ST. PETERSBURG, July 10, 2017 — It all comes together. Last year, the night of March 31, three Black girls — Laniya Miller (15), Ashaunti Butler (15), and Dominique Battle (16) — were picked up and offered a ride home. The man went into the South Side Walmart supposedly to “get a TV,” leaving the three to wait in the car. He returned with a bag full of liquor bottles and some bad intentions. The three fled in the car, which was never reported stolen.
Somehow it ended with a wild police chase led by Pinellas County Deputy Howard Skaggs, a known killer cop. With the pursuing officers clocked at near 100 miles per hour, they forced the girls off the road and into a pond. The officers waited on the shore while the girls drowned. They died screaming.
The Tampa Bay Times portrayed the girls as thieves who deserved their fate.
The South Side community was not so forgiving. The community formed the Committee for Justice for the Three Drowned Girls. Its chair was (and is) the now 20-year-old Eritha Akilé Cainion.
Today, Akilé is running for City Council, District 6. Her running mate is Uhuru Solidarity leader Jesse Nevel, running for mayor against the “Two Ricks,” Rick Baker (R) and Rick Kriseman (D), two wealthy Big Business politicians. Last night’s debate at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront Hotel was run by the League of Women Voters and the Downtown Neighborhood Association, doing a two-step for Mayor and City Council District 6.
The opening round was for the District 6 Council seat, with Akilé debating two Black candidates, Corey Givens and Maria Scruggs, and five white folks, Jim Jackson, Justin Bean, Robert Blackmon, Gina Driscoll and James Scott
Scruggs had been blistered the night before, at an Akilé/Scruggs debate at Uhuru House. She made the mistake of attacking the parenting of Kunde Mwamvite, the mother of Dominique Battle, one of the three Black girls murdered the year before. Kunde rose up to personally challenge Scruggs, and the exchange got hot and heavy. Finally, Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela took the mike and outlined in detail the brutal events of March 31, 2016. Scruggs was silent.
Similarly in the mayoral debate, Momma Tee Lassiter, debating Jesse Nevel, dissed Kunde, a working mother trying to raise young kids on her own. Momma Tee likes to play the lovable old curmudgeon speaking truth to power, but she was vicious that night. Kunde took her on, and Momma Tee ended up skulking out in a rage.
Writer’s note: In reporting on the usual debate in the usual way, I would refer to the Uhurus as “they.” But this was “we” who brought down the house Monday night. The usual story would go something like “Candidate Smith said something stupid and Candidate Jones said something banal, and our candidates said something stirring and brilliant, etc. (which they did!). If you want that version, read the Tampa Bay Times, just standing everything on its head. That version — set in the League’s tightly-controlled terms — doesn’t capture the real debate that happened, between the rich and the gentrifiers and their paid political hacks on one side, arrayed against the poor and working class people of this city, particularly the African people of this city. It doesn’t challenge the League’s middle-class terms of debate, which paralyze the people in the name of what passes for “good manners,” terms that obscure the real power relationships that rule this city, this playground for the rich lording it over this wasteland of food deserts, uncontrolled police and failing schools.
Our story is the story of how we challenged the rules of the game, conducted the debate on our own terms, and for one night brought a new St. Petersburg into being. So it begins.
The Uhuru plan was simple. Applaud when it was Akilé’s turn to speak. When her time was up, applaud again, then stop. Pretty damn revolutionary, huh? It had worked at the Mt. Zion debate the week before, when the candidates had had three minutes to answer their questions.
Round 1 — City Council
The League of Women Voters’ Pat Wood, laid down the rules. Her plan was oh so crafty. Instead of three minutes per answer, it was to be only one minute, with 30-second “Lightning Rounds” interspersed to keep it lively. That would guarantee that everything would be superficial. And there was to be NO APPLAUSE until the entire debate was over. The trains would run on time.
So Akilé gets to answer a question. As she begins, applause. As she ends, applause. Glaring like Nurse Ratchett, the moderator warns that there was to be no more of that.
Next question. Akilé’s turn, etc., etc. Nurse Ratchett is not amused. “This WILL not happen again!” If it does, there will be no more debate. We’re in trouble now.
Next question, Akilé, etc., etc., etc. Same thing. Ratchett blinks. The debate will continue. But Ratchett is very clever. Next round, the time spent applauding Akilé would be deducted from her time in the next round. We boo, but she’s got us there.
Next question. Akilé, etc., etc., etc.
Next question. Akilé, etc., etc., etc. Ratchett tries to cut into Akilé’s time. Akilé keeps going. And now, we start applauding ALL the candidates. Is Ratchett going to start cutting their time? Nope. Ratchett reaches for the smelling salts. Around Ratchett, there is whispering going on. You can almost see the white flag of surrender running up the pole.
