CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission voted on Tuesday to revoke funding it approved last year for a radio station serving St. Petersburg’s Black communities.
The decision came days after Commissioner Chris Latvala raised concerns about the station’s association with the Uhuru Movement, the political group whose St. Petersburg headquarters was raided last year by the FBI.
The commission approved the expenditure in November as part of its first round of small allocations to nonprofits from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal COVID-19 relief program.
Of the more than $2 million allocated to 34 Pinellas organizations, about $36,800 went to the African People’s Education and Defense Fund, an Uhuru-affiliated nonprofit. The fund’s application said the money would be spent on radio equipment and computers for WBPU 96.3 FM, also known as Black Power 96.
The station broadcasts from the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave. S in St. Petersburg. The house was raided by federal agents in July amid the Uhuru Movement’s alleged connections to a Russian national accused of working with U.S. groups to spread pro-Russia propaganda and interfere with elections.
There have been no new criminal charges since the indictment last year of the Russian national, Aleksandr Ionov.
Commissioners did not express qualms about the station when they unanimously approved the first round of funding on Nov. 15. But Latvala, who was elected in November and joined the commission just after that meeting, questioned the allocation Thursday during a commission workshop presentation by the Pinellas Community Foundation. That organization has been tasked by the county with fielding applications for the money and making recommendations based on criteria set by the county.
“I think even ignoring the FBI investigation — they have not been found guilty — you can take into account everything else they’ve done, and there are numerous reasons they should not ever receive funding from this board,” Latvala said.
He accused the group of having antisemitic beliefs, though he did not cite specifics. The Anti-Defamation League, in a report issued last year, noted links between the Uhuru Movement and Black nationalist groups, such as the Nation of Islam, with a history of antisemitism, but it did not accuse the Uhurus of direct antisemitic activity.
He also referenced a 1996 mock trial in which Uhuru members called for the execution of then-St. Petersburg police Chief Darrel Stephens, then-Mayor David Fischer and two officers after police fatally shot 18-year-old TyRon Lewis, setting off protests and riots in the city.
Duggan Cooley, the chief executive officer of the Pinellas Community Foundation, said he consulted county staff about whether the radio station’s application should be considered, given the FBI raid.
“Ultimately, we were told that unless the organization was not eligible to receive federal funding, we were to treat them like every other applicant,” he said.
Latvala didn’t mention the Uhurus’ history on Tuesday when he motioned to revoke the funding. Instead, he said he had a problem with funding radio equipment rather than other social services.
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“I do not think we should be funding radio stations with the amount of needs that there are in the community,” he said, adding later that future funding rounds should “prioritize people over products and things.”
The next round of applications is scheduled to open in March, with the Community Foundation taking recommendations to the County Commission in June.
Black Power 96 did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this story via email, and a phone call to the station went unanswered. After the raid last summer, some Black community members noted that the Uhuru House has long provided services well beyond politics and activism: community healthcare and space for social events, as well as a Black community newspaper and the radio station, which is largely staffed by volunteers.
“Black Power 96 continues to provide the most reliable information to help our community survive, thrive and prosper, whether it’s regarding health and safety, economic development or weather alerts,” a message on its website reads. “The value of what we bring to south St. Pete was recognized this winter when we received funding for new equipment through the American Rescue Plan Act.”