St. Louis has a new basketball court. Its funders were raided by the FBI
St. Louis has a brand-new basketball court. Created as an effort of the African People’s Socialist Party and its affiliate groups, the court comes complete with bleachers, water fountains, lighting for evening pickup games and an elaborate mural by St. Louis artist Jamie Bonfiglio.
But before the hoops were even installed, the African People’s Socialist Party became 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 breached the door of a residence in south St. Louis that doubles as an Uhuru Center, also run by the African People’s Socialist Party. The group’s leaders, Chairman Omali Yeshitela and Deputy Chair Ona Zené Yeshitela, live in the same property. The couple was just starting their day when the raid commenced.
For Ona Zené, the raid brought up memories of the FBI’s operations against the leaders of the civil rights movement, including the 1969 FBI raid that killed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
“It was horrific,” Ona Zené told St. Louis on the Air, describing the raid on her home in St. Louis. “When I reached the bottom of the stairs, it was like a war zone. I thought that they were gonna kill us. … I just thought about Fred Hampton, how they went in his home and murdered him. And I was just thinking that they're going to kill [Omali]. They're gonna kill him.”
Omali described the damage caused to his home by the FBI agents and how he felt that level of destruction was unnecessary.
“It was laser targeting dots that were bouncing off my chest when 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 o'clock in the morning. They used flashbang grenades to terrorize an entire community to serve me a search warrant.”
A few hours after the raid, Omali convened a press conference outside his St. Louis home. He revealed that the raid had to do with a recent indictment against “somebody in Russia … and there is some assumption of Russian influence in the politics inside the United States.”
At the same press conference, Omali lashed out at the FBI and allegations tying 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 an extraordinary improvement has occurred, not from Russian money, but from solidarity by people,” he said. “From people who unite with the struggle for Black people to have freedom. That's [where] that basketball court came from. The government didn't do that.”
But the federal indictment Omali referenced in his press conference does contain connections to his groups. It charges Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov with working with Russian intelligence agencies to recruit “members of U.S. political groups as foreign agents of Russia within the United States.”
While not naming these political groups, the indictment describes a working relationship between Ionov and an organization it calls “U.S. Political Group 1.” In August 2016, Ionov is said to have directed U.S. Political Group 1 to publish a statement of support of Russia’s Olympic team as it faced a doping scandal. The indictment includes the title of that statement but redacts the name of the group: “Imperialists ban Russia from 2016 Olympic Games! U.S. Political Group 1 says "let Russia play!"
Today, you can still find that statement on the website of the Burning Spear, the official newspaper of the African People’s Socialist Party. It was published under the headline, “Imperialists ban Russia from 2016 Olympic Games! APSP says ‘let Russia play.’”
If U.S. Political Group 1 is indeed the African People’s Socialist Party, it also is accused of receiving cash from Russia, according to the indictment, in the form of a couple of payments in 2016 totaling about $7,000.
Other connections to Ionov are more overt. In March, as Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Ionov joined two web conferences hosted by Omali Yeshitila, one called “Live With Russia” and the other “Negating Colonial Lies About Russia.”
Omali insisted at 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 that took in nearly $130,000. In October 2021, the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, also founded by Omali, led the “March for reparations to African people” in several cities across the country to help fund the basketball court.
St. Louis on the Air reached out to the St. Louis office of the FBI to learn more about the July raid and to find out whether the agency is looking at the African People’s Socialist Party’s activities here, including the new basketball court. The FBI office in Tampa, Florida, which is leading the investigation, replied: “Due to the fact it is ongoing, we must respectfully decline 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 some of the most egregious and blatant violations we've seen by the Russian government in order to destabilize, and undermine trust in American democracy.”
Beyond that statement, the FBI has revealed little about what spurred the raids on July 29. At that same press conference in Florida, Roger B. Handberg, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said: “Russia has recruited and forged ties with persons and groups around the world who are positioned to amplify and reinforce Russia's messaging campaigns.”
Despite the circumstances, the raid doesn’t appear to have shifted the African People’s Socialist Party’s programs in St. Louis. The basketball court is slated to officially open to the community sometime next month.
“We got raided, but we have to keep moving forward,” Ona Zené said. “We cannot be scared, we have to just keep our eye on what we said we were gonna do, because people are expecting us to do it.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. 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 audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.