Atlanta group implicated in Russian influence scheme

Black Hammer Party leader Gazi Kodzo, left, protested in March at Facebook headquarters in San Francisco over censorship of pro-Russian posts. Kodzo livestreamed the protest over YouTube. The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday said the trip was funded as part of a secret Russian influence campaign by an unregistered foreign agent.

Credit: YouTube

Credit: YouTube

Black Hammer Party leader Gazi Kodzo, left, protested in March at Facebook headquarters in San Francisco over censorship of pro-Russian posts. Kodzo livestreamed the protest over YouTube. The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday said the trip was funded as part of a secret Russian influence campaign by an unregistered foreign agent.

The U.S. Department of Justice has connected the Black Hammer Party, a Black-led radical group based in Atlanta, to an alleged Russian plot to sow discord in the United States, according to a newly unsealed federal indictment.

The department announced Friday that Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, a Russian national with Kremlin connections, was secretly funding fringe political groups in Georgia, Florida and California, directing them to “publish pro-Russian propaganda, as well as other information designed to cause dissention in the United States and to promote secessionist ideologies.”

“Secret foreign government efforts to influence American elections and political groups threaten our democracy by spreading misinformation, distrust and mayhem,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. said in a statement. “The department is committed to ensuring U.S. laws protecting transparency in the electoral process and the political system are not undermined through foreign malign influence.”

According to the indictment, Ionov, who lives in Moscow, paid for members of the Black Hammer Party to travel to San Francisco in March to protest Facebook’s censorship of posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The influence went so far as to direct Black Hammer members on the designs of signs for the protest.

The group livestreamed the protest on its social media channels and accounts of the protest were carried in Russian media. Ionov even posted his appreciation of the Facebook protest on his own Facebook page.

Ionov is president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR) and describes himself as a “human rights activist.” But federal authorities claim he was working with unnamed members of the FSB, the Russian security service that is the successor of the Soviet-era KGB.

The indictment claims Ionov used his organization to recruit dissident groups from the U.S. and encourage them to advocate for secession and to promote Russian talking points.

“Thereafter, Ionov exercised direction and control over these groups on behalf of the FSB,” the indictment claims. “Ionov also monitored and regularly reported on their activities to the FSB.”

Whether independently or under Ionov’s direction, much of the Black Hammer Party’s activities have leaned toward a Russian worldview.

The group and its erratic leader Gazi Kodzo have made criticism of America’s foreign policy regarding the Russian invasion a centerpiece of their recent social media campaigns, calling Ukraine a white supremacist country and backing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for starting the war. The group regularly advocates for the creation of separate homelands for Black and indigenous peoples, and in 2021, the group made a failed attempt to establish a compound in the Colorado Rockies called “Hammer City.”

In addition, Kodzo and the Black Hammer Party have protested against the COVID-19 vaccine, announced an alliance with the far-right Proud Boys, and promoted misinformation about the 2020 presidential election.

The indictment does not name the Black Hammer Party, referring to it as “U.S. Political Group 2.” The Black Hammer group has not been charged in the federal case. However, details included in the indictment, including the March protest at Facebook and the career path of Kodzo, identified in the indictment as “Unindicted Co-Conspirator 5,” reveal the controversial group as the one allegedly under Ionov’s influence.

Another group implicated in the alleged conspiracy is Uhuru Movement, a socialist group based in Tampa, Fla. According to the Tampa Bay Times, federal agents raided several locations there Friday including the movement’s headquarters. Prior to the founding of the Black Hammer Party, Kodzo was secretary general of the Florida-based group until 2018 when he either left or was expelled.

According to the federal authorities, in 2015 Ionov paid for members of the Florida group to travel to Moscow, “and for at least the next seven years, Ionov exercised direction and control over senior members of” the group. The indictment claims that emails sent by senior leaders in the Uhuru Movement acknowledged that Ionov’s organization, AGMR, was “an instrument of (the) Russian government” and that it was “more than likely” that the Kremlin was using AGMR “to utilize forces inside of the U.S. to sew (sic) division inside the United States.” A senior member of Uhuru allegedly wrote that the connection between Ionov and the Russian government did not “disturb us.

In addition, the indictment claims Ionov used these connections to interfere in local elections in Florida by supporting and consulting in two Uhuru members’ campaigns for local office in 2017 and 2019. Ionov’s involvement in the campaigns allegedly impressed members of the FSB, and one agent of the security force wrote to Ionov that “our election campaign is kind of unique ... are we the first in history?”

Uhuru leaders held a press conference Friday in Florida defending their actions.

“We can have relationships with whoever we want to make this revolution possible,” Eritha “Akile” Cainion said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “We are in support of Russia.”

According to WTSP-TV, Cainion claimed the indictment was part of a “propaganda war being waged against Russia.”

“The U.S. has a hold on what is being propagated about the war on — the defensive war — Russia’s defensive war against Ukraine, against world colonial powers because that’s what’s happening right now,” she said.

The Black Hammer Party has made similar defenses of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last month, the group held a protest at the State Capitol in Atlanta over continued U.S. military aid to Ukraine, linking the money spent to federal efforts to mitigate a national shortage of baby formula and the rising cost of gasoline.

“It’s Biden and his demoncrat party stooges that are doing the damage,” the group wrote on its website following the protest. “So why should we be upset with Russia or side against Russia in this war? We should be upset with how amerikkka is treating its own people instead!”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution attempted to contact members of the Black Hammer Party regarding the indictment but did not receive a reply Friday.

Ionov is accused of influencing a third group in California that promoted secession from the United States. He has been charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents for the Russian government and would face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Ionov denied the charges on his Facebook page Friday, accusing the Justice Department of using the indictment to distract from domestic issues.

“Stop looking for enemies everywhere, no one threatens democracy in your country, except those people who infringe on women’s reproductive rights, create unbearable conditions for migrants, and also oppress people on racial grounds!” he wrote. “You are now supplying weapons to Ukraine and other countries, you are interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.”

The connections with Moscow are just the latest troubles for the Black Hammer group.

Last week, Kodzo, whose real name is Augustus Claudius Romain Jr., was arrested and charged with 11 felony counts, including party to the crime of false imprisonment, party to the crime of kidnapping, party to the crime of aggravated assault, criminal street gang activity, criminal conspiracy to commit a felony and aggravated sodomy, following a SWAT standoff outside the group’s communal home in Fayetteville. The standoff ended after police sent a robot into the home and found an 18-year-old man dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Another alleged member of the group, Xavier H. Rushin, 21, was charged in the incident with a misdemeanor and 10 felonies, including kidnapping, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal street gang activity.

Police said they responded to the house after they received an emergency call from inside from someone claiming to be kidnapped. Kodzo and Rushin are in jail in Fayette County on those charges awaiting a bond hearing in Superior Court.

The group routinely has had members arrested, although never for charges this serious. The Black Hammer Party holds regular “church” meetings in Woodruff Park on Sunday where Kodzo and other members proselytize to homeless people, some of whom are recruited to raise money for the group. These loud and usually profane meetings often draw the attention of the Atlanta Police and members of the group have been arrested for minor charges, including violation of the city’s noise ordinance.

Our reporting

Investigative reporter Chris Joyner has been following the Black Hammer Party for months, documenting its odd and dangerous behavior, as well as its radical ideology. In April, the AJC reported on the group, including its connections to Russia and accused unregistered agent Aleksandr Ionov. Earlier this month, the AJC was among the first to report on the group’s links to a SWAT standoff at a home in Fayetteville where one member died by an apparent suicide. The AJC will continue to follow this important story.