ST. PETERSBURG — From his vantage on 18th Avenue S., Jabaar Edmond watched as federal agents raided the Uhuru House a week ago. That morning, someone had sent him a video of agents trying to breach the building. A spiderweb of cracks was left in the glass front door. The agents had a warrant, but to Edmond, it looked like an invasion.
As Edmond learned more about what was happening, his mind quickly turned to the period of time, from the late 1950s to the early 70s, when the FBI engaged in a campaign to spy on and discredit groups it deemed subversive. It targeted organizations ranging from the Communist Party to the Black Panthers.
“This is COINTELPRO,” thought Edmond as he looked on, referring to the FBI’s Civil Rights-era campaign to disrupt and criminalize the actions and players behind social movements.
Some in St. Petersburg’s Black communities see a parallel between the legacy of law enforcement crackdowns on minority movements with the extraordinary raid on the Uhuru headquarters last week, local leaders said. The group’s leaders have seized on that theme.
“When they attacked the Uhuru House right here, and what they did in St. Louis to our leaders there, it was an attack not just on our party but on the entire Black community and our right to struggle for our own freedom,” said Akile Anai, director of agitation and propaganda for the African People’s Socialist Party, of which the Uhuru Movement is a part.
Community leaders and activists note that St. Petersburg’s Black population is not a monolith — some residents feel little or no kinship with the Uhurus or their political aims and tactics.
But several leaders said that the events of the past week rattled their neighbors, who mistrust the government’s intentions, and who feel the weight of the FBI’s fraught history with Black communities and activists.
Edmond summed up the feeling: “It doesn’t smell good.”
No Uhuru leaders have been charged in the federal investigation, which concerns allegations that a Russian national, Aleksandr Ionov, worked with U.S. groups to spread propaganda and interfere in local elections. Neither the Uhuru Movement nor members are named in the indictment.
But it was immediately clear that law enforcement is looking into connections between the Uhurus and the Russians. The St. Petersburg news conference where officials announced Ionov’s indictment came a few hours after federal agents simultaneously raided the Uhuru House, the movement’s offices in St. Louis and several homes, including that of chairperson Omali Yeshitela.
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Some tactics at play in the Uhuru ordeal are indeed “straight out of COINTELPRO,” or more formally, the Counterintelligence Program, said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
The attention-grabbing raids, a meeting with select Black leaders before the indictment announcement, the implied involvement of the Uhurus despite the lack of arrests — all echo the FBI’s old playbook.
The aim then was to discourage Black groups from activity protected by the First Amendment, German said. Some of those tactics have re-emerged as “disruption strategies” since 9/11.
“It creates actual harm, because there’s no (legal) forum for these individuals to defend themselves against particular charges,” German said.
A spokesperson for the FBI’s Tampa field office, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to comment.
There’s a sense that the federal government has shunted this case into the court of public opinion, said Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association.
“We’re willing to be patient and allow the (legal) process to do what it does,” he said. “Until then, we’re not going to be quick to react or side with the government against our own people, in light of the history we have with this government.”
Security footage from both St. Petersburg and St. Louis shows rifle-wielding figures breaching the buildings. Anai said the agents that raided Yeshitela’s home trained their assault rifles on him.
In St. Petersburg, she said, security cameras were taped over, and she displayed the damage to several doors. She also said that the manager of the Uhurus’ in-house radio station received a phone call before the raid from someone asking to be let in, but by the time the manager arrived, agents were already forcing their way inside.
German said it “appears entirely appropriate” for the FBI to investigate suspected election interference. But the publicly available information doesn’t support the need for aggressive raids, he said.
“Perhaps the FBI has some underlying reason we’ll see later, but the problem is when you conduct an aggressively armed raid like this, it gives the impression in the community this is a dangerous group.”
“They’re still ours”
To most outside of St. Petersburg’s Black communities, the Uhuru Movement is probably best known for its most visible political gestures: It regularly runs candidates for city office — sometimes leading to fiery campaign cycles — and has been at the fore of protests against police violence, though it was mostly quiet during 2020′s George Floyd protests.
But for those closer to the Uhurus’ St. Petersburg home on 18th Ave. S, the movement represents a vital and wide-ranging presence. Some may know the Uhuru House because they’ve attended weddings or graduation celebrations there. It has a commercial kitchen, to help launch small businesses.
The Uhuru influence on St. Pete politics may be broader than many realize, too, Muhammad said.
“They have inspired several generations of activists, some who may have had their early introduction to politics through their political training, their political activism,” he said.
To Edmond, the persistent presence of the Uhurus represents “a continuation of a movement from yesteryear,” he said. Other organizations may be long gone — in part because of the federal government’s efforts — but the Uhuru Movement is a living tether to the Civil Rights Era.
“You go to a Black community 2 miles away, 5 miles away, you don’t have a facility, you don’t have a newspaper, you don’t have a radio station, you don’t have Black candidates running,” he said.
Now, though, the fact that the Uhurus are such a presence in St. Petersburg’s Black community is a factor in neighbors’ fears in the wake of the raid, said LaDonna Butler, a therapist who co-founded The Well for Life on 22nd Street S. The raid opens up the question of who else the federal government has been watching, she said, and people are worried: If I rented out the banquet hall, if I used the Uhuru House wifi, am I on a list somewhere?
“I think the general sense is, they’re still ours,” she said. “And when they are surveilled, it brings about questions around our overall safety.”
Yeshitela stoked those fears during a news conference Tuesday, as he lamented the seizure of the Uhuru House’s archives.
“They know you, because you made contributions, because you sent an email, because you sent a text,” he said. “They’ve got all this information, able to construct what they want to construct out of all of that.”
There’s another frustration, Muhammad and Edmond said: It’s a distraction. The attention on the Uhurus takes away from chronic, immediate issues in their community. If the federal government wanted to help the Black people of St. Petersburg, Muhammad said, it could intervene in the growing housing crisis, in educational inequities.
“The issues we had seconds before the pried the door open of the Uhuru House, we still have,” Edmond said. “That’s going nowhere, even after the indictment is gone.”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.