The radical rise and cultish fall of the Black Hammers

Gazi Kodzo, leader of the Black Hammer organization, leads protestors in chants against CNN Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 in front of the CNN building in Atlanta. Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Gazi Kodzo, leader of the Black Hammer organization, leads protestors in chants against CNN Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 in front of the CNN building in Atlanta. Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Critics warn that Atlanta-based extremist group is abusive, dangerous

Last month, Gazi Kodzo, the leader of the extremist sect the Black Hammer Party, led a small band of followers on a protest march through downtown Atlanta, threatening Mayor Andre Dickens and the Atlanta Police.

He announced that he was armed with “a lot of guns” and had security for anyone who tried to shut him up.

“Kill the police!” Kodzo shouted into a bullhorn as a follower with a cell phone camera beamed the march to the group’s YouTube channel. “To get free, you’ve got to kill the pigs.”

The Atlanta-based Black Hammer Party represents a new brand of radicalism on Georgia’s political fringes. Its formula has attracted hundreds of followers across the country as the group experienced a meteoric rise the past two years with chapters forming from New York to Los Angeles.

The group mixes Black nationalist rhetoric and a revolutionary message with hot-button issues like anti-vaccine myths and election conspiracies. Led by its flamboyant, erratic commander, who is ever-present on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, Black Hammer has melded its Marxist message with viral online strategies of modern far-right populists.

Along the way, Kodzo has given inflammatory interviews to conservative news sites, trashed American foreign policy for Russian journalists, and announced an alliance with the Proud Boys over shared conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.

Last year, Kodzo led protests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention near Decatur and outside CNN headquarters downtown shouting outlandish slogans borrowed from QAnon and the pro-Trump Stop the Steal movement, sometimes for the benefit of local television crews.

Kodzo did not respond to interview requests for this story.

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Representatives from the group Black Hammer protest Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 at the CNN building in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Representatives from the group Black Hammer protest Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 at the CNN building in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Representatives from the group Black Hammer protest Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 at the CNN building in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He and three of his followers traveled to Menlo Park, Calif., where they staged a protest last month in front of the the headquarters of Meta, the parent company of Facebook.

The group livestreamed their protest on YouTube, complaining that Facebook had censored accounts siding with the Russian government in the invasion of Ukraine. The display earned the appreciation of reputed Kremlin influence man Alexander Ionov, who posted about it on his Facebook page, linking that post to Kodzo’s own Facebook page where he has 41,000 followers.

The group has flirted with violence. Kodzo often is accompanied by an armed security detail and brags about the group’s guns, such as at the anti-police protest last month in Atlanta. Last year, its members got in a brief armed standoff in Colorado in a failed attempt to create a self-sustaining compound in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. Kodzo wanted to call it “Hammer City.”

His antics have come at a cost. Many of Kodzo’s projects and initiatives resulted in high-profile failures, leading to defections and blistering exposés from other radical groups.

Critics, including a number of defectors, say the Black Hammer Party is a cult and Kodzo’s stunts are an attempt to build social media clout and online donations to support his lifestyle, according to interviews and online statements.

“It was pretty much whatever Gazi wanted to do,” said Kodzo’s former chief of staff, a woman who goes by the name Savvy. “Whatever popped into Gazi’s head. ... He basically took over the organization.”

Rebecca Federman, an analyst with the Anti-Defamation League, said the Black Hammer Party has consolidated in Atlanta, pivoting toward viral messaging and flirtations with far-right populism. The “extreme personality” of its leader and the radical nature of its politics make it hard to predict the group’s next moves, she said.

“We don’t know what they are going to do next, which makes it important to watch them,” she said.

A radical response

The Black Hammer Organization, as it originally was known, was formed in 2019 in Atlanta by a handful of activists with backgrounds in radical Black, communist organizing. The timing was fortuitous.

Membership skyrocketed the following year as the nation was roiled by a series of African-American deaths at the hands of white police and young people began searching for more radical solutions to America’s longstanding issues of racial justice. By the end of 2020, there were reportedly hundreds of Black Hammer members in chapters across the country, linked by social media and meeting on video conferences, according to extremist watchdogs and members who defected.

As an organization, Black Hammer sought to inspire and lead Black and native American people. The group used explosive rhetoric that called for an anti-capitalist revolution, a separate homeland and financial reparations from white “colonizers.” From the beginning, Kodzo was the fire starter.

