Philadelphia: No Peace for Racists in Grays Ferry

Revolutionary Worker #912, June 22, 1997

In the early morning hours of February 23 Raheem and Warren Williams, two teenage cousins, were coming home from the neighborhood store in Philadelphia's Grays Ferry community when they were confronted by some drunk white men outside the Rec Center of St. Gabriel's Catholic Church. The men started up with racist insults. "Hey, n*ggers!" they yelled. "What you got in that bag? You got some steaks for us, n*ggers?"

Raheem and Warren tried to avoid trouble. But the racists started shoving and one of the white men got knocked down. Dozens of white men poured out of the Rec Center and jumped Raheem and Warren.

Raheem's mother, Annette Williams, told the press what she experienced. "I was in bed and all the commotion woke me. When I looked out the window, I realized that there were about ten white males on top of my son across the street. I went outside to get my son in the house--and I saw another four or five white males on Warren. I'm screaming for Warren, I'm grabbing for my son and I'm telling them to `Come on, let's get in the house.' As I got to the bottom of my front steps, another 40 men come running up. One man pulled a gun and said, `I'm gonna kill all you fuckin' n*iggers. I'm gonna kill you. I want all you n*ggers out of our neighborhood.' Another white man said, `I'm gonna blow up your house.' And all the other men were saying, `We're gonna kill you n*ggers.' Then they all rushed the house, they kicked me all the way into my house. As I made it into the house, we managed to lock the door. But then they began to break down the front door and bust up the front window. Raheem ran out the back to get help. He found a police car around the corner. And when the police car came, the men fled. I came out my house and saw the men flee into the building."

Police Protection

The police refused to follow the men into St. Gabriel's Rec Center--even though there had been an armed attack and clear damage to the Williams' house and door. Eventually they arrested two men, Thomas Hamilton and William Franz. Annette's sister, Cindy Williams, told the RW what she thought when she got there that night: "Why is it that there are 50 white men that attack my sister's family and the police only arrest two of them?!"

South Philadelphia's Grays Ferry is a working class community over a century old. It is a mixed neighborhood where Black and white people have lived for decades. But there are also those who hate this mixing. There is a history of racist attacks that go back as far as anyone can remember. And there is an ugly "whites only" strip of several blocks in Grays Ferry--that has been enforced by ugly means.

Community activist Charles Reeves says that St. Gabriel's church is well known for its racism. Black children are routinely turned away from church sports events. Once Annette's daughter tried to go to a volleyball game there and was openly told by a white man, "No n*ggers allowed."

It was no surprise to most Black people in the neighborhood that the Philly cops protected the white racists. Community activists tell the RW they believe off-duty cops were involved in that late-night attack on the Williams. The group that attacked Annette's house came from a drinking party organized by the "Downtown Irish Society" which is said to include cops in its membership.

And there is a long history of the Philadelphia police acting as a racist Gestapo--specializing in brutal raids against the Black Panther Party and murderous assaults against the MOVE organization. This is the city where police brutalized and then framed political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal--and where the local powerstructure has fought for years to railroad Mumia to the death chamber.

So the February attack on the Williams family and the police attempt at coverup are all too typical for Black people here. But then something uplifting happened: The Williams family refused to accept this racist treatment and the masses of people mobilized to demand justice.

Justice Had to Be Done

Annette Williams is a 34-year-old woman who makes her living as a hotel housekeeper. She was furious at this racist attack and she decided that justice had to be done. The Williams family contacted activist Charles Reeves and Minister Rodney Muhammad of the Nation of Islam's Mosque No. 12. Plans were made for a march through Grays Ferry on April 14 to protest racist attacks. It was scheduled for the week before President Clinton's Philadelphia "Summit on Volunteerism."

The city authorities immediately mobilized to stop the protest. The authorities tried to suggest that there was nothing racist in the attack--that it had just been a street fight that "got out of hand." They acted like the Black activists were the ones creating "a racial incident." Philadelphia's Mayor Ed Rendell said, "A march will only widen and intensify racial hatred." City Council head John Street, who made his reputation as a civil rights activist in the '60s, said that the march would lead to "civic catastrophe."

