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Tiger Bay Club gets more fang than usual

Politics flare when members of the revolutionary Uhuru group shout queries at police Chief Chuck Harmon.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Carving up politicians is what the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club says it likes to do for fun.

Mostly white, they are movers and shakers, business and political heavyweights or simply citizens who like politics. They meet over lunch, usually twice monthly. They listen to an invited public figure and spend 20 minutes peppering the speaker with questions.

Whoever slings the sharpest arrow wins the coveted "fang and claw" award. It's a little stuffed tiger symbolizing the value of questioning authority in a fearless, vigorous way.

Confrontational politics flared brighter than usual at last Tuesday's luncheon forum, held in a Yacht Club ballroom.

Two members of the revolutionary Uhuru organization, both invited to lunch, rose unbidden and shouted questions at St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

They intended to put Harmon on the spot about the case of Keith Stewart, one of three black men arrested at BayWalk in October, charged with inciting a riot there. Uhuru members say Stewart did no such thing and have been demonstrating at BayWalk - and other venues - to call attention to the case and demand charges be dropped.

But only Tiger Bay members can ask questions. Abasi Baruti and Penny Hess are not members. A police detective escorted both Uhurus out. About 10 minutes later, two other Uhuru members standing in the back of the room also were shown the door.

"They were shouting simultaneously. They didn't want the questions answered," said club president Douglas Fairbanks.

But it wasn't a case of radicals spoiling the appetites of a stuffy, elitist crowd, Fairbanks said.

"This wasn't something you see all that often. I think it was an adventure for (Tiger Bay members)," he said.

In fact, a white Tiger Bay member had invited Baruti and Hess to sit at her table. After the four Uhurus were banished, another white Tiger Bay member challenged Harmon to launch an investigation into Stewart's arrest.

The episode wasn't about diversity, say those involved.

It wasn't about the Yacht Club, sometimes seen as a symbol of the white establishment.

It wasn't all about the Tiger Bay club, either, which has tried to shed its own early reputation as an elitist organization.

"It wasn't about them directly," said Chimurenga Waller, a longtime leader of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

"In a lot of ways, BayWalk is representative of the crown jewel of economic development for white people in this city. When you mess with BayWalk and powerful economic forces, you're going to have an impact on all economic forces in this city.

"When you go to Tiger Bay, it's a who's who of who controls economic power in this city," Waller said.

Founded in 1978, Suncoast Tiger Bay has 570 members, said executive director Tami Simms-Powel. Through the years, many have been prominent in business and political circles. Local elected officials often join. Simms-Powel said the average luncheon crowd is 130 to 170, though some speakers have attracted as many as 400.

Anyone is eligible to join. There is no screening or approval procedure. Dues are $75 yearly, but there is no initiation fee. Meals are $15 for members, $20 for invited guests. The dues give members the prerogative of asking questions, a subscription to the club newsletter and the cheaper meal rate.

Florida boasts several Tiger Bay clubs. All of them provide political forums. But some are more expensive than Suncoast Tiger Bay, and some try to control membership more closely.

The Tiger Bay Club of Tampa, for example, asks a $100 initiation fee (although its annual dues are $65). The Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee requires a member to propose a candidate, who then is screened by a special committee. Orlando's Tiger Bay charges a $50 application fee and $125 annual dues.

Simms-Powel said she doesn't know how many minorities are Suncoast Tiger Bay members.

"To try and identify them as minorities would be wrong, actually, considering that diversity goes so much further than race," she said.

Early in its existence, the club required two people to vouch for a prospective member, said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg political science professor and a club past president. That is no longer the case.

Paulson resigned his membership at one point because he believed the club wasn't doing enough to attract minorities. He also said he thought it wasn't aggressive enough in taking on tough issues in St. Petersburg - some of which were being articulated by Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela.

"I thought he should have been a speaker much earlier than he was," said Paulson, who stayed out about two years but eventually renewed his membership.

Fairbanks, the club president, said a membership committee tries to follow up when African-American guests are present, encouraging them to join or at least come back often to visit.

"It's a disappointment to stand at the lectern and not see enough racial mix in your audience," Fairbanks said.

NAACP president Darryl Rouson and Yeshitela both have spoken at the club. Often foils, neither was present Tuesday. Earnest Williams, an African-American City Council member, is a Tiger Bay board member.

Yeshitela ushered in the modern era of confrontational politics in St. Petersburg when in 1966 he pulled down a City Hall mural filled with racial stereotypes. Most white people had a fit, and Yeshitela served jail time.

In 1999, then-mayor David Fischer called Yeshitela's act "a historic moment that became the benchmark for the civil rights movement in St. Petersburg."

At some level, Tuesday's events represented the continuum.

"I think it went fine," said Baruti, a local organizer for the African People's Socialist Party. "We knew we wouldn't be given equal time to speak. We figured we wouldn't be allowed to speak, so we took it upon ourselves."

No one had a fit, either.

[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]

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