St. Louis activists say their alignment with Russians is protected political speech. The feds disagree.


Russian Interference Case

Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, addresses the recent killings of Black males and police on July 8, 2016, in Dallas.   

ST. LOUIS — Omali Yeshitela came of age in Florida when Emmett Till was killed. He found his own path forward as an activist while Malcolm X captured the nation’s attention.

At 81, he’s still at it. He’s physically fit and speaks fiercely about the death grip of American colonialism on Black people. To empower them, he founded the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru movement.

Yeshitela and his team set up shop in St. Louis as the intense protests that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 started calming. They acquired dilapidated property in north St. Louis, fixed some of it up and hoisted an enormous red, black and green African national flag.

They also handed out free copies of their broadsheet newspaper, “The Burning Spear,” and fielded two candidates who ran for the Board of Aldermen, demanding reparations now. They opened a storefront on Gravois Avenue as an easier access point for white people to get involved and make donations.

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Fringe groups have operated in St. Louis for a long time, but this one stands out. One year ago, federal agents raided several of their locations. In April, Yeshitela and two associates also living in St. Louis — Penny Hess and Jesse Nevel — were indicted on an “espionage light” charge accusing them of working with Russian foreign agents to sow discord inside the United States.

Yeshitela, who did prison time in the 1960s for tearing down a racially offensive painting in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, is calling for the indictment of the “Uhuru 3” to be dropped based on First Amendment grounds. Yes, he says, he’s rooted for Russia in Ukraine but insists it shouldn’t matter who his friends are or who financially supports his organizations.

“We’ll be filing briefs in the courts to fight this on every front,” Yeshitela said in a recent interview.

He said it’s the latest example of the federal government using its domination to attack Black activism, such as when J. Edgar Hoover went after Black nationalist Marcus Garvey 100 years ago.

Asked if he felt exploited by the Russians, given his long history in activism and calls for reparations, he said: “I feel exploited by the U.S. government … and white people.”

Asked if the Russians ever wanted him to do anything he wouldn’t do, Yeshitela didn’t answer and soon ended the interview.

A few days later, the Uhuru 3 broadcasted a public rebuttal on their own terms.

“We have to be careful what we say because the colonizers control the courtroom,” Yeshitela says in the video. “The colonizers control the police. The colonizers control the jobs.”


Omali Yeshitela

Omali Yeshitela, center, speaks in front of his home in the 4400 block of Red Bud Avenue in north St. Louis on Friday, July 29, 2022, with his supporters, following a federal raid of the property.

Yeshitela and his colleagues are charged under Section 951 of the U.S. Code, a law that grew out of Germany’s attempts to influence American thought leading up to World War I. Three Russians, including Aleksandr “Sasha” Ionov, are also accused.

The indictment says Ionov was the founder and president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, or AGMR. From at least 2013, Ionov allegedly worked with officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the main successor agency of the KGB, to “use members of various U.S. political groups as foreign agents of Russia within the United States, without notification of the Attorney General.” Ionov allegedly “exercised direction and control over these groups.”

In a public notice about Ionov, the U.S. government says it’s offering a reward of up to $10 million for information “leading to the identification or location of any foreign person, including a foreign entity, who knowingly engaged or is engaging in interference in U.S. elections.”

Ionov, 33, told Reuters in Moscow that he’s no puppeteer.

“These charges are complete nonsense,” he told the news service. “When I read the charges against me, I felt that I was reading some sort of artistic story.”

“I did not pay any money to anyone,” he added. “The decision to open a criminal case against me is a political decision.”

Yeshitela, as chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party, is accused of going on paid trips to Russia, where he allegedly entered into “partnership” with Ionov and the AGMR, knowing that they were “agents of the Russian government.” Hess is accused of facilitating communications between Ionov and Yeshitela. Nevel, who ran for local office in St. Petersburg, Florida, was also accused of conspiring with the Russians.

