How US Gov’t Prosecution of Uhuru Activists Threatens a ‘First Amendment Exception’

by | Oct 6, 2023

Members of the Uhuru 3 and their defense lawyers outside the Sam Gibbons US courthouse in Tampa, Florida

TAMPA, FLORIDA – Defense attorneys representing three US citizens accused of operating a Russia-directed “malign influence campaign” to “sow discord” in the United States urged Federal Magistrate Judge Anthony E. Porcelli to dismiss the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) case against their clients this September 28, arguing their continued prosecution threatens to “blow a hole in the 1st Amendment.”

“This is a very dangerous case. I have not seen anything like it in 25 years of practicing law. The government is trying to put three of its critics in jail for making political speeches, organizing peaceable rallies and publishing political articles,” Leonard Goodman, an attorney representing one of the defendants, commented to The Grayzone outside the US district courthouse in Tampa, Florida.

A federal grand jury charged Florida residents Omali Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess, and Jesse Nevel with acting as unregistered agents of the Russian government in April, accusing them of carrying out “a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign” to “sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda” in the United States. The charges stemmed from their political activism as part of the Uhuru Movement, a Pan-Africanist organization that Yeshitela founded in 1972.

Their defense lawyers argue that their prosecution represents an unprecedented threat to the First Amendment, with the DOJ seeking to not only criminalize the public speech and political activity of US citizens, but set a legal precedent regarding the government’s definition of “disinformation.” In its opposition to Goodman’s motion to dismiss, the DOJ argues that the term “does not refer to information that is necessarily false.”

The DOJ has attempted to bolster its argument by citing Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins academic who gained prominence as a pundit during the Russiagate affair. In a 2020 Washington Post commentary, Rid insisted, “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.”

The DOJ quotes Rid’s book, Active Measures, to argue that disinformation “refers to Russian intelligence’s long standing employment of ‘active measures’” that “seek to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken US partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-US and anti-Western political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European and international institutions.’” 

Lawyers for the Uhuru 3 maintain that the DOJ’s justification for prosecuting their clients sets the stage for the US government to legally harass and prosecute other Americans who criticize US domestic and foreign policy, particularly where designated enemies like Russia or China are concerned.

“The government is asking the Court to create a new exception to the First Amendment for what it calls ‘disinformation,’” Goodman asserted. (Full disclosure: Goodman donated to The Grayzone at its inception in 2018 and has previously volunteered legal analysis to this site).

Indeed, the indictment accuses Yeshitela of spreading “disinformation and propaganda” during a February 2022 speech to supporters. During that address, the defendant argued that the US and NATO had provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by expanding NATO “800 miles towards the border of Russia,” by sponsoring a 2014 coup against the government of Ukraine, and by arming Kiev “to the teeth.”

The Uhuru 3’s defense lawyers pointed out their clients’ views “are nearly identical to the views held by well-renowned public intellectuals such as Professors Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.”

“In response, the government now seeks authority to label anything you say ‘disinformation’ if it is favorable to Russia, or whatever country the government wants to have a war with,” Goodman explained. 

Multiple military style raids target the Uhuru movement

The April indictment of the Uhuru 3 defendants came nine months after the FBI raided several properties affiliated with the Uhuru Movement in Florida and Missouri. And it was not the first time properties affiliated with the group had been invaded by SWAT teams.

The July 2022 operation culminated with a pre-dawn military style raid on 81-year-old Yeshitela’s private home that featured dozens of geared-up riot police, armored vehicles, flash bang grenades, and even a drone.

“When they come to your house at pre-dawn, and they use flash bang grenades to terrorize the entire community, when they use assault weapons mounted with laser targeting devices hitting you in the chest-making you remember what they did to Frank Hampton, in 1969, at four o’clock in the morning, when they killed him in his bed-when this happens… there is an assumption that we are supposed to be so terrified that we don’t fight back,” Yeshitela told The Grayzone shortly following the September 28 hearing.

“If they can attack the First Amendment through us, if they can make the assumption that they can do like they did in the 60s, create this whole anti-Russian, anti-communist hysteria… the free speech rights of everybody in this country are at stake,” he added.

The Uhuru Movement and its political wing, the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), have long served as a thorn in the side of the local and national political establishment, particularly the Democratic Party. Local police in St Petersburg, Florida targeted the group with a militarized assault in 1994 which resembled the Philadelphia police’s notoriously lethal raids against the Black nationalist MOVE organization.

That raid followed weeks of public protests and rioting against the police killing of 18-year-old TyRon Lewis, who was shot while seated in his car after being stopped. Lewis was one of eight young Black men killed by St. Petersburg police officers that year. 

Protests erupt in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1994 following a wave of police killings of Black men. Image from “The Battle of St. Pete,” a documentary aired on Uhuru’s Burning Spear channel.

In 2008, Yeshitela garnered national attention for questioning then-candidate Barack Obama about his program for Black Americans during a campaign stop in St. Petersburg. Liberal media outlets accused Uhuru protestors of “heckling” the would-be president. More recently, APSP city council and mayoral candidates in St. Petersburg caused a massive split within the local Democratic Party after several high-level party apparatchiks jumped ship to join the APSP campaign.

“Of course they are being targeted because of their politics,” Goodman remarked to The Grayzone. “They have been harsh critics of Western colonizers for fifty years, and they have a large and loyal group of supporters.”

Goodman also pointed to the Uhuru movement’s media network, which includes a community radio station and newspaper, The Burning Spear, as factors in the government’s legal attack.

