ST. PETERSBURG — The International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement held a community forum Sun., Dec. 7 at the Uhuru House, 1245 18th Ave S., addressing the theme: “Could Ferguson Happen Here? Should Ferguson Happen Here?”
Members of the panel included Chairman Omali Yeshitela of the African People’s Socialist Party, Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Pinellas Jeff Copeland and Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church.
St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway, after initially accepting the invitation to participate in the meeting, decided he needed a broader discussion and organized an ad hoc committee that met Tues., Dec. 9 at the police station.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” Chimurenga Waller of the Uhurus told those on hand Sunday night, “because we told him to bring the people who are interested and bring them here.”
The Sunday night forum stressed the importance of black community control that would stop more fatal violence against African Americans, such as the deadly shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“How we have to approach the relationship between African people and the police is what we call black community control of the police,” Waller emphasized. “This is a concept that we are putting forward and a demand that we are putting forward.”
This means that democratic control rests completely in the hands of the community most affected by police behavior, according to the movement.
“This is not a police review board we’re talking about,” Waller said. “These boards have no power to investigate anybody, and in the state of Florida the only thing they can do is review completed and past cases. We think this is not enough to stop this rampant killing of African people all over this country.”
He noted the number of demonstrations all over the country in response to these incidents, and said a movement is required to build coherence in the demand for black community control. Waller added that the hiring, firing and disciplining of the police in the African-American community are the “only way we believe we can get them under control and actually empower the African community so we can come forward!”
Added Yeshitela: “Just talking about the police murders does not get to the essence of the relationship that we have to the police and the government, in fact.”
He stressed that shootings are not merely a series of incidents, as a disproportionate amount of African-American men are stopped by police.
“We’re not looking at a series of incidents; we’re looking at something that happens to us in the aggregate. And we’ve seen some of these things happen to us in this city,” he said, referring to the fatal shooting of motorist TyRon Lewis in 1996, which sparked rioting in south St. Pete and made national news.
In addition to the murders, Yehsitela stated America has the largest prison population on earth with 2.3 million of its 350 million citizens sitting behind bars. He pointed out that there are more people in prison in this country than there is in China’s prisons, whose population is more than a billion.
“And guess who the majority of 2.3 million are in prison,” he asked rhetorically. “African people, who make up they say 12 or 13 percent of the population, yet we are the majority of the people in these prisons. So there’s something horribly wrong!”
Mentioning the case of St. Pete native Jason Mells, a young African-American man who has been pulled over 24 times in the last year and ticketed only once, Yeshitela said “this kind of thing that happens to us on a daily basis has got to stop.”
Mells said when he is pulled over, it is always for the same reasons: “Running the stop sign or failure to yield at a stop sign,” he explained. “It’s kind of odd that this is what police officers use to gain probable cause.” He urged more people to attend such forums, especially the young people of the community.
Copeland stated that a prime directive of the SCLC these days is to stress the power of the vote to the younger generation.
“We’re working on our youth right now,” he said. “We’re going to get everybody registered to vote. Voting is very important. These young kids on the street they’re actually able to vote, they just don’t know when the election days are, they don’t know how to vote, they don’t know how to register to vote, because no one teaches them that!”
Copeland promoted unity within the community to help stop the incidents of young African Americans being shot and even killed with impunity.
“Every time we lose one of our children, there’s a problem somewhere, he said. “I don’t think the people that wear these uniforms understand what it’s like to lose one of their family members. If we all stand together, I guarantee you 95 percent of this will stop. And it’ll stop because togetherness means everything. No one can control a sensible, intelligent crowd of people. Let’s stand together, everybody.”
Rev. Sykes stressed the importance of open forums where everyone, including law enforcement officials, attends.
“This is like déjà vu for me,” he said. “Not long after I got here, TyRon Lewis was killed, and because my church at the time was right down the street, it was incumbent on me to try to be involved on some level. And what ensued was a series of meetings with Goliath Davis, he was the assistant chief, and the subject matter of those meetings was changing what the police do in our community, having a say in how we are policed.”
Sykes added that not long after that, Davis was elevated to chief of police and was able to institute a number of those things that were recommended and argued over during the meetings.
Sykes believes the only way black people will have a shot at living and thriving is if they take their community back.
“I’m saying that we have got to stand up and declare, by any means necessary, that you cannot come into this community and do what you want to do in the name of law and order and escape this community without impunity,” Sykes finished.
Before the Tuesday night forum commenced, Holloway watched a group of about 40 protestors picket the police station demanding justice and the end of excessive policing in the black community.
A few protestors attended the less than militant meeting that took place across the street in the training building where a panel discussion was led by the chief himself.
“We are here to talk about that big white elephant in the room, and that’s profiling,” said Holloway. I don’t care who you are, we all profile people. Let’s call it what it is. We all do it in life, so how do we identify how we are doing it incorrectly? If we are doing something wrong as law enforcement, I would like for you to say, ‘Give us an answer.’”
Only invited members of the ad hoc committee were permitted to speak, but that didn’t stop the few people from interrupting the meeting. Committee members included a few current and past city employees, community and neighborhood leaders and police union officials.
Holloway said he has heard numerous times that the police department needs to be investigated; however, he explained that the City of St. Petersburg already has measures in place for that called the Community Awareness Response Team (CART). Once the city finishes investigating an Office of Professional Standards case, that case if forwarded to CART and is reviewed by them.
“They see the same case that the chief of police sees, and they send recommendations back,” stated Holloway.
This year the police department has had 850 cases of uses of force. Anytime an officer uses force, that officer has to write a report and it is reviewed all the way up to the top. Out of those 850 cases, four of them received complaints.
“I can tell you that out of the four, one gentleman was fired because we could prove that he used excessive force,” he said. “Every time we use force, we have to write a report.”
Holloway then opened the floor for questions. Sykes, who also participated in the Uhuru forum, asked if there are protocols that police officers take in terms on how they decided on which vehicles or individuals to stop.
“There is some protocol, said the chief, “I think maybe we can teach the citizens protocol on how to talk with us.”
He explained that when a police officer stops a vehicle they should introduce themselves and tell you what you are being pulled over for. On the flip side, the citizen must know how to speak to an officer because “you can talk yourself into a ticket.”
Committee member Edie Darling stressed that education is key. “There is a reasonable expectation that when you do get pulled over how you should behave as a citizen. If you get out of the car and create a scene, it will only make it more difficult.”
Holloway asked for suggestion on how to educate the public on how to handle themselves when they are stopped on the street or in a car.
He also feels that the police department has fallen short with communicating to the public. For instance, if you feel that you are being profiled or have a complaint of criminal misconduct against someone in the department, you can call the Department of Professional Standard at 727-893-7596, or if you’d like to anonymously report a crime, you can text it to TIPS-411.
Holloway also wants citizens to text the positive comments to TIPS-411.
Committee member Mike Adekunle suggests that racial profiling will be reduced substantially if more African Americans were on the force. He stressed that recruiting young black men and women and showing them that being a police officer is a viable career will cut down on incident.
“I don’t see special recruitment or outreach programs specifically designed to encourage African Americans, especially African-American males, to pursue law enforcement as a viable option for their career path,” he said.
Adekunle feels that you cannot be anymore culturally sensitized than if you grew up in the community. “If our cousins are out there than that level of fear is eliminated.”
The public is invited to attend a community forum about racial profiling Jan. 27. Initially the meeting was going to be held at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Campus, but committee members feel that it should be held in the community where the most profiling takes place.
Keep reading The Weekly Challenger to find out what venue is decided upon.