is point a gun at the police, and after pointing the gun at police, they find a way to shoot him, though he's shooting at them, twice in the back." Not only is that strange, but the fact is that we've got a 24-year-old kid that's just back from Iraq, from another occupation, who kills him. That's not even a story. The story is the mysterious witnesses that Omali Yeshitela and the Uhuru movement won't produce. What about those witnesses that Channel 9 won't produce?
So they create this thing that somehow we're responsible for anybody talking to the police. They have a problem, and the problem is it doesn't make sense the boy was shot in the back, not in the side, in the back.
There's a lawyer now that's working with the family. Her name is Maura Kiefer, and she is trying to interview witnesses that people give to her so that she can have an approach of taking these witnesses, so these youngsters won't have to face the same cops they saw gun down this boy, their parents can be there and this is a condition that she is trying to establish with the state's attorney when she goes to them. We have nothing to do with keeping witnesses from testifying at all.
Would this be as big of an issue with you if this was an African-American cop that shot Javon Dawson?
It'd be more of an issue. His young brother had gone to try and help his brother, and I'm told it was a black cop that told him to "get back or you can get shot too" or something to that effect.
The state is the state, and you know people who work for that institution are just as capable. The police is a military organization. Its job is an occupation force in this community. Just like you got Iraqis who work with the U.S. to occupy their country, there are black people who do it here. Just like you had Indian scouts that helped the calvary to track down the indigenous peoples here and wiped them out, we got Africans that will do the same thing.
It would be just as serious for us, and in some ways it would be more serious if it were an African that did it.
But it is worth noting that in every instance these shootings have happened up until now, they've been white cops that have done it.
I think you had a cop that was afraid. He might have even flashed back to Iraq. You know, that's their job to subdue communities. You're in Fallujah again. You've got all these people who know nothing about, in a community about which you know nothing. Listen, when police were called they were called because of too many youngsters in the street and noise from a party. They weren't called to it because of a robbery, mugging, a rape or a killing; they were called because of too much noise at a party. You could send a social worker to take care of that. But they sent the Save Summer guys out there, and one of them knew what occupation really meant and killed that boy.
How come you and the Uhuru don't come out more strongly against black-on-black crime?
We do. We just don't call it black-on-black crime. Most of what you call black-on-black crime is white-on-black crime. It's a façade.
I mean, it's a thing we're concerned about. On a regular basis we challenge the community about violence, but we have a relationship with the people. We're not the police working against the people and preaching at the people; we work with the people to try to change from within. The solution is not the police and not the church. The solution is organizing people to change their circumstances, that's a long and difficult thing. But believe me when I tell you that we challenge this community in a serious way.
If you had the opportunity to move with me in this community, you would see the relationship that we have with young people and the respect that is there with young people. And the fact is if people thought we were in the vicinity where something illegal or violence against somebody else was about to happen, they would cease and desist. We have that kind of respect, because we struggle against it. But we don't call the newspaper. We don't work like that.
It's like Barack Obama suddenly discovering that fathers need to take care of their children. That was his Sister Souljah moment. That was his way to speak to the so-called white social conservatives. I ain't speaking to white social conservatives, I ain't speaking at city hall or the police department. My discussion happens in this community. ... Our attempt is not to have that discussion with white folk, it's to have that discussion inside our community.
We don't want violence in this community; in fact, we have campaigns and programs that say if a brother kills another, you are the police. You are working with the police, you are doing the very same thing they are doing. We have produced DVDs that are not only distributed here against that kind of stuff but all around the world, but we place the violence in the proper context. ... It's pandering. It's pandering to a racist, colonialist assumptions about this community. It's pandering, and it's contributing to this whole notion of the need to have this external force to control our community. it liquidates the contradictions inside this community caused by policies outside this community. so this whole discussion as it would happen on black-on-black crime places the onus of responsibility for the conditions of existence on its victims. So we won't participate with that. We won't participate with that.
Do you agree with the "no snitching" code?
