Thursday, August 7, 2014

Exploring the Case for African-American Reparations in St. Pete

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 6:28 PM

click to enlarge A Wise-Looking Omali Yeshitela on the Book-Signing Flyer
  • A Wise-Looking Omali Yeshitela on the Book-Signing Flyer
On my way back from grabbing some smoked mullet at the Saturday market, in Williams Park, I looked down at the yellow flyer and thin newspaper I was handed by an older white lady who wanted more time than I had to give. The flyer said: “Omali Yeshitela Speaks,” in all caps and had a close-up picture of Mr. Yeshitela, St. Pete’s own African socialist revolutionary, looking relevant and stately, with calm, wise eyes, a gray goatee and pierced ears. He was going to be speaking and signing copies of his new book, An Uneasy Equilibrium: The African Revolution versus Parasitic Capitalism, at the USF St. Pete campus. The newspaper was The Burning Spear, the local publication put out by the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) — an organization headed by Mr. Yeshitela. Articles with titles like, “Stop white takeover of South St. Pete!” and, “Boko Haram and the explosion of neocolonial rule in Nigeria,” fill the pages. On the back: a Yes-We-Can-esque picture of Marcus Garvey in red, black and green with a call, above, to, “Resist U.S. wars and occupations in the U.S. & abroad! Reparations now!” The subjectivity and antagonistic attitude drew me in. The call for reparations kept me interested. So I took a picture of the flyer on my phone and sent it over to my editor, who said he could give me $25 for a blog-post on it.

The event is held on a Tuesday night in a generic conference room tucked in back of the USF St. Pete campus, overlooking Bayboro Harbor. Mr. Yeshitela sits, waiting for the crowd to arrive, in the front of the room, in the first row, all the way to the left — the spot closest to the podium. He’s wearing a sleeveless suit jacket that looks tailored when he stands up and sitting next to a young man with alert eyes who can’t be reasonably described as anything other than Mr. Yeshitela’s personal body-guard. The young man’s wearing a white t-shirt depicting a silhouetted image of an African woman’s face atop an all-black outline of the African continent. The two men working the front door are wearing this same shirt. They stop me, ask me to empty out any metal from my pockets and to raise my arms, then wave a magnetic wand around my body, lifting each pant leg, before I can walk in. “I’m going to have to keep this,” one of the men says and holds up a small pocket-knife I had emptied out of my pocket. “It was a dollar at Walmart,” I tell him. “A dollar can go a long way,” he says. “You can have it back when you leave.”

Only about half of the sixty-or-so seats in the conference room are occupied at the start of the event. A subservient looking little white guy with glasses named Jessie, who is the event’s master of ceremonies, gets up on stage first and speaks in front of a backdrop that reads: “the occupation began in 1492, so did the resistance.”

click to enlarge Two "White Uhurus"
  • Two "White Uhurus"
“Uhuru,” Jessie starts out by saying, which means freedom in Swahili, and the audience mumbles, “uhuru,” back. He introduces himself as the head of the Students for a Democratic Society and uses words like, “comrade,” and is quick to point out that he and his student organization are working, “under the leadership of the Uhuru Movement, led by the African People's Socialist Party.” Jessie believes it’s, “important to see the world through the eyes of the oppressed,” and reminds patrons that there will be time for questions and donations after the lecture. The first speaker he invites up is a white Reverend named Bruce Wright who is president of the Commission on Ending Homelessness here in St. Pete.

“Uhuru,” Rev. Wright declares and receives a tepid, “uhuru,” back before he begins to praise Mr. Yeshitela, condemn the world’s neglect and mistreatment of the “oppressed,” and mention capitalism being a, “parasitic entity destroying humanity.” He’s wearing a t-shirt that champions the APSP struggle and sports the kind of dedicated, multi-hair-tied pony-tail that chooses who drapes from it, and never the other way around.

