MAXWELL: Midtown crying for more action, less talk

4/30/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The time has come _ actually, it came years ago _ for so-called black leaders, such as the ever-strutting Uhuru boss Omali Yeshitela, to shut up. The time has come _ actually, it came years ago _ for Bible-toting, black elected officials, such as state Rep. Frank Peterman, to step up.

I am talking about the future of what has been dubbed Midtown, the south side of St. Petersburg, which is mostly African-American and poor. Yeshitela is big on supporting and apologizing for black thugs and motley others who terrorize their neighbors and vamp on the innocent.

Peterman, the epitome of milquetoast, hides behind the pulpit and utters scriptural bromides that do not amount to a hill of beans in Midtown’s gritty, socially dysfunctional environment.

The city’s south side is crying out for straight talk from its leaders, and it is crying out for community-minded, positive action from ordinary residents.

Obviously, I am motivated to write this column because of last week’s violence that claimed two lives. A courageous police officer also was wounded while chasing four men suspected of being involved in the shooting death of 41-year-old Cynthia Bethune.

About the shootings and their possible impact on economic development for Midtown, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said: “Does an event like this make things easier? Of course not. But I’ll tell you, it doesn’t lessen my resolve one inch.”

I admire the mayor for his determination to improve Midtown. A St. Petersburg Times editorial on Tuesday sums up his quandary: “The mayor will need help, particularly from those who live in Midtown. If such lawlessness existed in other St. Petersburg neighborhoods, the residents would be the first ones demanding protection and assisting the police in the effort. It is up to community leaders in Midtown _ and throughout the black community _ to show the same spirit and resolve.”

Only NAACP president Darryl Rouson seems to have the courage of his convictions. Some people complained that Rouson’s gun buyback effort the other day was nothing but a self-serving ploy. Maybe so, but I still commend Rouson for doing something _ anything. The buyback was more than I see coming from other self-appointed black leaders. I commend Rouson and wish others would follow his lead.

Yeshitela is content to play games echoing the world view of an era the nation left behind a generation ago. Street corner politics and storefront socialism distract attention away from the real scut work involved in economic uplift.

Midtown is not a place of police containment, as Yeshitela calls it. Midtown is a place of self-imposed containment. The simple truth is that the police are the only thing preventing hoodlums from plunging the area into barbarism. Midtown is a place where, for one reason or another, too many residents have given up on improving their lot, where dilapidation and debris are accepted, where the sound of a gunshot does not raise eyebrows.

Peterman, Midtown’s representative in the state Legislature, is content to rely on prayer. Well, as a preacher’s kid, I know a few things about prayer and the Scripture, too. I know, for example, that God helps those who help themselves.

Here is what I want Peterman to do: I want him to run a campaign to convince black residents of Midtown to do everything in their power to make their community a viable place where criminals know they are not welcome. They should inform on all known criminals. They should picket all known crack houses and outdoor drug markets. They should turn a deaf ear to Yeshitela and make the police their allies in making Midtown a safe place to live and do business.

When he campaigned for his House seat, Peterman spoke all over the place. He had signs made. He knocked on doors. He published handbills. He made promises. I want Peterman to do the same now. I want him to speak all over the place about stopping the violence and about taking personal responsibility.

I want Peterman to organize a group of clear-thinking Midtown residents and get an appointment to see the mayor. Peterman and his group should ask the mayor how they can help him in his effort to vitalize the black community. From what I know of Baker, he would meet with the group and would earnestly listen.

Then, Peterman and his group should meet with the police chief and ask how they can help him do his job better. I have met with the chief, and I know that he will listen.

Midtown overflows with prayer and suffers from Uhuru rabble-rousing. It now must have honest introspection and sober action from within. Otherwise, the area is doomed.