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Burning Spear News

The African working class put white rulers on notice—Chairman Omali addresses Tiger Bay Club, St. Petersburg in 1998

Aug 5, 2018
Chairman Omali Yeshitela


The African community in St. Pete and the police clash after the police assassination of TyRon Lewis in 1996.

 

[Tiger Bay Club presentation: White rulers can no longer disregard African workers

Chairman Omali was invited by the St. Petersburg Tiger Bay Club to speak to their monthly lunch meeting on July 9, 1998.

Tiger Bay is a St. Petersburg political discussion group whose membership is made up largely of local white ruling class politicians and businessmen.

The invitation to speak to the club came during the period of massive publicity for the Chairman and the Uhuru Movement following the October 24, 1996 police killing of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis.

The police killing sparked a rebellion that night, followed by a second rebellion on November 13 after a force of 300 police attacked the Uhuru House. (See “City of African resistance” on page 69 for an in depth summation of this period.)

As the voice of the mass demands for genuine economic development for the African community and an end to the brutal policies of police containment, Chairman Omali became the recognized representative of the African community.

In this presentation, the Chairman confronts the white ruling class of St. Petersburg from a position of real power and leverage on the part of the African working class.]

A little more than 30 years ago, Africans were often murdered in this country for simply attempting to register to join the Democratic party.

We could not stop to use a service station toilet on the highway or any other public facility without fear of arrest, beatings or even worse.

Indeed, the conditions of existence for African people became a major foreign policy problem for the U.S. government.

The entire world knew of the America primarily because of its brutal treatment of African people.

Yet today, a mere 34 years after the formal granting of civil rights and 33 years after formally winning the right to vote, Africans in the U.S., especially the working class and impoverished youth, are characterized as vicious predators, an inarticulate and pathologically criminal community.

A little more than 30 years ago, incessant struggle for democracy by our people resulted in the primary public policy debate in the U.S. revolving around issues of black liberation.

Today the public policy debate, while still involving African people, revolves around the most effective means of police containment in our increasingly impoverished community.

This turn of affairs did not come about overnight. It came as a consequence of a process that saw thousands of young African militants arrested and killed throughout this country during the 1960s.

It came as a consequence of the political murders of Minister Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King.

It came as a result of the brutal assault by the FBI on politically independent African organizational formations with which the owning classes of America and the U.S. government had ideological and political differences.

With our leadership imprisoned and assassinated throughout the U.S. and so many of our organizations destroyed with their membership dispersed, African people within the U.S. began to experience a great assault on the basic democratic gains we had won during the sixties.

A community that was now ideologically and politically defenseless watched in horror as most of the basic civil rights, assumed to have been won during the Civil Rights Movement, were taken away, one after the other, often in the name of fighting against crime.

The America that has never even formally acknowledged the immorality of African slavery, Jim Crow and lynch mob justice has cynically absolved itself of any responsibility for the conditions of existence of my people.

Instead, it has declared these conditions, which are symptoms of economic exploitation and political oppression, to be the result of pathology, of self-inflicted immizeration.

America claims our conditions are the natural due of a people whose collective moral foundation proves inadequate to the rigors of civilized existence.

The owning classes use for their purposes the acquiescence of a pliant, generally hand-picked black leadership that has always defined its goals within the acceptable parameters of the white establishment and their representatives.

This allows the establishment to simply refuse to acknowledge the interests of the majority of the African community, which is employed and unemployed workers.

The politically and ideologically independent representatives of the African working class—those who continue to survive— have been characterized as marginal and extremist. Their views have been exiled from the arena of public political discourse.

History of white power imperialism of St. Petersburg

The reason I am here before you today is because the masses of African workers and poor in St. Petersburg thrust themselves back into history on October 24 and November 13, 1996, after the police assassination of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis and the attack on the Uhuru House, our office.

Although the city of St. Petersburg is typical in its policy of police containment of African people, it has its own history and its own interests which inform its actions.

Its history is one of a city that was founded as a center for white tourism, and its political economy is based on this fact.

The African population of St. Petersburg was brought here for the purpose of providing a cheap labor force for this tourist industry. Our significance as a cheap labor force grew to include the nursing home industry that was an offshoot of tourism.

From the beginning there was a built-in tension to this relationship. On the one hand our cheap labor was seen as essential to a profitable tourist industry, while on the other hand there was the irrational fear that our black presence was a threat to this same tourism. The resolution to this quandary has been police containment of the African community.

This policy of police containment achieved a new and urgent significance with the introduction of the idea of a baseball team for St. Petersburg.

Like many of the decisions concerning economic development for the City of St. Petersburg, the determination to boost the city’s economy with the acquisition of a baseball team came at great expense to our community.

In this case, the price was the black community of the Gas Plant area. We had already experienced community destruction with the razing of Methodist Town and all its black businesses.

