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After FBI raid, Uhuru leader denies Russian role in St. Pete elections

Omali Yeshitela spoke for the first time since the FBI raided Uhuru locations last year.
 
Omali Yeshitela, chairperson of the African People's Socialist Party speaks for the first time since the FBI raided homes and offices belonging to the Uhurus in St. Petersburg and St. Louis, during a press conference at the Uhuru House, Monday, April 10, 2023 in St. Petersburg.
Omali Yeshitela, chairperson of the African People's Socialist Party speaks for the first time since the FBI raided homes and offices belonging to the Uhurus in St. Petersburg and St. Louis, during a press conference at the Uhuru House, Monday, April 10, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published April 10, 2023|Updated April 11, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Omali Yeshitela traveled back to his hometown to speak out for the first time since the FBI raided homes and operations run by the Uhuru Movement based in St. Petersburg and St. Louis last year.

Federal law enforcement officials are investigating what they have said are connections between the Uhurus and a Russian national whose organization they say was “funded by the Russian government through government grants.” U.S. officials believe Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov directed political groups such as the Uhurus in a campaign to sow division, spread pro-Russian propaganda and interfere in U.S. elections.

Yeshitela adamantly denied accepting any money from Ionov while speaking at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg on Monday. He said Ionov had no role in the Uhuru candidates’ campaigns in the 2017 and 2019 St. Petersburg elections. Ionov, whom Yeshitela said he met at a conference, is the only individual currently facing charges.

Yeshitela, however, said he expected criminal charges to be filed against him — not for any involvement with Russia, but for his work liberating Black people.

“I ain’t ever worked for a Russian. Never ever ever ever,” he said. “They know I have never worked for Russia. Their problem is, I’ve never worked for them.”

No documents have been filed to the U.S. District Court’s case since August.

“We’re not going to make any comments outside of what’s already on the docket,” said U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Amy Filjones. “Nothing other than what’s already been filed.”

Yeshitela, chairperson of the African People’s Socialist Party, was born as Joe Waller in St. Petersburg 81 years ago. He famously tore down a racist mural at St. Petersburg City Hall in 1966, for which he served five years in prison. He then founded the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.

He recalled what happened in the early hours of July 29 when police executed a search warrant on his home in St. Louis and at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg. Yeshitela said he and his wife were at their dining room table in their home in north St. Louis when he heard a racket from outside the house.

“Come out with your hands up,” said a startling sound system. Explosions began to go off around the house. He ordered his wife to stay behind and call for help while he began going downstairs. He said the phone companies jammed their lines.

As he headed down to a dark downstairs, lights appeared in his face. He noticed lit targets on his chest from automatic assault weapons. A drone heading up the stairs almost hit his wife in the face.

Yeshitela said police zip-tied his wrists behind his back and handcuffed his wife. They were ordered to sit outside on the curb as police took his cellphone, laptops and electronic communication devices.

He said he would talk more about what happened and answer more questions at 7 p.m. Thursday at an event back at the Uhuru House.

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The Pinellas County Commission in February pulled $36,800 in funding for WBPU 96.3 FM, also known as Black Power 96, over concerns with the station’s ties to the Uhuru Movement. Yeshitela said Regions Bank recently canceled the Uhurus’ lines of credit and prematurely called in a mortgage loan on a 22-year-old account.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately characterize the Russian national facing charges.