The indictment says Yeshitela went on two paid trips to Russia. The first was in late May 2015. Less than two months later, Ionov allegedly “caused electronic messages to be sent” to Hess, directing her to draft a petition on the “Genocide of African people in the U.S.” so that AGMR could “start pushing it on media everywhere.”

Hess allegedly responded by sending a working draft of the petition back to Ionov, who communicated that she should send it to the United Nations mission in the U.S., “signed by many organizations,” including AGMR. Before she did that, Nevel allegedly responded Aug. 17, 2015, asking when Ionov would “donate another $500” to a component of the African People’s Socialist Party.

On Aug. 26, 2015, apparently after the donation was made, prosecutors say Hess posted the petition “on a petition website” and on the website of the African People’s Socialist Party. Soon, Ionov apparently passed word that the petition was translated into Russian and “would spread over Russian media outlets.” About a week later, Hess allegedly confirmed that the petition had been sent to the United Nations.

By then, the indictment says, Yeshitela was already gearing up to go back to Russia, this time for the “Dialogue of Nations,” a conference hosted by Ionov and funded by the Russian government that was attended by “separatist movements from different parts of the world,” including the Russian-backed breakaway state in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Around that time, Yeshitela allegedly stated that it did not “disturb us” that AGMR was an “instrument of Russian government.”

Moving on to early 2016, Hess allegedly wrote a letter asking Ionov to have the AGMR send $12,000 to support a “four-city tour,” and thanking him at the same time for his “leadership envisioning such actions.” Ionov apparently wanted the tour to support reparations and to get as many people as possible to oppose the “US colonial government.” The indictment mentions two related wire transfers at that time totaling about $7,000.

Later, requests allegedly came in from Ionov to:

• Publicly support Russian competition in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; the African People’s Socialist Party ultimately published an article on its news website titled: “Imperialists ban Russia from 2016 Olympic Games! APSP says ‘let Russia play.’”

• Visit with Nevel about reparations and financial support for his plans to run for local office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

• Make a video of congratulations for the “6th anniversary of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” an internationally unrecognized republic of Russia in the occupied region of eastern Ukraine. Yeshitela allegedly did so, and his “speech” was broadcast “on outdoor screens in the center” of the region.

Later on, in 2020, Ionov allegedly wrote that he’d contributed $1,200 toward a protest conducted by Yeshitela in Washington, D.C. And in 2022, Ionov allegedly spoke by video at an African People’s Socialist Party conference, saying that the Nazis were in power in Ukraine, killing innocent people. Yeshitela, around that time, was allegedly making a public call for “unity with Russia in its defensive war in Ukraine against the world colonial powers.”

Motion to dismiss

A motion filed on behalf of Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, calls on the case to be dismissed because it “strikes at the heart of the First Amendment.”

“This case is about pure political speech and the right to advocate dissenting views,” they argue.

What’s more, they say that the indictment doesn’t accuse them of agreeing to advocate for positions outside of their own ideology.

They said Yeshitela, and other members of the African People’s Socialist Party, regularly travel to foreign countries to participate in conferences. For instance, Yeshitela attended the Managua Conference in Solidarity with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in 1981. He spoke in Northern Ireland in 1983. He was the keynote speaker in 2002 at the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, in South Africa. In 2004, he spoke at the Global African Conference in Suriname “that resolved to demand reparations.” In 2007, he was a keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by a Spanish nongovernmental organization, and in 2012, he spoke across Europe about the legacy of Marcus Garvey.

The trips in question to Russia, they argue in court records, weren’t concealed but publicized in the “The Burning Spear.”

They argue that that indictment “merely alleges” that Ionov “paid attention to Nevel’s campaign” for local office in Florida and “was favorably disposed to it.” But that the indictment doesn’t allege that Nevel or the African People’s Socialist Party “ever received or accepted” money from Russians for Nevel’s campaign.

