Some may dismiss it as a small controversy that ended well. But Tuesday's move by members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement to tear down a St. Petersburg family's Halloween display sends a troubling signal on the state of racial dialogue in the city.
Homeowner Colleen Watson said she never realized her lawn display - featuring a stuffed figure hung by the neck on a homemade gallows - could be offensive to black people who might think she was depicting a lynching.
Even though Uhuru members walked onto her lawn to tear down the display before anyone could contact her, Watson hasn't yet complained about the intrusion. And movement leader Omali Yeshitela insists that any concern about respecting her property rights is "asinine," while noting that Watson herself has said she learned from the experience.
But we must sound a note of concern over the way Uhuru members stepped onto private property to tear down a display without speaking to the homeowner or giving her a chance to correct the situation. That this incident occurred while a St. Petersburg police officer was watching only adds to the apprehension that emotion may have triumphed over law, if just for a moment.
Given Watson's reaction, it seems possible that she would have taken down the display herself, if asked, and the community would have seen an important example of communication across race lines. Instead, the Uhurus called the media and waited until reporters arrived before tearing down the structure, ensuring that a message of anger and intimidation would emerge.
Such provocative tactics are a trademark for the Uhurus, a group that seems to prefer confrontation to negotiation in resolving disputes involving race. During a conversation about Tuesday's action, Yeshitela drew comparisons with his courageous stand in the 1960s to tear down a racist mural hanging in St. Petersburg City Hall that had drawn complaints for years.
But there's a difference between civil disobedience against a long-despised, pointedly racist mural in a public building and stepping onto a private person's yard to dispose of a display the homeowner never suspected could offend anyone.
This incident will feed, in an admittedly small way, a climate of fear that surrounds dialogue about race in St. Petersburg. It also seems beneath Yeshitela, an intelligent, perceptive person whose public stands have grown increasingly irrational.
At a time when honest, evenhanded discussion is needed, such intimidation tactics eventually harm everyone - making it tougher for those working to resolve much thornier racial problems to find common ground.