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Halloween display seen as symbol of hate

Uhuru Movement members destroy the display outside a home. The owner says it never occurred to her it would be offend anyone.

Published October 20, 2004

It had the face of Frankenstein and the hands of a werewolf.

Outfitted in jeans and flannel shirt, the creature - stuffed with crumpled newspaper - hung by the neck on a homemade gallows outside a home in the Allendale neighborhood.

To its owner, "Bob" was a Halloween decoration. But to Omali Yeshitela, it was a racially charged symbol of hate.

On Tuesday, as police officers on the scene scrambled to contact the homeowner at work, Yeshitela and others from the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement tore the dummy down.

"There is no history of hanging ghouls in this country but there is a history of hanging African people," said Yeshitela, leader of the St. Petersburg-based group.

Colleen Watson was surprised and upset when police called her at work to say the display her 15-year-old son had spent two days creating had been torn down. She said it had never occurred to her it would offend anyone.

"We are not those kind of people, we are not like that," Watson said. "This really opened my eyes, I just didn't see it this way."

Last year for Halloween, the family beheaded "Bob," replicating a guillotine. The year before, "Bob" lay in a casket. But on Tuesday, "Bob's" latest incarnation sparked anger.

Yeshitela said he got a call from a local high school student, who saw the hanging dummy from her school bus window on her morning commute. Post-slavery, lynchings were used to terrorize African-Americans and remain a painful memory for many today, Yeshitela said.

"She called because she couldn't believe what she had seen," he said.

Yeshitela, who tore down a mural in St. Petersburg City Hall that he found racially offensive in the 1960s, went to see the display.

Despite the Halloween decor - a synthetic spider web that spanned half the width of the gray house and an arrangement of plastic skulls and bones - Yeshitela said he saw something more sinister: a black man hanging from a noose.

Some passers-by agreed.

Sandra Albanese stopped and called police after she spotted the hanging monster. "I drove by, saw it and came back around again," said Albanese, a real estate agent. "It looked like a black man hanging."

As a small crowd of passers-by and Uhuru members gathered Tuesday afternoon, Patty Melnick also drove by with her 9-year-old daughter, Lindsay.

"My daughter told me this morning there was someone hanging out here and right away I said, I bet you it's black," Melnick said. "I think it's horrendous, it's a hate crime."

As the crowd looked on, Yeshitela said he wouldn't wait any longer for the gallows and hanging dummy to be removed.

"It's coming down," he said and opened the chain-link gate around the yard. Yeshitela walked up to the dummy and ripped it down. Uhuru supporters followed, dismantling the gallows and tearing apart the dummy's head and limbs and leaving the newspaper stuffing strewn across the yard.

As the Uhuru members left the property, St. Petersburg police Sgt. Glenn Stofer approached them and took their names, but did not arrest anyone.

Stofer said he arrived shortly before Yeshitela tore down the dummy and was trying to contact Watson, who was at work.

"They were rightfully upset," Stofer said of the Uhuru members. "I was in the car trying to get information and while I was doing that, they decided to tear it down themselves."

In some misdemeanor incidents - in this case, criminal mischief - police usually interview alleged victims before making an arrest to determine whether they want to prosecute, said Lt. Joe Jesiolkiewic.

"Without a victim, we don't have a crime," he said. "How do we know that they don't know the people, that this isn't some kind of set up? There's an infinite number of things that could play into it, and the prudent thing to do is make sure you've got a victim."

Yeshitela said he would do it all again, even if it meant going onto private property. "The issue of private property holds no special mystique," he said. "We have been private property as a people."

Watson told police she did not want to prosecute anyone. On Tuesday, she called Yeshitela and apologized. He accepted.

"If we hurt someone's feelings, let's take it down now," Watson said from her garage as she cleared up "Bob's" remains.

Florence Whipple, who lives with the Watsons agreed, "Bob is officially retired."

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