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Who are the Uhurus, the St. Petersburg group probed by FBI for Russian ties?

For decades, the Uhuru Movement has protested and campaigned against racism in St. Petersburg.
The National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement marched from 18 Avenue S to St Petersburg City Hall in 1997 to protest the police killing of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis. The Uhurus, a prominent activist organization in St. Petersburg, are being investigated by federal officials over ties to a Russian nationalist accused of interfering in U.S. elections.
The National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement marched from 18 Avenue S to St Petersburg City Hall in 1997 to protest the police killing of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis. The Uhurus, a prominent activist organization in St. Petersburg, are being investigated by federal officials over ties to a Russian nationalist accused of interfering in U.S. elections. [ Times 1997 ]
Published Jul. 29|Updated Aug. 3

Federal agents on Friday executed a search warrant at the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Uhuru Movement, part of a 50-year-old African socialist organization, as part of an investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections.

According to police and federal agents, the Uhurus were targeted for potential political cooperation by Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who is accused of spreading misinformation and discord to disrupt America’s political landscape.

Related: FBI investigating Russian interference possibly linked to St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement

The Uhurus have not been identified as subjects of investigation. But who are they? Here’s the group’s backstory.

What is the Uhuru Movement?

The International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement is an activist arm of the African People’s Socialist Party, a group founded in 1972 “to lead the struggle of the African working class and oppressed masses against U.S. capitalist-colonialist domination,” according to the group’s website.

The society traces roots to 1966, when a 25-year-old man named Joe Waller walked into St. Petersburg City Hall and tore down a mural portraying caricatures of Black minstrels strumming banjos for white beachgoers. Waller served 2 1/2 years in prison, but at the same time founded the movement’s official newspaper, The Burning Spear, and organized global Black activists groups from jail. He later became chairperson of the African People’s Socialist Society and changed his name to Omali Yeshitela.

In 1991, Yeshitela decided the organization needed an arm dedicated to “defeating the vicious counterinsurgency against the African community and defending the democratic rights of African people.” That group adopted the name Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom.

Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, center, speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of City Hall on June 15, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, center, speaks while standing with about 20 supporters and fellow Uhuru members on the steps of City Hall on June 15, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

How many members are there?

The group traditionally hasn’t said. Over the years, some protests have drawn dozens.

“We’re a small organization. That’s all I’ll say,” Yeshitela said in 1996. “We don’t talk numbers.”

What do they want?

The group’s official 14-point platform seeks reparations for the United States and Europeans’ past wrongs against enslaved Africans. Among them: payments and an end to taxation on Black people; the right to “political and economic association” with Africans “anywhere on the face of the earth”; the right to unify African nations under a single socialist government; and the immediate release of all Black prisoners, political or otherwise; and the right to form an African People’s Liberation Army.

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Those are global goals. Locally, the group has historically pressed public officials on righting wrongs against Black residents, from the construction of Tropicana Field in a predominantly Black district to advocating for the secession of the city’s historically Black Jordan Park neighborhood from St. Petersburg.

The city “has run a freeway through our community, destroying stable neighborhoods and transforming their African inhabitants into urban nomads,” Yeshitela wrote in 1997. “It is the intent of the Uhuru Movement to break this vicious cycle. While our primary interest is in raising up the conditions of existence of the African community and ending the various political assaults from a host of (anti-Black) forces, we are convinced that this effort is in the best interests of the entire city of St. Petersburg.”

How visible are they in St. Petersburg?

Over the years, pretty visible. In the mid-2000s, Uhuru members and anti-Iraq War activists targeted St. Petersburg’s BayWalk shopping and dining complex for a series of protests so vocal and visible that they were frequently cited as reasons why the complex lost business and failed. BayWalk was eventually redeveloped and rebranded as the Sundial.

The Uhurus played a significant role in the citywide riots that followed the 1996 police killing of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis. The group led vigils and marches, and called for the release of arrested protestors and retribution against the white officer that shot Lewis during a traffic stop. When a grand jury cleared the officer, a clash with police broke out at the Uhuru House, with three members arrested and charged with an array of offenses.

In the years after Lewis’ death, the Uhurus waged virtual war against the city and law enforcement, once even sentencing the mayor and police chief to death during an internal tribunal. They pushed for a publicly funded gymnasium to be named the All People’s TyRon Lewis Community Gym. And in 2016, without the city’s permission, the group erected a sign at the site of Lewis’ death renaming 18th Avenue S “TyRon Lewis Avenue.”

The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement changed the name of 18th Avenue S to TyRon Lewis Avenue for the 20th anniversary of his death in 2016.
The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement changed the name of 18th Avenue S to TyRon Lewis Avenue for the 20th anniversary of his death in 2016. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Tampa Bay Times ]

There is one more thing the Uhurus are known for in St. Petersburg: their pies. The group’s fundraising arm bakes and sells sweet potato, pumpkin, apple crumb and other pies at the city’s Saturday Morning Market, and takes countless special orders before holidays.

Are they active in St. Petersburg city politics?

Yes. Almost every election cycle, the Uhurus have put forth or backed candidates for mayor and City Council, most of them outspoken. In 2017, the group interrupted a mayoral debate, causing a fracas that led to a shoving match broken up by police. A week later, the race made national news when a candidate told supporters of the Uhurus’ preferred candidate, Jesse Nevel — the white chairperson of the national Uhuru Solidarity Movement — to “go back to Africa” during a debate.

Were they active during the George Floyd protests of 2020?

Only a few of the organizers who emerged to lead protests throughout the city after Floyd was killed by Minnesota police had a stated connection to the Uhuru Movement. Yeshitela led one protest calling for Bank of America to pay more than $1 billion in reparations for “the development of the economic power in the African community.” At another protest, Uhuru member Eritha Cainion, a former city council candidate, grabbed a microphone at the steps of City Hall.

“Fist up, fight back!” she yelled, leading the crowd in a call-and-response. “Jail the killer cops now!”

Times staff writers Jack Evans and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report, which used information from Times archives.

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