Kodzo’s, whose real name is Augustus Cornelius Romain Jr., grew up in Stone Mountain and attended Perimeter College before moving to Los Angeles where they (Kodzo identifies as gender non-conforming and uses the pronoun “they”) attempted a career as a lifestyle blogger on YouTube under the stage name Smiletone. But Kodzo’s online persona shifted over the years to become more political, eventually adopting more strident and extreme positions leading up to the establishment of the Black Hammer Organization with a group of fellow radical organizers.

Now some of those same founders are among his harshest critics.

In a statement released online, Robert Quiñones, one of the founding members, said the group went “from a vehicle of liberation to one of abuse and toxicity” under Kodzo’s leadership.

“How stupid could we have been to think we were building cadre,” Quiñones wrote, “we were building lackeys.”

Former Black Hammer members accused Kodzo of overworking members in sweatshop conditions in a communal “Hammer House” where they were subjected to emotional abuse while their leader used the organization to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, according to interviews with former members and online statements posted by some of the group’s founders.

“Augustus has gone so far as to manipulate members into breaking up with life partners and spouses. Members are encouraged to only interact with their families insofar as they are recruiting them,” wrote Suh Hee Jun, the group’s former science chief.

A failed dream, an armed standoff

Meanwhile, Kodzo launched counter attacks on social media against defectors. He gradually expanded his control over the group and how it communicates with the outside world, said Savvy, the former chief of staff.

The inflection point was Kodzo’s plan last spring to establish an autonomous camp for members dubbed Hammer City. Savvy said the group’s mission became fundraising for the settlement initially planned for somewhere in Florida, then shifting to a remote plot high on the western slope of the Rockies in Colorado.

The proposed Hammer City fell apart as the organization failed to close the deal for the real estate and left the property after local law enforcement was called. Savvy said Hammer City was poorly planned and under resourced, and the group found itself without adequate food, water or shelter.

“I almost died up there,” she said.

Before they left, members engaged in a brief armed standoff with a neighbor who stopped to ask them to move their vehicles from the road, according to police records.

The neighbor, wildlife photographer Randy Stephens, said the group of about 20 responded angrily to him.

“They were armed. A couple of them had helmets on, bulletproof vests,” Stephens said in an interview with the AJC. “The guy to my left, which was the closest, he pulled his pistol.”

Stephens said he grabbed his shotgun, although he said it was unloaded.

“They yelled and screamed that they had all these rights. I said, ‘I don’t care what you do on your property, but you can’t keep blocking this road,’” he said.

The May 2021 standoff ended without violence, but Stephens said he was shaken.

‘War on the mayor’

According to defectors and the group’s own social media trail, Black Hammer chapters in some parts of the nation began folding or splintering off after the failed Hammer City episode. The group consolidated in Atlanta, with members closest to Kodzo living in the “Hammer House,” a rented house in a suburban southside neighborhood in Riverdale.

Savvy said members who lived in the house were subjected to Kodzo’s strict rules and could only leave for specific tasks and in the company of an armed guard.

“It was very controlled, very rigid,” she said.

Savvy left the organization for good last summer in what she described as an escape after a physical confrontation with Kodzo.

The entire group was evicted from the house in December owing $21,000 in unpaid rent, attorney’s fees and other charges, according to records in Clayton County State Court. Social media posts and public records indicate the group has a new Hammer House in a subdivision in Fayetteville. A posted video shows Kodzo dancing through the large house, showing off its bedrooms and walk-in closets.

ExploreSPLC report claims extremists now in political mainstream

Much of the group’s protest activity since last summer has centered on downtown Atlanta, near Woodruff Park where members can be seen most weeks preaching to the homeless and on the campus of Georgia State University where they hit up students and faculty for donations.

On a recent visit, Kodzo was again using the rhetoric of violence and confrontation as he preached to 15-20 people gathered in the park.

“I got shooters. Amen! I got gang bangers. Amen!” Kodzo warned. “It’s war on this mayor. War!”

The Woodruff Park meetings are broadcast online. Such real-time displays represent a new front in how extremist groups spread their message and raise money, watchdog groups say.

