St. Louis has a brand new basketball court. Created as part of an effort by the African People’s Socialist Party and its affiliated groups, the ground features bleachers, water fountains, lighting for evening pick-up games and an elaborate mural by the artist of Saint Louis Jamie Bonfiglio.
But even before the hoops were installed, the African People’s Socialist Party found itself embroiled in controversy. In the early morning hours of July 29, the group’s headquarters in St. Louis and St. Petersburg, Florida were both raided by the FBI.
During the raid, FBI agents broke down the door of a residence in south St. Louis that doubles as the Uhuru Center, also run by the African People’s Socialist Party. The group’s leaders, President Omali Yeshitela and Vice President Ona Zené Yeshitela, live on the same property. The couple were just starting their day when the raid began.
For Ona Zené, the raid was reminiscent of FBI operations against leaders of the civil rights movement, including the 1969 FBI raid that killed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
“It was horrible,” said Ona Zené Saint Louis live, describing the raid on his home in St. Louis. “When I reached the bottom of the stairs it was like a war zone. I thought they were going to kill us. … I just thought about Fred Hampton, how they got into his house and murdered him And I just thought they were gonna kill [Omali]. They will kill him.
Omali described the damage done to his home by FBI agents and how he felt this level of destruction was unnecessary.
“It was laser targeting dots bouncing off my chest as I walked down the stairs,” Omali said. “They didn’t knock on the door, they didn’t say ‘Hey, we want to talk to you’, they came at 5 a.m. They used flashbang grenades to terrorize a whole community in order to tell me a search warrant.
A few hours after the raid, Omali called a press conference in front of his house in Saint-Louis. He revealed the raid had to do with a recent indictment against “someone in Russia…and there is some speculation of Russian influence in politics inside the United States.”
At the same press conference, Omali lashed out at the FBI and allegations linking his group to Russia — and pointed to the new basketball court, located on West Florissant Avenue in the Fairground neighborhood, as proof of his group’s positive impact in St. Louis.
“If you go up and down West Florissant, you will see that an extraordinary improvement has taken place, not thanks to Russian money, but to the solidarity of people,” he said. “People who unite in the fight for black people to have freedom. This is [where] where that basketball court came from. The government did not do that. »
But the federal charge Omali mentioned in his press conference contains links to his groups. He accuses Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov of working with Russian intelligence agencies to recruit “members of American political groups as foreign agents of Russia in the United States”.
Without naming these political groups, the indictment describes a working relationship between Ionov and an organization he calls “US Political Group 1”. In August 2016, Ionov reportedly ordered US political group 1 to issue a statement in support of the Russian Olympic team in the face of a doping scandal. The indictment includes the title of this statement but redacts the name of the group: “Imperialists ban Russia from 2016 Olympics! US Political Group 1 Says “Let Russia Play!”
Today, you can still find this statement on the Burning Spear website, the official journal of the African People’s Socialist Party. It was published under the title “The Imperialists Ban Russia from the 2016 Olympics! The APSP says “let Russia play”.
If US Political Group 1 is indeed the African People’s Socialist Party, it is also accused of receiving money from Russia, according to the indictment, in the form of a few payments in 2016 totaling around 7 000 dollars.
Other links with Ionov are more obvious. In March 2020, as Russia launched its war against Ukraine, Ionov joined two web conferences organized by Omali Yeshitila, one titled “Living with Russia” and the other “Negating Colonial Lies About Russia.”
Omali insisted during his press conference that his group had “never taken a penny from the Russian government”. To build the new basketball court, his group African People’s Education and Defense Fund launched a GoFundMe Campaign in August 2021, it made almost $130,000. In October 2021, the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, also founded by Omali, led the “March for Reparations to Africans” in several cities across the country to help fund the basketball court.
Saint Louis live contacted the FBI office in St. Louis to learn more about the July raid and whether the agency is reviewing African People’s Socialist Party activities here, including the new basketball court. The FBI office in Tampa, Florida, which is leading the investigation, responded, “Due to the fact that it is ongoing, we must respectfully decline to comment.”
FBI Special Agent David Walker told reporters in St. Petersburg on the day of the raid that “the facts and circumstances surrounding this indictment are among the most egregious and flagrant violations we have seen. by the Russian government in order to destabilize and undermine faith in American democracy.
Beyond that statement, the FBI has revealed little about what prompted the July 29 raids. At that same Florida press conference, Roger B. Handberg, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Florida, said, “Russia has recruited and forged ties with people and groups around the world who are well positioned to amplify and strengthen Russia’s messaging campaigns. »
Despite the circumstances, the raid does not seem to have changed the programs of the African People’s Socialist Party in Saint-Louis. The basketball court is expected to officially open to the community next month.
“We have been raided, but we have to keep moving forward,” said Ona Zené. “We can’t be scared, we just have to keep an eye on what we said we were going to do because people expect us to do it.”
“Saint Louis live” tells you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The sound engineer is Aaron Dorr.