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Uhurus ramped up their tactics in 2017. Was it related to July FBI raid?

Some in St. Petersburg recall that the group became more confrontational as city elections drew near.
Members of the Uhuru Movement interrupted a candidate forum with jeers and chants on July 10, 2017, at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. The incident was one of several where locals recall the group becoming increasingly contentious at city political events during that period.
Members of the Uhuru Movement interrupted a candidate forum with jeers and chants on July 10, 2017, at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. The incident was one of several where locals recall the group becoming increasingly contentious at city political events during that period. [ Times (2017) ]
Published Aug. 9|Updated Aug. 9

Deveron Gibbons was heading to his car after a mayoral debate at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in 2017 when five or six people he didn’t know began walking toward him in the parking lot.

The businessperson, who is Black, was there for his longtime friend and then-mayoral candidate Rick Baker, who is white.

“Sellout!” the group began chanting as they walked closer. All were supporters of the two Uhuru Movement candidates running that year for mayor and City Council on the platform of reparations for Black people.

Before a bystander broke up the crowd, the Uhuru members were blocking Gibbons’ car door, trying to taunt him into a fight, he said.

“The temperature changed a lot that year,” Gibbons recalled. “It was almost provoking, like ‘let’s poke the bear.’”

After the FBI last month raided the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Uhuru Movement over alleged ties to Russian interference in U.S. politics, some candidates and observers of the 2017 and 2019 St. Petersburg elections are looking at escalations by the Uhuru candidates those years in a different light.

Throughout its 50-year history, the Uhurus have been known for protest and flooding City Hall with calls for revolution and racial justice. But it’s clear the intensity of their tactics took a turn during that period.

No members of the Uhuru Movement or its umbrella organization, the African People’s Socialist Party, have been charged with a crime. But a federal indictment unsealed on July 29 alleges that a Russian official named Aleksandr Wiktorovich Ionov consulted Uhuru candidates for local office in 2017 and 2019 as part of a campaign “to sow discord and mistrust” in U.S. political systems.

The website of the Uhuru’s newspaper, The Burning Spear, features guest columns from Ionov as far back as 2014.

Around July 20, 2017, according to the indictment, Ionov contacted an unindicted co-conspirator about his bid for local office in St. Petersburg and offered assistance and “campaign finance.” The co-conspirator is not named, but details in the indictment match with Jesse Nevel, the Uhuru Movement candidate for mayor.

Gibbons grew up in St. Petersburg around founding members of the group. Reflecting on the parking lot incident, he remembers thinking he had never before seen that level of aggression from the movement.

“I felt they were definitely trying to intimidate me,” Gibbons said.

Akile Anai, director of agitation and propaganda for the African People’s Socialist Party and a candidate for City Council in 2017 and 2019, did not respond to email questions asking if Ionov influenced the group’s local campaign tactics or strategy. At an Uhuru news conference held the day of the FBI raid, Anai confirmed details of an unindicted co-conspirator in Ionov’s indictment matched her.

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When noted by a reporter at the news conference that she was not denying working with Ionov, she responded: “We unite with any force that is willing to unite in our anti-colonial struggle. … We will not refuse to engage with others around the world who want to see this system go.”

In August 2017, Baker, a former mayor who was running for a third term, was at a St. Petersburg corner waving signs with supporters during afternoon rush hour. Not long after, more than a dozen Uhuru supporters arrived and surrounded the Baker campaigners, covering their signs with their own and chanting “Murderer!” “Gentrifier!” and “Get out of the Black community!”

Baker had with him retired St. Petersburg police Officers Cedric Gordon and Al White, who were both part of the post-civil rights era of Black officers who helped reform the segregated department.

Then-mayoral candidate Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, left, gave Uhuru Movement candidate Jesse Nevel a fist bump after Nevel spoke in favor of reparations during a July 13, 2017, forum at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg. After the forum, several Uhurus confronted Deveron Gibbons, an ally of mayoral candidate Rick Baker, in the parking lot, Gibbons said. [Times (2017)]
Then-mayoral candidate Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, left, gave Uhuru Movement candidate Jesse Nevel a fist bump after Nevel spoke in favor of reparations during a July 13, 2017, forum at Greater Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg. After the forum, several Uhurus confronted Deveron Gibbons, an ally of mayoral candidate Rick Baker, in the parking lot, Gibbons said. [Times (2017)]

Baker said they advised him to not react — even when an Uhuru supporter began waving her fist in his face.

“I thought somebody was trying to tempt me to be physical, but I was never really afraid,” Baker said. “I thought of course they’re videoing me and taunting me and I thought I had to remain calm and not take the bait.”

Barry Edwards, a longtime Tampa Bay political consultant, said the same thing occurred on a different corner where he was waving signs for then-City Council candidate Robert Blackmon alongside supporters for Baker in the mayoral race. He watched the Uhurus over the years disrupt meetings and stage protests. But the confrontation that met him on the corner was like nothing he had seen from the Uhurus before. Members of the group surrounded them and chanted with fists that opened into hands “a quarter of an inch” from their faces.

“This was an escalation towards like it was trying to bait violence,” Edwards said.

The Uhurus’ escalated tone was also on display on July 10, 2017, at a candidate forum at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. During the first portion for City Council District 6 candidates, Uhuru members in the audience shouted at candidates who were not Anai.

The League of Women Voters moderator cut the mayoral portion short before closing statements as jeers and chants overwhelmed the candidates, and audience members began shoving.

Police arrived outside the building and then-Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was escorted into a back room with his wife, mother-in-law and son by security in attendance with him.

After the news broke about the FBI raid five years later, he looks back at that scene differently.

“It certainly makes you look at everything and say, ‘Wow, are these things related?’ Or maybe this was just the Uhurus being the Uhurus, ramping things up to the next level because they had a guy running for the highest position in the city,” Kriseman said. “Maybe there was more to it.”

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