Reactionary forces portrayed the planned demonstration as "a hate march." It was even suggested that an unrelated killing of a white store clerk was an act of revenge for the Williams incident. A leaflet surfaced in Grays Ferry calling for a Klan "countermarch."

Meanwhile, police officials threatened to mobilize thousands of cops "to make sure there is not trouble." Police asked the mayor for permission to place sharpshooters on rooftops in Grays Ferry. Such threats have long been used to intimidate people in Philadelphia. This is the city where cops dropped a bomb on the MOVE home in 1985 killing 11 adults and children inside. And today's Mayor Rendell was then the DA who signed the warrant used for that day's police attack.

Community activists reported that the power structure also tried to used "sugar-coated bullets"--offering to release funds for fixing up the local Tasker Homes housing project and even reportedly offering personal bribe money--if the march was called off.

Despite these heavy pressures, people and organizations signed up for the march. The Grays Ferry West Action group got a march permit and the plans went ahead. Meanwhile, the controversy forced the Philadelphia police to arrest more men identified as part of the racist attack.

As the April 14 march approached, a new twist emerged. According to the Nation of Islam's newspaper Final Call, Philadelphia's Mayor Rendell initiated "what was tantamont to high-level diplomatic negotiations to bring in Min. Farrakhan to help defuse the situation..." Rendell, who had endorsed the 1995 Million Man March, claimed he had been in contact with Farrakhan since then. Min. Louis Farrakhan, the national leader of the Nation of Islam, agreed to join Rendell at an "All Faith Ecumenical Service Against Racism"--to take place on April 14. And at the same time it was announced that the local Nation of Islam was pulling out of the April 14 demonstration through Grays Ferry. This was a heavy development--the local NOI had played an active role in organizing this march from the beginning.

But despite the pullout, the march went ahead.

"We Got Your Back"

On April 14, warm spring air greeted the thousand people who gathered to march. The crowd was mainly Black, but there were white faces there too who had come to stand against racism. And the youth were there in force.

The atmosphere was electric. One young Black man said to the RW: "This is great! How can they say this is about hate? This is about not putting up with racism. This is about being treated like people."

As the march took off, the people faced racist taunts and open threats along the mile-and-a-half route. The Grays Ferry Council had worked to organize backward white people to "turn their backs on the hate march." In a typical scene, a white man with the American flag draped over his shoulders turned his back to the marchers and shouted, "Hate march, hate march, hate march." Reactionaries photographed and videotaped the marchers--an obvious threat of future retaliation.

All this was hard to bear, and many in the march defiantly answered these racist activities. One man yelled at the turned backs: "Look at me like a man." At one point, a contingent of Black youth broke through the police lines and chased some white racists into a nearby house. They chanted, "Kick down the door, waving the 44" and then moved back into the march.

The march passed the Williams' house. Annette, Raheem, Warren and Cindy were there on the front porch. Fists raised. The youth led the march in chanting: "We got your back! We got your back!"

At the end of the march, people gathered to talk. Drummers laid down a beat. There was dancing in celebration.

In the System's Courtroom

In the weeks after this march, hearings were held in Philadelphia courtrooms: Ten white men were formally indicted and ordered to stand trial for charges of riot, terroristic threats, ethnic intimidation, criminal trespass, aggravated and simple assault, criminal mischief, burglary, robbery and conspiracy. The system had been forced to put up the appearance of a prosecution.

Still, it was clear where the authorities and the cops stood: At the court house the white racists and their friends were waved quickly through the metal detectors. Black folks were forced to put belongings in special baskets, and if the beep went off--they were searched.

In court it was reported that police photographs of the scene had disappeared. Earlier, Annette Williams was told by police that the pictures had been developed. Later, Detective Warren said that "The pictures have been mislaid somewhere." By the May hearings, Assistant DA Jan McDermott suggested that there may never have been any pictures--that the photographer may not have put film in the camera.

As we go to press, the struggle is continuing. On Friday, June 6 a new demonstration was held in front of the District Attorney's office to protest the government's handling of this case.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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