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A Tale of Two Indicted Octogenarians
On February 8, 1951, the Department of Justice indicted 82 year-old scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois as an unregistered “agent of a foreign principal” under an obscure law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). The law had originally passed to muzzle Nazi propaganda passing itself off as legitimate news but was revived in the early 1950s as a Cold War weapon against suspected Communist front organizations. In a nutshell, the vaguely worded and broadly interpreted statute requires any entity or individual that the DOJ deems suspect to disclose the details of its relationship with a foreign entity, including any financial arrangement, and issue a disclaimer on all subsequent literature identifying itself as foreign agent. Failure to comply triggers prosecution and carried five years in prison as well as a fine. Compliance, on the other hand, is tantamount to admitting one is a traitor.
The basis of the DOJ’s prosecution of Du Bois presents a textbook problem that critics have with the law. As a founder and chairman of the Peace Information Center, an anti-war group formed shortly after the start of the Korean War, Du Bois sought to gather signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal, a petition calling for an end to nuclear weaponry. The State and Justice Departments dismissed the appeal as Soviet propaganda. In its view, and absent any further evidence to substantiate its assertion, Du Bois was being used as a Soviet tool and therefore needed to present himself publicly as such.
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Retired and living on a modest pension, Du Bois chose to shut down the PIC rather than comply with the DOJ’s demands. He then went on a grueling speaking tour to raise the funds necessary to defend himself. The government’s case fell apart at trial and was dismissed for lack of evidence. But while Du Bois left the courtroom a free man, the effect of the charge had lasting effects. Many of his friends and colleagues abandoned him for fear of association. His incredible body of scholarship was increasingly marginalized and relegated to far-left circles. But in his autobiography Du Bois articulated the broader purpose of the prosecution:
But of course this unjustified effort to make five persons register as the source of foreign propaganda for peace and particularly to scare 15 million Negroes from complaint, was not the real object of this long and relentless persecution. The real object was to prevent American citizens of any sort from daring to think or talk against the determination of big business to reduce Asia to colonial subserviency; to consolidate United States control of the Caribbean and South America; and above all to crush socialism in the Soviet Union and China. That was the object of the case.
As the Cold War waned, FARA fell back into obscurity.Only after the U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election did the law re-emerge in public life. You may recall, and honestly before researching this story I had not, Mueller deployed FARA against Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and Micheal Flynn. Manafort and Gates were charged with lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government. Flynn was charged with working on behalf of the Russian government. In 2018, Manafort received the maximum 5 year prison sentence for “failing to register and by providing false statements in a document filed with FARA, and laundering money.” Gates chose to cooperate with the government and has thus far avoided sentencing. Flynn, as we all know, received a pardon.
Why am I bothering to rehash these yesteryear details?
Last week, The DOJ charged four seemingly ordinary U.S. citizens with conspiring with Russian officials to “sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda” as well as interfere in U.S. elections. The relevant law under which the defendants—both Russian nationals and U.S. citizens—are being charged? FARA.
The Washington Post story on the charges caught my attention for a couple of reasons but mainly because the named defendantsare members of a Pan-Africanist, anti-capitalist group calling for reparations. The group is called the African People’s Socialist Party and it was founded more than 50 years ago by the lead defendant, a fiery 81 year-old named Omali Yeshitela (known by his followers as “Chairman” no doubt in accordance with his Black Panther and Communist origins). Yeshitela’s biography indicates that he started the APSP in 1972 to keep the Black Liberation Movement alive after the Black Panthers were driven underground and ostensibly disbanded. The other two APSP leaders charged are, interestingly enough, white members of the party’s affiliate, the African People’s Solidarity Committee. The fourth defendant broke from the group in 2018 to start a fringe cult called the Black Hammer Party and is currently in jail on kidnapping and sexual assault charges.