The Black Hammer Party had used the popular fundraising tool GoFundMe to raise money online, but they were banned from the platform a year ago for “user content that reflects or promotes hate,” according to a statement from the company. Now the group uses Donorbox, a U.S. company that has been criticized for allowing fundraising by extremist and conspiracy groups.

The rallies for several months have regularly attracted the attention of Atlanta Police for failing to heed the city’s noise ordinance.

ExploreFrom 2021: Online bans, media glare, hem extremists, diminish reach, experts say

In November, Atlanta police arrested several members of the group, including Kodzo, when they refused an order to turn down the amplifier that was violating the city’s noise ordinance, according to the police report. When the police went to arrest Kodzo other members of the group began pushing officers, according to the report.

Kodzo and several other Hammers were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and obstruction of police. Officers seized a .45-caliber handgun and two-way radios, among other items, according to the reports.

Some on the GSU campus have felt harassed by the group’s aggressive tactics. Alex Sayf Cummings, a professor in the GSU history department, said a Black Hammer member followed her to her car after she tried to warn a student not to give the group money.

”He came around the back of my car and took a picture of my license plate. He said, ‘I got your plate, man. I got your plate,’” she said.

‘I’m coming for you’

Last fall, Kodzo appeared in a livestream video with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnis to announce an alliance with the far-right group. In the video, Kodzo namechecks a variety of popular conspiracy theories including that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected and that the COVID-19 vaccine is a trap by pharmaceutical companies.

“The Proud Boys, Black Hammer, Black and brown working people, white working people coming together against this elite big pharma situation. It is a fight between good and evil,” Kodzo said.

Federman, the Anti-Defamation League analyst, said the shift to issues that are hot button topics for the far right appears to be a new and opportunistic ploy to generate attention.

“It is feasible that the entire Black Hammer movement is anti-vaccine,” she said. “But they have definitely pivoted or I guess added on these new sort of trendy causes to their repertoire.”

The tactics have generated some national attention for the group, especially with right-wing media.

“How stupid could we have been to think we were building cadre. We were building lackeys."

- Robert Quiñones, one of the founding members of the Black Hammer Party

In September, Kodzo pounced on the controversy surrounding rapper Nicki Minaj’s vaccine hesitancy and her tweets spreading misinformation staging a protest of about a half dozen Black Hammer members outside the CDC headquarters.

“The CDC has been lying to us,” Kodzo told a CBS46 news crew. “We should all be questioning the vaccine.”

Footage from the protest was carried on Fox News, Newsweek and other national outlets which folded it into their stories on fallout from the Minaj’s tweets, as well as on websites like Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” and the Gateway Pundit, both of which have been criticized for spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

The Black Hammer Party came to the Anti-Defamation League’s attention, in part, because of a social media campaign begun last year by Kodzo targeting the memory of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager whose World War II diary has been read by school children for decades as a way to teach the Holocaust.

More recently Black Hammer defended statements earlier this year by Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” that the Holocaust was “not about race” and was about “two white groups of people.” Goldberg apologized for the statements and was suspended from the show, but the group tried to capitalize on it, Federman said.

“They sort of doubled down on that rhetoric that white Jews are colonizers and join the ranks of colonizers in, according to them, vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” she said.

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Black Hammer Party leader Gazi Kodzo, whose real name is Augustus Romain Jr., shouts at members of the Atlanta City Council during a February 2022 town hall to discuss the MARTA's transportation plans for Campbellton Road.

Credit: Facebook

Black Hammer Party leader Gazi Kodzo, whose real name is Augustus Romain Jr., shouts at members of the Atlanta City Council during a February 2022 town hall to discuss the MARTA's transportation plans for Campbellton Road.

Credit: Facebook

Combined ShapeCaption
Black Hammer Party leader Gazi Kodzo, whose real name is Augustus Romain Jr., shouts at members of the Atlanta City Council during a February 2022 town hall to discuss the MARTA's transportation plans for Campbellton Road.

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

In February, Kodzo appeared at a town hall meeting called by Atlanta Council members to discuss MARTA’s controversial transportation plans for Campbellton Road. In the public comment period, Kodzo launched into a rambling speech about his personal memories of riding MARTA before hurling baseless accusations and threats at council members until the microphone was taken away.

“There will be punishment!” Kodzo shouted as he and a handful of Black Hammers filed out. “I’m coming for you with an army! I’m coming for you. Watch your back!”