Months After FBI Raid, Uhuru Leaders Call Church Fire an 'Assault'

Activists behind the Uhuru Movement believe a fire at The Sanctuary church this month was an attack on their work to uplift Black communities

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click to enlarge African People's Socialist Party Chairman Omali Yeshitela says his organization tried to turn a former north city church into a community center before it "suspiciously" caught fire this month. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
African People's Socialist Party Chairman Omali Yeshitela says his organization tried to turn a former north city church into a community center before it "suspiciously" caught fire this month.

Members of a Black liberation group under investigation by the FBI called on the federal government today to answer for a church fire they described as a “direct assault” against its movement.

Leaders of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement and African People’s Socialist Party say a “very suspicious” fire at a north city church was the most recent attack on their movement. The fire occurred months after the FBI raided its leaders' homes last summer over allegations that the Uhuru Movement colluded with a Russian national to spread Russian propaganda and infiltrate local elections.

The cause of the fire at the former Sanctuary church (4443 Red Bud Avenue) was unknown the day of the fire and Uhuru members say they haven’t heard any updates since. A public information officer for the St. Louis Fire Department did not immediately respond to questions from the RFT on Monday.

The Uhuru Movement was under contract to purchase the church until it was severely damaged by a two-alarm fire on January 7, members say. It planned to renovate the building and turn it into a community center with offices.

Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party likened this month’s fire to attacks against civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The Uhuru Movement is a U.S.-based socialist group founded in 1972 under the African People's Socialist Party.

“They’re attacking us because we’re living like [King],” Yeshitela said at a press conference in front of The Sanctuary on Monday.

Yeshitela said the church fire was a direct attack on “Black self-reliance.”

“This church, this magnificent institution we were bringing all kinds of programs to, they burn it down,” Yeshitela said. “The objective is to make sure that African people stay in a constant state of dependency; that we cannot feed, clothe and house ourselves so that we have to rely on the Good White Man.” 

click to enlarge A two-alarm fire torched much of The Sanctuary church in north city on January 7. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
A two-alarm fire torched much of The Sanctuary church in north city on January 7.

Yeshitela was joined by Ward 18 Alderman Jesse Todd, who said he’s been a lifelong member of the Uhuru Movement. 

“This church was burned because it was making a positive contribution to Black people,” Todd says. “They don’t want us to have facilities to meet in.” 

A house of Yeshitela and his wife, Ona Zené Yeshitela, was one of several buildings related to Uhuru that were raided by the FBI on July 29. The church is on the same street. 

Federal authorities also searched the Uhuru Solidarity Center in south city; the home of Penny Hess, chairperson of the African People’s Solidarity Committee; and Uhuru properties in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the movement is based.

The raids were connected to the indictment of Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian nationalist who founded the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia. Authorities charged Ionov with one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States after he allegedly recruited people in the United States and Ukraine to spread pro-Russia propaganda and other information designed to sow division in their countries.

Themba Tshibanda, a member of the Uhuru Movement, tells the RFT he was arrested in October for making terrorist threats against St. Louis Public Schools. He says he lost his job in the district recently and got into a “heated exchange” when he asked for a reason for his termination. He says he made no threats against the school district but was detained at the St. Louis City Justice Center for two weeks and interrogated by the FBI several times about the Uhuru Movement. 

Tshibanda says the FBI asked him how many people were involved in the Uhuru Movement. He was also shown photos of different people in Russia and asked to identify them.

“They grabbed me, pointed two guns at my face and put me in handcuffs really tight,” Tshibanda says of his arrest. “Me being an activist, all I thought about was what happened to Darren Seals and all these different types of mysterious disappearances and deaths.” 

Seals was an activist from Ferguson who was found shot and killed in his car in 2016. A recently obtained FBI file showed Seals was under surveillance by the FBI shortly before his death.

Tshibanda says his terrorism charge was dropped soon after his release from jail.

On Monday, Yeshitela called the accusations against him and those involved with Uhuru “bogus” and “racist.”

Yeshitela founded the Uhuru Movement and moved to north St. Louis in 2017. Uhuru and its several affiliate groups buy dilapidated properties in St. Louis and fix them, train Black women to become doulas and build community gardens in food deserts, among other initiatives. The group recently built a basketball court in the O’Fallon neighborhood.

Yeshitela says they will not try to buy The Sanctuary again.

“It’s no use to us now,” he says.

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About The Author

Monica Obradovic

Monica Obradovic is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times.
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