At first glance, the notion that the Russian government would recruit and direct an obscure band of socialists to do its bidding seemed preposterous. To what end? Even more, why would an organization that has been in existence for several decades and has clearly developed its own analysis of the issues facing poor people of color across the globe do the bidding of the Russian government? What was in it for them? Furthermore, why would the FBI, as it did, conduct pre-dawn raids on three APSP properties—one in St Louis, two in St. Petersburg, Florida—back in July 2022? Why would it deploy dozens of agents, armored trucks, drones and flash grenades? How could an obscure group of far-left radicals espousing strident Marxist rhetoric but with no known history of political violence and a Twitter following under 3,000 pose such a dire threat to national security?
It all seemed strange to me. There had to be more to the story. Something I was missing. So I was admittedly skeptical when I started reading the indictment.
The story seems to begin in 2014 though it is not until 2015 that Yeshitela is alleged to have made a pact with Russian nationals operating under the auspices of a government funded organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR). That terms of that pact provided Yeshitela and APSP with funding and support for its activities, regular coverage in Russian news outlets, participation in Russia organized human rights convenings, and a veneer of international legitimacy. In exchange, APSP is alleged to have provided vocal support of Putin, Russia and, more recently, Russia’s position on Ukraine and the war in Ukraine.
The regularity of the relationship is pretty wild. Defendants were provided funding to run local election campaigns on a reparations platform in Florida. They organized protests promoting secession in California. They were provided all expense paid trips to Russia. And is at least possible that APSP received additional funding through its nonprofit arm.
In its totality, the indictment lays out a pretty clear FARA case that, if true, and it appears to be based on electronic records and emails and financial documents seized during last year's raid, portrays Yeshitela and the others as being under Russian control, flagrantly indifferent to the perception of being such, naively unaware or some combination of the three.
One prime example of their cozy relationship involved a UN petition accusing the United States of “Genocide of African people in the United States.” According to the email exchanges documented in the indictment, Alexandr Ionov, the head of AGMR and the alleged ring leader of the near decade-long conspiracy, sent APSP a draft of a petition and directed it to be sent to the UN. APSP then requested a $500 donation for one of its affiliated operations. Three days after the donation was received, on August 26, 2015, APSP posted the petition online. It thereafter sent the petition to the UN Secretary General and General Assembly.
This is but one example of the alleged quid pro quo relationship. Many more followed over the years. Most recently, Ionov regularly appeared on APSP-sponsored channels to peddle Russian propaganda on the War in Ukraine. In one appearance he even claimed that Nazis were in power.
For his part, Yeshitela has been consistently cagey about his relationship with Ionov. In an appearance on Democracy Now! just days after the FBI raided his home and months before his indictment, he had the following exchange with Juan Gonzalez:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Omali, you mentioned that Russia identified as a prime enemy of the United States. What do you know about this guy Aleksandr Ionov, the one who supposedly you are unindicted co-conspirators with, and these allegations that he’s been spawning — he and others have been spawning dissident movements within the United States?
OMALI YESHITELA: You know, I don’t know if the Russians are spawning dissident movements in the United States. I just know the African People’s Socialist Party, as you mentioned earlier, we are 50 years old. We are on the same trajectory we’ve always been. And I find it extremely problematic for this suggestion that somehow the Russians — we needed the Russians to tell us. You know, it fits into the whole narrative about colonized people and Black people being too stupid to see our own future and control our own affairs, that we need somebody to come and tell us that America is treating us bad. George Floyd didn’t happen; it wasn’t the murder of Mike Brown that brought the African People’s Socialist Party into Ferguson and St. Louis, that somehow the Russians had something to do with it — it’s asinine.
In subsequent public appearances leading up to his indictment, Yeshitela has maintained the same basic talking point: the charge is bogus and it’s racist to assume Russians are directing the activities of a Black-led organization. He then pivots the conversation to talk about his organization’s right to interact with whomever it pleases and the persecution it is facing for doing good work in the community as yet another example of imperialist America oppressing Black liberation. In doing so, he situates himself in a tradition and context of struggle that traces back to Marcus Garvey’s deportation for tax evasion and through COINTELPRO’s undermining of Black Power. It is on this point that I find myself feeling most disturbed by this entire episode.
