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In Midtown, many prefer to speak for themselves

Published May 14, 2004

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I took a drive around Midtown on Thursday afternoon, as the city of St. Petersburg paused after one night of violence and worried that another might follow. I came away with a particular impression: Omali Yeshitela should look over his shoulder and see who's marching behind him. The parade ranks are thinner than he wants you to think.

I met Jeff Hilton, a manager for a technology company, as he stood by Wireless World, a burned out cell phone store owned by a friend.

"I speak for myself," Hilton said. "If you don't use your voice, someone will speak for you."

I met Michael Feliu, a truck driver, as he grabbed a hamburger at Red's Snak Shak. "I believe in something totally different," he said. "God, family and being a productive member of society."

I met Marlan Smith, a house painter, who said, "I don't get into that militant stuff."

And I met Mandy Beaton, a salesclerk at LA Fashion, where thousands of dollars of clothes were stolen after a car smashed through the storefront. "He does add fuel to the fire," she said of Yeshitela.

I tell you these things because as a reader of this paper, you are most likely white. If you are like many readers, you might think St. Petersburg's black community speaks with one voice, and that the voice belongs to Yeshitela. Even the word community is misleading. Midtown is many places, opinions and individuals.

I found agreement, however, on these points: People believe the police didn't have to kill TyRon Lewis, whose family's lawsuit against the city is coming to a close in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The family deserves compensation for losing him, I was told. The police should treat young black men with more respect. Police should not shoot to kill.

This may be old stuff, but it never dies. You can disagree with it, but the suspicion and fear of police run through the neighborhood like a constant, quiet hum.

That fear is the only part of the argument where Yeshitela's views fully coincide with those of the people I met in Midtown. That is what he cashes in on.

So Wednesday night, his organization, the Uhurus, took advantage of anxiety surrounding the Lewis case and staged a march to protest the May 2 shooting of another black teenager, Marquell McCullough, by two Pinellas deputies.

Then, after the overnight violence, Yeshitela stepped up to the microphones and blamed the city, as if his own inflammatory methods hadn't contributed to the trouble.

Yeshitela didn't condone the violence. He was careful not to do that. He knows his audience. He knows most people in Midtown don't condone it either. If Yeshitela wanted to be taken seriously, he would stand with the city's black ministers and NAACP and stop trying to manipulate events for his own ends. He would call for peace. He would talk to some of the people I met Thursday, who called the destruction senseless. He would acknowledge that the lawlessness frightens them.

Mandy Beaton, for instance, spent Wednesday night worrying that bullets might come flying through her windows. What would Yeshitela say if her fears came true? I think I know the answer. He'd say the gunfire was a product of the white racist conspiracy enslaving black people.

Blacks represent less than one-fourth of the population in St. Petersburg. The city is so small, and black political clout so spotty, that it's easy for Yeshitela to occupy a lot of space and make it appear that he has more power than he in fact does.

So don't think that he is the leader of a large parade, or that the people of Midtown are united in hurling bottles and starting fires. Far, far from it. Those I talked to went out of their way to distance themselves from the violence. Some said they hadn't even heard of it until the morning news came on Thursday.

They want peace, progress, understanding. And they don't necessarily want Yeshitela speaking for them.

- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or 813 226-3402.

[Last modified May 14, 2004, 01:00:14]

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