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Romano: Give the Uhurus credit for pointing out the problem, and blame them for failing to solve it

A forum for six mayoral candidates and eight hopefuls for City Council was disrupted by jeers and chants largely orchestrated by the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement earlier this month at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. [LARA CERRI | Times]

A forum for six mayoral candidates and eight hopefuls for City Council was disrupted by jeers and chants largely orchestrated by the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement earlier this month at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. [LARA CERRI | Times]

If it is merely attention they are seeking, members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement have succeeded. People are buzzing about the outlandish rhetoric of candidates and disruptive behavior of followers.

In a municipal election that could have drowned in the wonky discussion of sewer repairs, neighborhood debates have somehow turned into hot tickets and viral videos.

But here's the unfortunate truth of the matter:

If it is progress the Uhurus are seeking — real, substantive change and meaningful reforms — then I fear they will be horribly disappointed. And they will share in the blame themselves.

Before I explain, let me back up for a moment.

This is not the first time the Uhuru movement has put candidates on the ballot. In 2001, Omali Yeshitela ran for mayor in the same election that featured then-newcomer Rick Baker.

Yeshitela ran a comparatively low-key campaign and finished fifth among the nine candidates in the primary, pulling in a little more than 10 percent of the vote.

And now, 16 years later, St. Petersburg is a much different place.

It is a city of craft breweries and art galleries. Of Beach Drive and rising condominiums. The city once derided as God's Waiting Room is now a darling of the New York Times travel section.

But change hasn't come to every street corner.

In the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, the same problems that were apparent in 2001 — or in 1991 or 1981, for that matter — still exist to some degree today. Schools lack prestige. Jobs are hard to find. Crime is higher than in other parts of the city. And hope, to some, is just a rumor.

When you view it through that lens, it's no wonder that emotions have been running high. If there was a renaissance in St. Petersburg, many of the city's black neighborhoods were left behind.

So, yes, residents should be angry. Yes, they should be impatient. And if protesting and shouting is necessary to get everyone's attention then, yes, they have every right to make their voices heard.

But to what end?

Is the point to bask in the cheers at a political rally, or to enact change in the community? Because, after listening to Uhuru mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel in a debate Thursday night, it seems like he was more interested in pandering to his followers than advocating for realistic solutions.

Should we be looking more closely at the disparity between how blacks and whites are treated in law enforcement situations? Absolutely. Will that question be taken seriously when you repeatedly accuse sheriff's deputies of murder after three teenage girls drove a stolen car into a lake? Certainly not.

Is affordable housing a legitimate issue when low-income residents are being forced out of their own neighborhood? Absolutely. Will you win over any converts when you suggest the opening of a neighborhood post office and a grocery store was part of an evil, gentrification scheme? Certainly not.

Is it fair to second-guess the commitment and policies of City Hall when the economic needle in Midtown has barely budged in a generation? Absolutely. Do you think the most effective way of making that argument is to vaguely hint that Baker or Rick Kriseman might want to bomb the Uhuru headquarters? Certainly not.

Then again, maybe I'm missing the larger picture. Maybe the real strategy is to energize the local community, and not convince the larger populace. Maybe there's a long-range hope that the overblown rhetoric will have a trickle-down effect.

These were questions I would like to have asked after Thursday night's debate. But neither Yeshitela, the long-time face of the Uhurus, nor Uhuru City Council candidate Eritha "Akile" Cainion, would agree to talk to me.

And so, as I drove away from Greater Mount Zion AME Church afterward, I couldn't help but feel like an opportunity might be lost in this election.

The Uhurus already did the hard work. They got the city's attention.

So why would they want to throw that opportunity away for the sake of cheap applause lines?

Romano: Give the Uhurus credit for pointing out the problem, and blame them for failing to solve it 07/15/17 [Last modified: Saturday, July 15, 2017 9:45pm]
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