It all seemed so good and to fit in with what I have already been doing for years.
So in early 2017, when I found out online that the “Black Fist Self-Defense Project” was holding classes in many locations in the Black community, it seemed logical that I should try to interview someone from this group. They had lined up trainers in several states who were well-known in the martial arts and combat sports worlds, including the activist Omowale Adewale, a now-retired kickboxer, boxer, and MMA fighter based in New York.
In February 2017, I emailed the address listed on the “Black Fist” website, got a reply, and set up a phone interview with a representative of this group who called himself “Jackob Johnson.” We recorded the rather unspectacular interview for my podcast, which was posted and has since been taken down. That was the last I heard from this person or group, which in and of itself is not unusual.
Then in October 2017, I started receiving emails, from widely different sources, informing me of some very disturbing news about “Black Fist.” Andrey Zakharov, a special reporter of the Russian business-media site RBC.ru, wrote me that “Black Fist” was actually a creation of a Russian troll operation known as the “Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg firm that employs hundreds of so-called trolls to post material in support of Russian government policies.” RBC conducted a major investigation into this Internet Research Agency, showing how it posted thousands of fake stories on fake websites and social media pages, both before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in attempts to influence and polarize Americans of varying views. Its budget was estimated at US$2.2 million, it employed at least 100 people, and its sites had more than six million subscribers with coverage of up to 70 million a week.
I also received emails from the producers of “The Rundown with Robin Thede,” the hit late-night comedy/news/politics show on BET. They basically had that same information, and wanted to interview me for their show.
I must admit that at first I was incredulous, especially since “Black Fist” was using trainers like Omowale Adewale, who had a long, verifiable record of legitimate combat sports experience. But as I discussed and researched this more, it became evident that a lot of us, including Omowale and myself, had been tricked and misled by this outfit.
It turns out that “Black Fist” disappeared several months earlier, and was no longer paying the trainers or communicating with them. Subsequently their social media pages were also taken down as part of those companies’ efforts to remove fake pages, including those put up by these Russian trolls. And the same individual who told me his name was “Jackob Johnson” used the name “Taylor” to Omowale.
What the objective of the Russian trolls in funding “Black Fist” remains unclear, as all the trainers were only doing what they had already been doing for years, which was providing legal self-defense training in their communities. But the Russian trolls wanted them to send photos and information on this training, and therein lies the clues.
First, it appears they wanted to use the images of Black people engaging in self-defense training to incite white supremacists, for whom they had set up fake Facebook groups like “Heart of Texas.” The idea seems to have been to provoke confrontations, to act as provocateurs. They had also set up fake Facebook groups like “Blacktivist” and “BlackMattersUS”, which claimed to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Second, they wanted to collect information on the names of those who trained in these “Black Fist” programs. We do not know where such information ended up or how it was used, or if it was shared with the Russian government’s many friends in the Trump administration.
For these reasons, I categorized the “Black Fist” operation as part of the Russian government’s attempted version of COINTELPRO, the notorious program of the American FBI to disrupt, discredit, infiltrate, and destroy numerous anti-war, Black Liberation, civil rights, women’s, progressive, leftist, and revolutionary organizations in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Perhaps the only thing that short-circuited these plans of the Russian trolls was that they were publicly discovered and exposed in both the Russian and U.S. media.
In November, Omowale Adewale and I were both interviewed separately about all this by Robin Thede for her show, which combines serious analysis with comedy in looking at issues and news. We both raised a lot of issues analyzing what this all meant, knowing that the entire televised segment would only be six minutes long.
That segment, entitled “Black Fist: The Russians’ Secret Plot to Infiltrate Black Communities,” first aired on December 14, 2017, and included brief clips of our interviews.
The segment was narrated by Robin Thede in front of a live studio audience in New York, with the prerecorded parts shown to that audience on video monitors. It was all fine-tuned in the editing, since the show was taped in the afternoon and aired that night. I was sitting in the audience, and had been introduced by Robin Thede before the show, giving a clenched-fist salute back as she welcomed me. When the clip of my interview began playing on the monitors, the audience gave me a nice round of applause (and not because of some applause sign).
This effort to infiltrate and misdirect the Black community, along with anyone involved in organizing self-defense training for the masses, seems mainly to have been a complete failure. But the fight, of course, continues against our enemies, be they in Washington, Moscow, or anywhere else. We must remain vigilant in what we do and how we do it, as we struggle by any means necessary.
Here are links to more information on the “Black Fist” affair:
New York Daily News: Brooklyn activist targeted by Russian operatives seeking to set up self-defense classes for African-Americans
Investigation of RBC: How a “Media Factory” Grew Out of the “Troll Factory”
Investigation of RBC: How the “Troll Factory” Worked in the US Elections
There are also many more general exposures of the Russian Internet troll operations, including:
About the Author: In 2008, Eddie Goldman was named “The Conscience of Combat Sports” by Gladiator Magazine. His media work, including his No Holds Barred podcast and blog, has for many years focused on covering fights, matches, and events in the combat sports and martial arts, as well as the social and political aspects and struggles for justice related to them. The first article he submitted on his original membership application to NWU in 1996, was a piece from Penthouse about the Battlecade Extreme Fighting 2 MMA event in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake outside Montreal. The Mohawk people saw that event, where eight participants were arrested, as important for their struggle for survival and self-determination.
He has supported campaigns for a union or association of boxers and MMA fighters, has fought against those, especially in American MMA, who use combat sports to push racism and white supremacy, and brings an internationalist perspective to combat sports. He supports fairness and equality for women combat sports athletes, along with the struggles of LGBTQ people in all the combat sports, including that of now retired transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox. He has campaigned against corrupt sports governance and the scourge of doping.
Since the victory of Trump, he has stepped up coverage of the use of combat sports and martial arts for self-defense. Over the years, this has included the activities of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute in Atlanta, numerous self-defense programs for women, anti-fascist self-defense training in Europe, and discussions of the African origin of martial arts and wrestling. He recently covered the Trans Boxing classes aimed at transgender and gender non-conforming people, and the history of the workers’ sports movement and how it used combat sports for self-defense training. I have also consistently discussed the importance Malcolm X placed on the martial arts, and was proud to have this noted at events at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.