The debate continues. Our arms are starting to get weary from clapping, and we need to save our strength for the coming mayoral contest. Things calm down, proceed in an orderly fashion, we’ve made our point. Contrary to the Tampa Bay Times, everyone gets their say. However, a lesson is learned. Repression backfires.
Round 2 — Mayoral
Time for the main event, featuring the big white money boys Rick and Rick, and a scattered field of others, Black candidates Ernisa Barnwell, Anthony Cates III, Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter of the night before, and finally our own Jesse Nevel.
The one-minute/30-second time limit actually works against the Ricks. The Deadly Duo’s style is to numb the audience with statistics, rattle off lists of agencies, pretend that naming a bunch of programs is some kind of answer. Problem is, they have been programmed to give three-minute answers, so they kept getting cut off, not by the Uhurus, but by the League’s own timekeepers.
This round, Nurse Ratchett has abandoned the Iron Fist. The rules fought for and won by the Uhurus during the Council debate are now in force. Also, there is a new wrinkle. While Nevel gets the most applause, the three Black candidates start getting some applause of their own supporters. We’ve opened up the process for everyone. The Ricks are so bad that they keep getting interrupted by catcalls from the audience — and that’s not just coming from us.
The most hilarious moment is when Kriseman gets asked who his top five donors are. He mumbles and stumbles. He does not name a single one. He tries to hide behind the $1,000 individual donor limit, and forgets to mention Frank Brunckhorst, who gave $25,000 to Kriseman’s Sunrise PAC in April. The crowd is not pleased. The dynamic changes. The debate takes shape.
Nevel sets the tone, he stays focused, he says what has to be said, ever more pointedly within that one-minute limit. The contest turns into a fight with Nevel and the three Black candidates battling the Ricks. Police brutality. Housing. Education. Development of the South Side. To their dismay, Ratchett and the League of Women Voters have a real debate on their hands.
Momma Tee lights the fuse …
This proves to be the final question: “How would you address allegations of police abuse?”
Nevel’s turn comes: “In the room with us tonight is a woman named Kunde Mwamvite the mother of Dominique Battle, one of the three Drowned Black Girls.” He quickly relates their story while Momma Tee glowers. Nevel says, “I say this to other white people here, the death of that child should be as painful for us as it has been for her. We cannot cooperate with a city government that expects us to stand by idly while the police and the Sheriff’s Department murder Black children in our name. I call for the immediate removal of the murderous Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department from the city of St. Petersburg and Black community control of the police. Period.”
Momma Tee, with curmudgeonly indignation, can’t resist going for a cheap shot. In doing so, she puts an end to Black unity. “I have no problem with Sheriff Gualtieri,” she declares. Insisting that she “speaks truth to power” over and over, Momma Tee denounces Uhuru House for snubbing her the night before. Uhuru got away with it last night, she thinks, but they’re not going to get away with it here.
… and the debate explodes!
Kunde is on her feet. Kunde rips right back. She won’t allow her child to be called a criminal. People around her are on their feet shouting. A Uhuru is standing on a chair, fist in the air. One of the League heavies tries to move on to “final remarks,” isn’t heard. Amid the bedlam, she declares the debate over, but the debate is not over for anyone but the Ricks and the League.
The Kriseman camp at the front of the hall start spewing their hatred.
“Those girls deserved to die!”
“They stole a car!”
“They killed themselves!”
The Uhurus reply in equal measure.
As people began filing out, three cops appear at the door, quite calm, slightly bemused. Back on the dais, a League woman is waving some papers in the air and trying to shout “Get out of the room” over and over and over again while no one listens. There was nothing for the police to do but collect some overtime. In the hallway, people mill around, the arguments are heated and loud. There are no “fisticuffs.”
Democracy had come to the Hilton.
We gather at Uhuru House, exuberant, exhilirated, to recap the night. Someone says, “We shut the debate down.”
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela replies, “No. We made the debate happen!”
The Tampa Bay Times quotes St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Jim Previtera: “We certainly don’t want to have to become involved in these forums unless there is criminal behavior,” Previtera said. “The reality of the matter is that free speech is important, we don’t want to do anything to inhibit it. But speech crosses a line when it is threatening or results in any physical violence.” While Monday’s forum ended in chaos, he said, it did not cross that line.
Meanwhile, on the formerly progressive WMNF 88.5 radio station, they interviewed Susan McGrath, the chair of the Pinellas Democrats. She calls the Uhuru Movement a “domestic terrorist” organization.
— Jeff Roby
July 12, 2017