I have studied these histories and I know that there have been and continue to be strategic efforts to destabilize Black communities and Black agency. I am clear that my government has been used by those in power as an instrument to oppress my people. The DOJ press release doesn’t mention this but the necessary corollary to the menace of Russian influence is the unapologetic and outspoken Black discontent it exploits. Russian operatives need fertile soil to sow their discontent. They need actual Americans with grievances whether perceived or real. The indictment does not contend with this grievance and historically America—whether during Garvey’s heyday or now—has been unwilling to do so in a manner that reflects its legitimacy.
At the same time, I demand that those who seek cover beneath our shared history and legacy of injustice exercise respect and restraint. To date, and with all due respect for his decades of struggle, I have not seen or heard enough from Yeshitela to warrant the benefit of that history and legacy. For me, and especially as this new Cold War with China and Russia ratchets up, it is immoral and reckless to claim political persecution and racism as a shield against accountability for one’s self-interested actions.
And yet, the implications of any law that can be invoked in so many ways and to such damaging effect are deeply unsettling. The indictment of a motley collection of marginal far-left groups few have heard of and most would ignore under a law that sat virtually dormant for 50 years is a signal of how serious the FBI and DOJ consider the threat posed by Russian influence. It tells me that even though war is not being fought on American soil, we are already mired in a global conflict that will undoubtedly upend the lives of millions of people who have little do with it and even less to gain. Already, APSP claims that it is being “sanctioned”. Its bank canceled its lines of credit and closed its accounts, Facebook refused to release donation funds and Stripe temporarily blocked users from making donations. Additionally, the group was recently stripped of a federal grant for its community radio station.
Even if the charges are true, and the evidence does appear damning, the people who will surely suffer the most are the ones who never got a campaign donation for an election they had no chance of winning, an all-expense paid trip to Russia for a sham conference or a round trip ticket to California for a bogus protest. I'm talking about the employees of APSP seemingly effective nonprofit, residents of its housing units, small businesses who counted on it as a source of revenue, community members who found something to believe in or simply relied on their services. In the end, that, not the persecution of a few self-styled revolutionaries who saw an opportunity to advance themselves into international affairs well above their pay grade, is the shame of it all.
Du Bois, W. (1968). The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois (p. 388). International Publishers.
Between 1966 and 2016, DOJ prosecuted a mere seven cases under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The indictment also contains one unnamed political group and two unnamed and unindicted co-conspirators. One is presumed to be Akile Anai, an outspoken young Black woman who holds the title Director of Agitation and Propaganda, and ran for political office in 2017 and 2019. Given that it is easy to figure out who Anais is and the role she has played, it is curious that DOJ chose not to formally name or charge her. One wonders what the rationale might be. All that I know for sure is that her status as UIC places her in legal limbo. That is, she have no legal recourse but at any time could be indicted and face charges.
I also reviewed the most recent 990 for APSP’s nonprofit arm, the African People’s Education and Defense Fund. On the whole, the nonprofit, controlled by Yeshitela’s wife, appears to be doing good work in the community. It does not receive any grants; rather, it runs several small businesses that employ community members. It owns properties. It provides housing to formerly incarcerated. Its finances appear to be in order—no one is paid outrageously. Its governance appears to be in place. The only odd observation I made was regarding the amounts it received by what are defined as “disqualified persons” under the U.S. Tax Code. According to the IRS, A disqualified person is “any person who was in a position to exercise substantial influence over the affairs of the applicable tax-exempt organization at any time during the lookback period.” It’s unclear who those persons might be but between 2015 and 2018, the amount received by such persons jumped from a little under $118,000 to just over $322,000. This could be nothing but in looking at earlier 990s, between 2010 and 2014, the nonprofit received a total of $647,404 from disqualified persons. Between 2015 and 2019, that figure jumped to $1,222,212.
The contradiction just can’t be overlooked here. This is a group that despises the U.S. government yet sought federal funding for its projects.