Indicted for “causing turmoil in the United States”

The April indictment focuses on allegations that the Uhuru 3 conspired with a Russian national named Viktorovich Ionov, President of an outfit called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), to produce articles and speeches “with the stated goal of causing turmoil in the United States.” The three defendants are accused of violating 18 US Code Section 951, which “requires agents operating under the control of foreign governments or foreign officials, other than diplomats, to notify the Attorney General before acting.” Throughout Thursday’s pre-trial hearing in Tampa, however, it was apparent the government’s case was heavily reliant on innuendo.

During his presentation, Assistant US Attorney Daniel J. Marcet branded the Uhuru 3 – two of whom are over seventy years old – as urgent threats to the national security of the United States. Marcet conjured a scenario in which Ionov directed the co-defendants to destabilize the US through their national campaign to win reparations for Black Americans. The prosecutor punctuated his case with references to some of the most familiar boogeymen and women of the Russiagate affair, from the Internet Research Agency troll farm to Marina Butina to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which he characterized as the “first or second most hostile foreign intelligence service” on the planet.

“Sowing discord is the Russian government’s aim,” Marcet insisted before the court.

“Somehow ‘the Russians’ just got us to start talking about genocide”

Seemingly missing from Marcet’s argument was hard evidence on the Uhuru 3’s activities as witting agents of the Russian state. Defense attorneys pointed out that each of the “overt acts” listed in the federal indictment consist of public statements, articles, and lectures delivered by the defendants. Goodman maintained therefore, that their alleged crimes ultimately fell under the category of constitutionally protected political activity and speech.

“It is well established that government intrusions on political expression strike at the core of the First Amendment,” Goodman explained. “As the Supreme court held in Meyer v. Grant (1988), the government’s burden to justify criminalizing political speech is ‘well-nigh insurmountable.’” 

In opposition to the Motion to Dismiss, prosecutors highlighted the case of Khaled Abdel-Latif Dumeisi, a Chicago-based publisher who was found guilty of failing to register as an agent of the Iraqi state in 2004 and ultimately sentenced to 46 months in prison. The DOJ argued “that publishing [political] articles at the direction of Iraqi intelligence was a legitimate basis for Dumeisi’s conviction.”

Yet as Goodman pointed out, Dumeisi was prosecuted for actions — not speech. And as the court found in his case, there was evidence to show that Dumeisi acted as a covert spy for Iraqi intelligence, gathering intelligence and submitting reports on Iraqi dissidents. In fact, the jury was told directly that “Dumeisi’s speeches, newspaper articles and political views were protected by the First Amendment, and ‘are to be considered only insofar as they may pertain to issues of motive and intent.’”

In other words, as Dumeisi’s own defense attorney argued, his client’s public political activity was not relevant to the case in and of itself, and was only considered by the court as evidence insofar as his speech complimented an action like intelligence gathering conducted on behalf of the Iraqi state.

In deploying Dumeisi’s prosecution to establish precedent for convicting the Uhuru 3, Assistant US Attorney Marcet papered over the critical distinction between speech and action. He thus created the impression Dumeisi had been convicted on the grounds that his speech constituted an “action” taken on behalf of Iraq. 

To argue that the Uhuru 3 engaged in a “multi-year conspiracy” to sow discord in the US at the behest of Russia, DOJ prosecutors pointed to evidence that Ionov’s AGMR group contributed about $7,000 to help fund a four-city “Reparations Tour” which Yeshitela conducted in January 2016.

Defense attorneys argued that Yeshitela’s tour constituted political speech and was thus protected under the First Amendment. What’s more, they noted that Yeshitela has been a leading advocate of reparations for decades before Ionov was even born. Yeshitela’s supporters credit his decades-long campaign, including his work to organize the first ever World Tribunal on Reparations for African People in the US in 1982, with popularizing the idea of reparations among the US public.

“Somehow ‘the Russians’ just got us to start talking about genocide, according to the logic here. It’s extraordinary,” Yeshitela told the media following the motion to dismiss hearing. “It’s an assault on the whole assumption that Black people have agency, that we have brains, that we know that we are oppressed and don’t need anybody to tell us.”

Goodman noted that top Washington think tanks rake in tens of millions of dollars a year from Gulf monarchies while pushing a foreign policy agenda that advances their donors’ goals. “Our clients,” he told the judge, “are accused of accepting about $7,000 from Russia during six years of their alleged collaboration, mostly to cover some of the costs relating to a four-city speaking tour to promote reparations.”

A dire threat to the First Amendment?

Goodman further cited the 1934 case of De Jonge v. Oregon, where the Supreme Court overturned the conviction and imprisonment of Dirk De Jonge, a member of the Communist Party, who was prosecuted under an Oregon law that sought to criminalize a public meeting held under the party’s banner. There, the Supreme Court held that “peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime.”

The Court further explained: “The question, if the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly are to be preserved, is not as to the auspices under which the meeting is held but as to its purpose; not as to the relations of the speakers, but whether their utterances transcend the bounds of the freedom of speech which the Constitution protects.”

Goodman built on the Court’s ruling to argue that “the speaker’s relationship to the Communist Party in De Jonge, or to Russia as alleged in prosecution of the Uhuru 3, cannot justify the government’s using criminal prosecution to suppress political speech.

At the heart of Goodman’s argument was his sense that the government’s prosecution not only threatened his client’s rights, but the Constitution itself.

“Dismissal of this indictment is not only proper,” the defense lawyer declared. “It is necessary to preserve our freedoms under the First Amendment. Allowing this prosecution to proceed to trial sends a message to all Americans that they better watch what they say. As the Supreme Court stated in Dombrowski v. Pfister (1965): ‘For free expression – of transcendent value to all society, and not merely to those exercising their rights – might be the loser.’”

Reprinted with permission from The Grayzone.
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