In St. Petersburg, Uhuru members deny federal charges in Russian-influence case
‘My crime is my absolute belief in free speech,’ Uhuru leader declares
Uhuru movement leader Omali Yeshitela speaking at a press conference on May 10, 2023. Credit: Mitch Perry
For the first time since a federal grand jury indicted members of the St. Petersburg-based Black nationalist group known as the Uhuru Movement last month on allegations that they worked on a Russian political-influence campaign in the U.S., three members of the organization have vehemently denied the charges.
“My crime is my absolutely belief in free speech,” said Omali Yeshitela, 81, who founded the African People’s Socialist Party in 1972 and the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in 1991. He didn’t comment much beyond the direct charges on advice of his attorney, but he has previously claimed that charges that he worked for or took money from the Russian government are completely false.
A superceding indictment released by the U.S. Department of Justice on April 18 in the Middle District of Florida in Tampa alleges that Yeshitela traveled to Russia in May 2015 and entered into a partnership with Alexsandr Viktorovich Ionov, founder and president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR). That organization is based in Moscow and funded by the Russian government, the indictment says, adding that Yeshitela formed the partnership knowing that Ionov and AGMR were Russian agents.
The indictment says that Ionov paid the Uhurus to conduct a four-city protest tour supporting a “Petition on Crime Against African People in the United States.”
It also alleges that Ionov used the AGMR to carry out Russia’s “malign influence campaign,” and that the efforts were directed and supervised by Ionov and two other Russian Federal Security Services defendants.
The other Uhuru members indicted are Penny Hess, Jesse Nevel, and Augustus C. Romain Jr., a former Uhuru member also known as Gazi Kodzo. The three Russians and four Uhuru members are charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government in the United States without notice to the attorney general, as required by law. If convicted, they each face a maximum of five years in prison.
Yeshitela, Hess, and Nevel are also charged with acting as Russian agents within the United States without prior notification. If convicted on that charge, they each face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
‘No basis in reality’
Yeshitela, Hess, and Nevel spoke Wednesday from the Uhuru headquarters in South St. Petersburg. The press conference began with brief comments from three separate attorneys representing the members remotely through a video broadcast.
“These indictments have no basis in reality,” said Hess, who is chair of the African People’s Solidarity Committee, an organization representing white people under the African People’s Socialist Party. She added that it was “completely absurd and profoundly racist that anyone will say that Chairman Omali Yeshitela is anyone but his own person.”
Nevel, also a member of the African People’s Solidarity Committee, was the most outspoken member of the group in criticizing the indictment.
“I denounce these horrific attacks on our presumed rights to freedom of speech and political expression by the U.S. government’s so-called Department of Justice,” he said. “These charges are illegitimate, and we should all be outraged and disgusted about this blatant, despicable, and shameful campaign of repression that the U.S. government is waging against Chairman Omali Yeshitela.”
Among the activities that the Ionov and the other Russians are charged with is clandestinely funding and directing the campaign of an unidentified political candidate in St. Petersburg in 2019. The indictment alleges that they intended their 2019 election interference plot to extend beyond the local election cycle in St. Petersburg that year and that the two later discussed that the “USA Presidential election” was the FSB’s “main topic of the year.”
Last July, the FBI raided Uruhu offices in both St. Petersburg and St. Louis; Yeshitela said Wednesday that the Uhurus had established a presence in that city following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, at the hands of a white police officer in 2014.
The Uhuru’s have unsuccessfully run candidates many times for local offices in St. Petersburg over the years, with Eritha Akile Cainion running for City Council in 2017 and 2019. She also goes by the name Akile Anai.
Yeshitela first became known in St. Petersburg in 1965, when, under his previous name of Joe Waller, he tore down a racially offensive mural from a wall in St. Petersburg’s City Hall. He was arrested, tried, and found guilty in municipal court and sentenced to 180 days in the county jail. He ran for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2001, finishing fifth in a nine-person primary field.
Nevel ran for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2017 and finished a distant third behind incumbent Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker.
The organization has been a voice for decades in St. Petersburg, Philadelphia, Oakland, and other communities denouncing racism and colonialism and calling for reparations for the Black community.
The attorneys for the three Uhuru members said they expect to begin the discovery phase soon, when the government must show them its evidence. They would have a much better sense of direction of how the case will go at that point, they said.
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