I’m sitting in the back, thinking of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay which has gotten so much media attention lately, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic last month, which framed the African-American argument for reparations in such a way that made it seem not so preposterous — which, typically, is how the slender fraction of the American public that has actually considered the idea, has seen it. Coates weaves together stories and statistics about slavery, Jim Crow laws, the separate but equal legal doctrine, and state-sanctioned redlining to create this in-arguably accurate, long-oppressed image of the African-American people. He doesn't recommend what exactly the reparations should be, which left me still wanting more at the essay’s conclusion, but he makes it very clear that the subject of African-American reparations is long overdue for a serious and widespread discussion. A discussion, I’m hoping, Omali Yeshitela will touch on tonight.

Penny Hess, Chairperson of the African People's Solidarity Committee, “an organization of white people organizing in solidarity with the movement for the liberation of Africa and African people,” gets up next. Ms. Hess is a gentile-seeming white lady of obvious compassion who has shorter, spikier hair than the picture from her organization’s website shows. After a somewhat enthusiastic, “uhuru,” from the audience, Ms. Hess begins to says things like: “Europe and the United States got rich off slavery,” and some people in the crowd come alive and mutter, “umm-hmm,” in agreement. She continues on with some un-cited stats: “More people have been killed by U.S. police officers here in America than soldiers in the Iraq war over the past 10 years,” she says and arouses the attention of a woman to my right, who says, “yes...” in a sultry and encouraging agreement.

I look down at my notepad and go over some bullet-points on Mr. Yeshitela I found on-line as Ms. Hess continues talking. Omali Yeshitela: born here in St. Pete; served time for tearing down a St. Pete City Hall mural depicting a black man playing music for white patrons; worked alongside Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party; and founded the Uhuru Movement, a political organization based out of St. Pete built around Pan-African-ism. I fold up the notepad and put it away. Since Mr. Yeshitela’s new book, according to The Burning Spear, is about his transformation from Joseph Waller, his birth name, to Omali Yeshitela, his taken name, which means, “umbrella for a thousand people,” in one dialect of Ethiopian, I’m prepared to hear a personal history by Mr. Yeshitela, but hoping for something more, something with substance. I’m hoping to hear some demands. I’m hoping to hear some strategies. I want something real, something I can reach out and touch.

click to enlarge Lewazi Kinshasa
  • Lewazi Kinshasa
As Ms. Hess steps down, Lewazi Kinshasa, Director of International Affairs for the APSP, steps up and gets a big applause from the crowd, which has increased by about twenty since the start of the event. He’s the last speaker before Mr. Yeshitela. “Uhuru,” Mr. Kinshasa says and speaks with an authentic Congolese accent and has a less militaristic demeanor than any of the other speakers all night. He paints a pretty picture of Africa, portraying the continent as a place worth fighting for, and reminds the audience that humanity was born out of Africa, a statement which resonates with the crowd, “umm-hmm!” they say and clap. “Yesss…”

As Mr. Kinshasa steps down, after having primed the crowd nicely for the keynote speaker, comrade Jessie, of the Students for a Democratic Society, giddily introduces Mr. Yeshitela. The audience stands up and cheers, so I too stand up and cheer. Flashes from cameras operated by designated photographers are popping and bodyguards are positioning themselves on either side of the podium, as Mr. Yeshitela, whose bulging arms look like two feeding pythons in his sleeveless suit jacket, makes his way up.

The man is 72, but speaks, looks and moves like a healthy 40 year old. He’s familiar being behind the podium and clears his throat before condemning the violence occurring along the Gaza Strip. “Murder in broad daylight,” he refers to Israel’s actions as and goes on to condemn Israel’s divine claim to their land: “God’s not a real estate broker,” he says and gets a laugh, but remains serious as he continues, condemning America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “How can you not support the war, but support the troops? You can’t. I don’t support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and I don’t support the troops either.” He continues on, pointing out many of the things he sees as the world’s major injustices, and repeats similar statements heard throughout the night, like, “Genocide and slavery built this country.”

click to enlarge Omali on Stage with Two Guards
  • Omali on Stage with Two Guards

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