Long before the death of Freddie Gray, community leaders like Jamye Wooten and the Rev. Heber Brown III in Baltimore were pushing for social change and skeptical about outsiders claiming to want to help the community.
But after Gray’s death on April 12, 2015, the world witnessed a fiery eruption on the streets of Baltimore and among those in the epicenter of protest and Internet calls for action were allegedly the Russians.
“We thought it could be undercover police, the Russians were not near the top of our line up,” Wooten, cofounder of Baltimore United for Change, told the AFRO.
Wooten like the rest of the country learned from published reports that the Facebook page called “Blacktivist” was neither about Blacks nor activism for people of color. Instead it was allegedly operated by Russians meddling and taking advantage of people’s frustrations in Baltimore and other urban areas throughout the United States.
“COPS RAID WRONG HOME AND ASSAULTED PREGNANT WOMAN,” the account said in one Facebook post, linking to a story of police violence. “INSANE! COPS PULVERIZED HANDCUFFED MAN” said another.
According to CNN, another Blacktivist posts read “stand together and end oppression….Our race is under attack,” but Wooten wasn’t skeptical.
“In this era of social media and decentralized leadership models where there is really no barrier to entry, it’s important that activists exercise a level of discernment before retweeting and cosigning organizations that have no history of being on the ground,” he said.
Brown, pastor of the Pleasant HopeBaptist Church in Baltimore, said he too was suspicious after he learned that the site creator was not from Baltimore and was apologetic: “We are looking for friendship, because we are fighting for the same reasons,” another post read.
“It raised red flags in my mind because what we have been through in our history,” Brown told the AFRO. “So many people were in Baltimore after Freddie Gray and I was a little fed up with some of them.”
Even though Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has apologized for allowing the alleged Russian meddling, Congress wants to know more.
Rev. Jerome Stephens, legislative aide for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told the AFRO that, “No foreign government should ever interfere with local issues of any community in this country.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, is also looking into the matter.
“I am deeply concerned about reports that voters in Baltimore may have been targeted by Russia’s underhanded attempts to contaminate our country’s democratic process and turn Americans against one another, he told the AFRO in an email Oct. 3. “Millions of people consider Facebook a reliable platform to share and receive ideas without nefarious outside interference. Facebook must now work vigorously to strengthen its advertising policies and renew users’ trust in the integrity of its systems.”
According to various sources, the Russians have attempted to sow ill-will in the Black community for decades. In the late 1980’s Russian operatives, pretending to be reporters, would mingle with the Black press to build friendships and gain information on Black suffering. They also underwrote trips to what was then the Soviet Union.
But in the late 1980’s President Reagan and former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in a new era and combined with the fall of Communism there was a greater spirit of communism between the U.S. and Russia.
But now it is unclear what President Donald Trump has in store for Russian President Vladimir Putin and what Putin, a KGB veteran, has planned for the US.
“We shouldn’t be so naïve to think that Russia is the only country doing things like [this]. I’m sure the U.S. is also engaged in such practices,” Brown said.
But despite the allegations Cummings told the AFRO in a recent interview that much of what is going on in the country with Trump are distractions that keep the focus off of real work with his White House.
“What Trump has been able to do is distract us away from issues like making sure our children have good education and making sure that they have proper healthcare. We can’t be distracted,” Cummings said.