Black activists charged with role in Russian propaganda scheme

ACTIVISTS: Omali Yeshitela, chairperson of the African People's Socialist Party speaks for the first time since the FBI raided homes and offices belonging to the Uhurus in St. Petersburg and St. Louis, during a news conference at the Uhuru House on April 10, 2023, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times

ST. LOUIS — A federal indictment claims three activists behind a St. Louis Black empowerment group took part in a years-long Russian "agitation and propaganda" campaign to sow dissent in the United States.

The Florida grand jury indictment unsealed Tuesday alleges that Russian intelligence officers directed funds and instructions to the African People's Socialist Party, a nationwide activist group that's organized protests, carried out community projects and supported two candidates for the Board of Aldermen in St. Louis. The group's 81-year-old founder, Omali Yeshitela, founded the organization in St. Petersburg, Florida, before expanding to St. Louis in 2017, drawn to the city by the Ferguson protests.

The indictment charges Yeshitela and two other organizers active in St. Louis, Penny J. Hess and Jesse Nevel, with conspiracy to defraud the United States and impersonating agents of foreign governments. They're accused of posting Russian propaganda on the organization's website, taking Russian funds and agreeing to a Russian directive to pen a letter to the United Nations complaining of a "genocide of African people" in the U.S.

Three Russians and another former leader of the group based in Georgia and Florida, Augustus Romain Jr., are also charged in the case.

U.S. Justice Department officials on Tuesday said the case reveals the Russian government's efforts to divide U.S. society and influence elections. Members of the African People's Socialist Party have attacked the investigation as targeting their anti-colonial, anti-capitalist work advocating for Black people in the U.S.

A leader of the African People's Socialist Party declined to comment on the allegations Wednesday, saying only, "We look forward to proving our innocence in court." But Hess, one of the group leaders indicted, penned an article in November for the organization's media arm, "The Burning Spear," criticizing the investigation after federal officials raided several of the group's properties, including chairman Yeshitela's St. Louis home.

"The recent FBI assaults put the chairman in the spotlight on the world stage as a courageous freedom fighter who spent the majority of his 81 years of life relentlessly advancing the struggle for total liberation of African people," Hess wrote.

Kurt Ronnow, of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said in a statement Tuesday that the indictment instead paints "a harrowing picture of Russian government actions" and the lengths Russian intelligence "will go to interfere with our elections, sow discord in our nation and ultimately recruit U.S. citizens to their efforts.”

Claims of conspiracy

The indictment centers on one of the three Russians charged: Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov.

Ionov, according to the charges, was tasked beginning around 2014 by Russian intelligence officers from the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, with targeting secessionist groups in the U.S., the indictment claims.

The indictment claims Ionov worked with the African People's Socialist Party, along with a Georgia Black empowerment group, Black Hammer, and an unnamed organization supporting the secession of California from the United States. For years, Ionov would then report his progress to Russian FSB officers, including two charged in the case - Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov.

The claims of a conspiracy with Yeshitela and the African People's Socialist Party started in 2015.

Ionov and his group, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, offered in 2015 to fund Yeshitela to travel to his first of two Russian government-funded "Dialogue of Nations" conferences that gathered people from secessionist groups around the world, including the Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

The indictment alleges that internal emails from the African People's Socialist Party show Yeshitela knew the conference was an "instrument of the Russian government," but concluded that it did not "disturb us."

The indictment alleges that the same year, Ionov also had Hess pen a petition to the United Nations complaining of a genocide of African people in the U.S. Around the same time, he then donated $500 to the group, the charges claim.

Emails and financial documents also show Ionov sent the group about $7,000 to fund a 2016, four-city tour pushing for reparations in the U.S. and another $1,200 for a protest in Washington, D.C., the indictment says.

Ionov is also accused of trying to use an unsuccessful candidate for local office supported by the African People's Socialist Party in St. Petersburg to help Russia attack the U.S. presidential elections, describing the unnamed person to Russian intelligence officials as the "candidate whom we supervise.”

The group agreed to requests from Ionov to post an article on its media site advocating that the 2016 Olympics allow Russian athletes to participate, and group members met with Ionov on video calls to discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Yeshitela has continued to speak publicly in support of Russia and criticize the U.S. and NATO roles in the war. Videos on the topic showing him dressed in his characteristic cap adorned with a red star remained online as of Wednesday.

"More and more people are able to see that Ukraine has been an instrument for carrying out a war by the colonial powers ... against Russia," he says in one video posted to YouTube in December.

The Post-Dispatch was unable to reach Yeshitela Wednesday, but he held a press conference to defend himself in July after federal officers raided his north St. Louis home and other buildings connected to the group.

He argued the investigation was a threat to all people who organize in the Black community.

Yeshitela argued the government is using group members as "pawns in this struggle that they are engaged in, trying to deal with the clear political and economic change that is happening in the configuration of power in the world."

He said he'd gone on two paid trips to Russia for an anti-globalization conference organized by Ionov's group, but argued that fit his role as an activist battling colonialism for 50 years.

“Don’t tell us we can’t have friends that you don’t like,” he said.

A St. Louis base

The African People's Socialist Party's presence didn't go unnoticed in St. Louis before it became embroiled in a global conflict. The group operated out of a 9,000-square-foot north city event space at 4101 West Florissant dubbed "Uhuru House." Uhuru is the name of a larger anti-colonial movement Yeshitela founded in 1991, coming from the word “freedom” in Swahili.

The group has torn down a handful of derelict properties on the north side with intentions to rebuild, opened a community garden, and fielded two candidates for Board of Aldermen - Ticharwa Masimba and Herdosia "Kalambayi" Bentum - who unsuccessfully ran in 2020 with reparations at the top of their platforms.

In a 2020 Post-Dispatch story about Yeshitela and his affiliates in St. Louis, the group said they were using private donations to fund development, mainly in the form of direct donations from white people who were fed up with the city being divided. They said they were using the money and other resources to empower the Black community to become economically and politically self-reliant.

“Black is back” was the refrain shouted at events and printed in their own broadsheet newspaper. The mantra of their political party was: “Lead the struggle of the African working-class and oppressed masses against U.S. capitalist-colonialist domination and all the manifestations of oppression and exploitation that result from this relationship.”

The federal case is being prosecuted in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida.

Reporter Katie Kull of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.