 Africans had also lost neighborhoods and businesses when an interstate was brought through the city, ripping apart the African community. And now, the Gas Plant area would go, again in the name of economic development.

The stadium for the baseball team rests like a giant tomb on the corpse of what was once a dynamic African community. It is partially surrounded by another African community and various institutions historically associated with Africans.

This is the reality that resulted in the attempt by the city to create an African-free, sanitized zone around the stadium.

This reality led to struggles on the part of African people for the democratic right to use the public parks in the proximity of the stadium.

It was this reality that resulted in the broad daylight police execution of TyRon Lewis 2 of October 24, 1996. James Knight of the St. Petersburg police department was the triggerman who killed TyRon Lewis and in our opinion, Knight was one who thoroughly enjoyed his work.

It was this reality that informed us in the Uhuru Movement to say that the real issue was not Knight, nor even the cops whose cartoons 3 mocked the death of Lewis, but the policy of police containment that established the conditions within which they functioned.

However, I want to be clear that this description of a reality and politic based on historical conditions and economic factors should not be mistaken as an assumption on my part that we are on a historically predetermined course that demands permanent confrontation. This is not my belief.

Indeed, I am convinced that the possibilities for progressive change in St. Petersburg are greater than anywhere in this country. They are greater precisely because the primary contending social forces are quite conscious of what their material interests are, and both are therefore in a position to base their political relationship on these interests.

The critical need of the leadership of the African working class in St. Pete

The public police execution of TyRon Lewis ignited a popular rebellion that made it politically impossible to continue to ignore the African working class masses.

The popular, physical defense of the Uhuru leadership, which came under police attack at our office on November 13, 1996, was also a declaration by the people of the significance of the Uhuru Movement as an actual, that is to say, real, on the ground, representative of the most dynamic sector of the African community.

This is what Henry Cisneros foresaw during his brief visit to St. Petersburg in the aftermath of the police shooting and community rebellions.

This is what helped mayor David Fisher to retreat from the rash and politically immature declaration that he would never meet with Omali Yeshitela.

The reality is that it was the perceived threat to tourism and an anticipated billion dollar baseball industry that led to the shooting of TyRon Lewis.

This was another attempt at a unilaterally-determined economic development that would come at the expense of the African community as in the past.

However, this same perceived threat to the tourist and baseball industries led to recognition of the need to accept the fact that the African community also has interests and aspirations that have to be considered.

Thus the stage has been set for an honest relationship based on democracy, mutual respect and the possibility of replacing the failed policy of police containment of the African community with a policy of economic development that is the only path to social justice.

The possibility for profound change is here in St. Petersburg. However, it will take a bold leadership with more courage than has been demonstrated up to now.

It will take a leadership that is willing to end the political inertia responsible for the trajectory of the past, a leadership willing to accept the lessons learned from the shooting and rebellions of 1996.

These lessons were real. Their value must inform us now, even as the memory of the burning buildings and teargas-inflamed nostrils continue to fade.

We can no longer continue to do things and base relationships on political habits that do not recognize the value of black labor or which disregard the integrity of African opinions, aspirations and material interests.

We must see a leadership from the city and the city’s financial institutions that gives as much practical commitment to economic development for the African community as it does to the economic activity associated with the baseball team.

The financial institutions must end the economic quarantine of the African community.

They must provide an infusion of massive amounts of capital to be used for self-employment and improvement and expansion of existing businesses, along with the initiation of new, economically consequential enterprises, all of which will contribute to the creation of community commerce and economic development.

The future of a self-sufficient, strong African community

This is a different cry from the traditional call for jobs, which generally has little or nothing to do with economic development.

This is a different cry from the traditional call for the location of expatriate corporations and businesses within our community, because such corporate businesses are essentially nothing more than a means of capital extraction that often stifles the development of community enterprise and can actually lead to economic underdevelopment.

No, my friends, when we speak of community commerce and economic development, we speak of a community engaged in economic activity, the consequences of which—whether as worker or entrepreneur—will be the actual development of our own community.

And finally, we must admit to the failure of the disingenuous policy of police containment.

It is at best a poor substitute for economic development. At worst, it is simply colonial occupation. It has never worked anywhere in the world in the past and it will not work in the African community today, nor should it.

The Jim Crow program of Weed and Seed, Hope 6, which allows for the occupation of the most oppressed, economically devastated sector of the population by an array of oppressive federal, state and local police organizations, should be denounced by all freedom loving people everywhere.

Certainly we in the Uhuru Movement will continue to denounce it.

In closing, I would like to say that African people are good. We have played a central and very critical role in the development of the culture and economy of this country and this city. Our demand today is that we be allowed to do the same for ourselves.

To this end we are committed to relentless struggle. We welcome all who will to join with us.

Uhuru!

 

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