I think it exists in the police department. In fact, they've done movies on it. they call it the code of silence. I haven't heard any report yet of cops saying what happened that night, just this one cop.
When you talk about a code of snitching ... I believe that what this country does is what they cursed the Nazis for doing. They would have an informant on every corner just snitching on people inside their community for the benefit of the state. If it's bad when Nazis do it, it's bad when African people do it. You can't have it both ways. You can't say it's bad to turn a community into a community of informers and snitches when it comes to white people, and it's good when it comes to African people, that somehow we're supposed to be the informers.
The bigger question is this: Why is it that the police department has so alienated the African community that you have to be worried about a code of snitching? That ain't our problem. That's something wrong in the relationship that exists between the police department and the African community. The question really needs to be asked -- why is it that there is such an animosity existing between the community and the police department that people seem to have a problem talking to them?
Do you worry that sometimes talk of socialism and revolution may turn off younger people from your ideas?
It doesn't worry me. the majority of people we come into contact with don't relate to us because of communism, socialism or capitalism. They relate to us because of the pain this system imposes on them. I think most people can relate to goodness, to try and make things better. So most people who we hear that discussion from, like some middle class folk. Ordinary people aren't debating that question. They're trying to feed their children and get them off to school safety and things like that. But I will tell you this -- what we are discovering is daily young people, I n particular, are demanding revolution. They don't want some milquetoast reformist agenda. Young people are demanding revolutionary transformation. Again, it's not just here. All over other world that's our experience. Because we've been reformed out. For example, how many civil rights bills do you think will ever happen. It's not going to happen anymore and what has been the consequence of the last one, except for the middle class? Nothing.
For an organization for African-American self-determination, there seems to be a lot of white people in your group. What's up with that?
Let me tell you this. [Laughs.] It's an interesting question. We're called black nationalists by some folk, and then they see the white people they say, "Well, there's so many white people that something's wrong with them." I have integrationists, who in an attempt to slander me, spread the word that I'm married to a white woman. And I have the same integrationists who say they hate me because I'm for black power and this and that.
When the Nicaraguan revolution took off, before they got to Managua in July of '79, I didn't even know a Nicaraguan. But I went to find some, so we could put all of our organization resources at their disposal, because we could support the struggle of the Nicaraguan people. We did not require that they abdicate their struggle for self-determination. We did not require that they develop a taste for Ray Charles or anything like that. We were in solidarity with that movement.
We have a movement that anybody who wants to express solidarity with can join, but it is a movement for self-determination. And white people can actually join a movement that supports self-determination for black people. There's really no mystery to it.
The problem that we have is this whole racially-based politic that makes the assumption, somehow, that if there are white people or black people who are working in the same process that somehow it must be some kind of integrationist process, or it must be some process that white people are leading. That's usually how the thought process works.
There are white people that have tremendous solidarity. There have been people who have been in the movement 30 years or more. White people in solidarity with the struggle of African people.
Beyond that, most of the resources of the peoples of the world are located in a white community somewhere and genuine solidarity by white folk is required for us to repossess some of our resources. Some of these are material resources and some are human resources. It's a legitimate thing for white people to work in solidarity with the struggle of African people.
How do you feel about Barack Obama?
He's a wonderful representative for white power. I think that his role in part is at a time of tremendous crisis for this whole system that Barack Obama is a neo-colonial ploy. He is a white power in black face. At a time when Africans would be looking for alternatives to the system, he's dragging Africans into the safe embrace of the Democratic Party and the system. He cleans up the image of America throughout the whole world. He becomes an apologist for white nationalism, I'm not just talking about America but white nationalism proper. He condemns anything that comes from this community. he talks about a post-racial America. He is an apologist for the relationship black people have to this country. It's an interesting situation because a lot of black people follow Obama because they think he stands for black power and a alit of white people follow him because they know he doesn't. I think it's a really interesting situation.
How did you come to meet [hip-hop group] Dead Prez?
They were in our organization. They were in Tallahassee. They joined our organization. One of them used to run our New York office.
Do you know if they are going to tour here any time soon?
I don't [laughs].