It’s a matter of free speech, says Omali Yeshitela, the longtime leader of the St. Petersburg-based Uhuru Movement and founder of the African People’s Socialist Party.
Yeshitela was indicted by a federal grand jury in Tampa last month and accused of working with Russian nationals to sow discord in the United States, spread pro-Russian propaganda and influence elections, along with two other members of the Uhuru Movement, Penny Joanne Hess and Jesse Nevel.
On Wednesday, the three Uhuru members spoke to the press for the first time since their indictment.
“I believe in free speech,” Yeshitela said at the news conference. “If I didn’t believe in free speech, I would never have said anything because they kill Black people for talking in this country.”
Yeshitela founded the African People’s Socialist Party in 1972. The Uhuru Movement is the party’s activist branch, started in the 1990s. The group supports reparations for Black people and has protested racism, colonialism and capitalism for decades. Hess and Nevel are the chairpersons of groups for white allies under the leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement, respectively.
In St. Petersburg, the Uhurus have played a significant role in pushing for local government to correct wrongs against Black people in the city and have played a major role in protests, including after the police shooting of 18-year-old Tyron Lewis in 1996.
For some local Black activists and community leaders, the FBI’s recent investigation of the Uhuru Movement is reminiscent of federal agents’ work to discredit advocacy and political groups during the Civil Rights Movement.
The indictments came several months after a Russian national, Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, was federally indicted last July after officials said he used American political groups to interfere in U.S. elections.
FBI officials raided the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg and other locations around the time of Ionov’s indictment.
Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel each face a federal charge of plotting with Russian nationals to act as Russian agents in the United States, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Former Uhuru member Augustus C. Romain Jr. — known as Gazi Kodzo — also was indicted on that charge. Romain founded a different political group, the Black Hammer, in Georgia, and officials allege that Ionov used that group, too.
Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel also are facing a federal charge of working as Russian agents without notifying the attorney general, which can result in up to 10 years in prison.
Want breaking news in your inbox?
Subscribe to our free News Alerts newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
At an earlier news conference, before Yeshitela was criminally charged, he said he met Ionov at a conference. Yeshitela said Ionov did not play a role in any of the Uhuru candidates’ campaigns for office in St. Petersburg and denied taking money from Ionov. During Wednesday’s news conference, Yeshitela’s attorney asked him not to speak on the specifics of his relationship with Ionov.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Hess and Nevel defended Yeshitela and decried the charges.
“It is completely absurd and profoundly racist that anyone would say that Chairman Omali Yeshitela is anything but his own person, that he would be somebody else’s agent,” Hess said.
The group has started a website to seek contributions to a legal defense fund and gather signatures on a petition protesting the charges.
“These charges are illegitimate and we should all be outraged and disgusted at this blatant, despicable and shameful campaign of oppression that the U.S. government is waging against Chairman Omali Yeshitela and the Uhuru Movement,” Nevel said.