ST. PETERSBURG — Fifty years ago, Askia Muhammad Aquil was acquitted.
The St. Petersburg resident — then named Otha Favors — was acquitted of marijuana possession. He was acquitted of operating a business without a license, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and occupying a room for immoral purposes. He was acquitted on two firearms charges and one obscenity charge.
“I can’t even remember everything I was arrested and acquitted for,” Aquil, 74, said. “It was a lot.”
From February through August of 1971, he was brought to trial five times in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, each ending the same way.
His only “crime,” Aquil said, was being Black and a vocal leader in the civil rights movement. “So, I was harassed.”
Aquil and his attorney back then claimed that the FBI, local law enforcement and the media were working together to silence him. It sounded like a conspiracy theory, but they were certain of it.
Today, Aquil said, he has proof.
In recent years, he obtained FBI records detailing surveillance of local civil rights organizations in the early 1970s.
The vague reports that he shared with the Tampa Bay Times are made even vaguer with redactions, but Aquil said passages prove his point.
“Dissemination of information to the Intelligence Units of the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Tampa Police Department ... have been instrumental in arrests ... and harassment” of members of Aquil’s Black Youth for Peace and Power organization, reads an entry dated June 1, 1970.
Another report from Nov. 2, 1970, says that a redacted name would push for the local newspapers to publicize stories about Aquil’s arrests and that the FBI’s involvement “would not be mentioned and the Bureau’s interests will be protected.”
Reporters, he said, cast him as the big bad — a militant, pot-smoking Black power advocate who lived with a white woman during a time when such a relationship was taboo.
“They wanted to turn people on me to silence me,” Aquil said.
Newspaper headlines detailing his arrests often referred to him as a “militant,” but there were also editorials and columns praising his leadership ability.
“He could be a strong force for improving conditions within the Black community and easing tension,” the Tampa Tribune wrote in May 1970.
There is no mention in the FBI reports about whether journalists were working with the FBI or were reporting on story ideas pitched to them from law enforcement sources.
Growing up in St. Petersburg, he said, there were no signs that he would become “public enemy number one. I was in the Boy Scouts, Little League, Honor Society, French Club, yearbook. I was the type of kid you’d figure would never get a ticket.”
Then eye surgery forced him to withdraw from the University of South Florida for a semester in 1967.
“I stayed with family in Detroit,” Aquil said, “and faced down a weaponized National Guard” during that summer’s violent and destructive civil unrest. “I returned to USF with a different outlook.”
Classmate Fred Hearns said Aquil hosted “rap sessions every Wednesday where we would talk about what was going on in the world and how it affected Black people.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Aquil provided the keynote student address at a rally. Rather than channeling his anger over the murder of the civil rights icon, Aquil said, he focused on asking students to fulfill King’s vision.
“We will effect a change in the world for we will not be satisfied with the world as it is,” reads a copy of that speech he provided to the Times. “This is our memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Aquil then founded the One to One Group, which brought together students supporting militant activities and those who chose peaceful means to bring equality. They wrote up a list of demands and publicized the day and time those would be delivered to administration.
When they arrived at the main office, news archives report, the lights were off and the door was locked. So, the students slid the demands under the door. Among those fulfilled was the creation of a Department of Africana Studies.
Two years later, Aquil estimates, he founded Black Youth for Peace and Power.
They spoke out against police brutality, pushed for economic equality and demanded that the then all-Black Middleton and Blake high schools remain open. There was discussion each would be shuttered as Hillsborough County desegregated schools.
Aquil said he was informed early on by a friend with law enforcement connections that the group was infiltrated as part of the FBI’s counterintelligence measures.
“Tampa is following closely the activities of members” of the organization, an FBI report dated Dec. 1, 1970, reads. “Tampa will remain alert for counterintelligence potential.”
The FBI reports state the efforts were part of the federal government’s COINTELPRO operation. Short for Counterintelligence Program, according to the FBI’s website, it began “in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party.”
Meetings were held at Aquil’s East Tampa home at 4219 E Cayuga St. He hung a sign over the phone warning people to be discreet because the line was tapped.
His string of arrests began in October 1969.
Black Youth for Peace and Power reproduced civil rights literature that Aquil said was handed out with a request for a donation. But the wife of a Tampa detective claimed a teenager knocked on her door with the offer to sell it.
Aquil was charged with operating a business without a license and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. During his arrest, police learned he was living with his girlfriend, Sharon Clinkenbeard, so Aquil was also charged with occupying a room for immoral purposes.
“It was against the law to cohabitate with someone of the opposite sex unless you were married,” Aquil’s attorney Delano Stewart said. “It was never enforced. They only enforced it that time because she was a beautiful white woman dating a Black man.”
In February 1970, Aquil was arrested again. Police searched his home on a tip that rampant drug use occurred there. News reports say police found marijuana residue in a peace pipe owned by his other roommate and “traces” of marijuana in a third bedroom. Aquil said that room was used as a “crash pad” after late-night meetings and still denies the marijuana was his.
Over the next year, he was arrested on an obscenity charge after he quoted a passage from national civil rights leader Rap Brown’s autobiography as part of a speech at a civil rights rally, charged with lying on an application for a gun because he did not disclose the previous charges that were still pending, and charged with carrying a shotgun in public in a “threatening or dangerous manner.”
“They charged him with a myriad of things,” Stewart said. “But his record remained as clean as a freshly pressed white shirt because he was innocent.”
Aquil was acquitted of all but one charge, according to news archives. He received a $25 fine for displaying a weapon, but the “threatening or dangerous manner” charge was dropped.
Stewart successfully argued that while Aquil was an admitted marijuana smoker at that time, there was no proof the drugs in the home were his.
The cohabitation charge was dropped because Aquil and Clinkenbeard had recently gotten engaged and she was pregnant.
In court, Stewart also argued that law enforcement was harassing his client.
“It is disheartening to see these people harassed because they believe something different,” he told a judge in July 1970, according to news archives. “These people are continually bothered by police and they can’t even hand out handbills and literature without being stopped.”
After an acquittal and while still in the courtroom, Aquil said, one of his arresting officers declared that Stewart was the “godfather of the Black Panther party. He yelled that he would have Del disbarred and me thrown in jail if it was the last thing he ever did.”
Aquil estimates he spent 10 total days in a cell while waiting to be bailed out after each arrest. News archives say bail was fundraised by supporters.
“All COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971,” the FBI’s website says.
Aquil said he was never arrested again after that and continued to push for racial equality.
“I would organize marches and participate, but I also found other ways to help,” he said.
He spent time as an assistant housing manager at the since-razed Central Park Village housing projects, organizing residents fighting for better conditions. He was later hired by the Florida Department of Human Relations to help forge relations between law enforcement and the community and then served as deputy director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority
He changed his name from Otha Favors to Askia Muhammad Aquil in the late ’70s when he decided he no longer wanted the name given to his family by their former “slave masters,” he said.
Today, Aquil remains active through nonprofits such as Dog Tag Heroes, which provides social services for veterans, and Collective Empowerment Group of the Tampa Bay Area, which he said battles economic disparities.
“It is hard to believe it has been 50 years since all that happened,” Aquil said. “I do think about it from time to time. I think most people have forgotten.”
Hearns, who today chronicles local Black history, said Aquil should be celebrated among the area’s historic civil rights leader.
“He doesn’t get mentioned like that,” Hearns said. “That’s wrong. He was the real deal. He had real guts. He put his life on the line, and we should be thankful for all he did.”