They described as “immaterial” allegations of “trivial sums” of money being paid to the African People’s Socialist Party by Ionov for “speaking tours” and “public advocacy.” They argued that they don’t need a “license in order to speak” and that the government is using Section 951 “in a discriminatory manner to target a particular group that merits its displeasure.”

Guy Burns, an attorney in Florida who’s known Yeshitela over 30 years, said by telephone that Yeshitela lives a moderate life, driven by activism for decades. Burns said “it could be very appropriate for the public to know” if Yeshitela was paid by the Russians but that a federal indictment seemed an overreach.

“I don’t agree with a good bit of what he says, but I fully endorse his right to say it no matter what it is, as long as it’s not shouting fire, causing a stampede,” he said.

He brought up “Hanoi Jane” protesting the Vietnam War.

“Tell me the difference between Omali Yeshitela and Jane Fonda, other than one of them is a high-notoriety white woman and the other is a Black guy,” he added. “Is there any other difference?”

Lowering the flag

In 2016, a few months before the presidential election, a U.S. government probe of its national security system concluded that authorities should “be more proactive” about going after foreign agents trying to fly under the radar without registration.

Section 951 seeks to reveal and squash overt propaganda operations that threaten security and democracy.

“If you are a free agent out there saying what you want to say, that’s one thing,” Michael Atkinson, a former federal prosecutor and inspector general of the intelligence community in Washington, D.C, said by telephone. “If you are saying the same thing at the direction or control of a government, without the proper disclosures, then you are potentially going to run afoul of that criminal statute.”

That Yeshitela was allegedly asked to champion causes like reparations that he’d supported for years may be a moot point.

“For all we know, the Russian government could be secretly funding people against reparations,” Atkinson said. “They don’t really care about the outcome; ultimately what they want is chaos and disorder.”

Prosecutors say in court records that the “voluminous” case materials include about 20 terabytes of electronically stored information. The indictment signals that Ionov may also have been a “patron” of Mariia Butina, the young Russian gun enthusiast who pleaded guilty in 2018 to a charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent. She infiltrated conservative groups like the National Rifle Association to pursue unofficial lines of communication with politically connected people ahead of Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Last week, near Yeshitela’s office at the Uhuru House in north St. Louis, the enormous African national flag wasn’t flying. A random sampling of neighbors found no one who’d heard of the alleged Russian conspiracy.

Told of the saga, Frankie Williams, 70, watching over her grandchildren, asked: “Why would he ever deal with the Russians in the first place?”

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee joins Omali Yeshitela, center right, in a ribbon cutting for the new Black Power Vanguard Basketball court in north St. Louis on Saturday, June 17, 2023. 

Told that Yeshitela has been calling for reparations for a long time, she said she wasn’t sure where she stood on the topic. Nor was her 12-year-old grandson, Cayden Phillips, but he highly approved of a new basketball court that Yeshitela and his affiliates opened to fanfare this summer in the neighborhood.

More projects continue to be promised while others remain unfinished.

“Economic Power is Black Power,” reads one of their large signs on West Florissant Avenue.

“They help people,” said Andrew Smith, 49, gathered with friends, near a bunch of weathered Teddy bears piled up around the base of a tree. “A lot of stuff they are trying to do independently, without government funding, I give them a solid.”

Smith didn’t seem to care about Yeshitela’s indictment.

“I just follow what he does in the African community,” he said. “Whatever else he has going on, it’s something he has to deal with. If you talk to the federal government, tell them I want 40 acres and a mule.”

Group tied to man charged with Russian collusion opens new north St. Louis basketball court

St. Louis Black empowerment activists charged with role in Russian propaganda scheme

Feds raid activist’s home in St. Louis as part of Russian influence investigation

‘Black is back’: A new grassroots effort aims to revitalize north St. Louis

A group of about 45 people, most of them white, marched Saturday morning up South Grand Boulevard and held a rally at the northeast corner of Tower Grove Park as part of the March for Reparations, which took place in five cities across the country.

Hillary Levin

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