Philly Cops:
A History of Brutality in Blue

Part 1: From the attack on the Black Panters to the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Revolutionary Worker #1013, July 4, 1999

Since 1981 the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has spearheaded an attempt to take the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The huge effort expended by the PPD to achieve this end is part of their ugly history of brutality, murder, repression and corruption. In a two-part article, the RW examines some of this criminal history of the PPD from the 1960s to the present.

"The streets are safe in Philadelphia--it's only the people that make them unsafe."

Frank Rizzo

"The leading political figures in the current government of Philadelphia hold three things in common: They have all risen to their positions of power by supporting and directing the thuggery of the Philadelphia police department. They have all taken part in the framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And they were all products of the Rizzo era."

From "Philly's Killer Elite" by C. Clark Kissinger

"Super Cop" Rizzo

In the 1960s the U.S. system was being rocked by the Black Liberation Movement and uprisings in cities across the country. Philadelphia went up in flames in August 1964--one of the first major cities to be hit by rebellion.

Philadelphia's establishment responded with extreme measures: blatant white supremacy, secret political police operations and massive police brutality. The personification of these efforts was Frank Rizzo, who came to be regarded by the rulers as their "super cop." Rizzo made a name for himself as deputy police commissioner when he "put down" the 1964 rebellion. In 1967 he was promoted to police commissioner.

Among Rizzo's first acts as the PPD head was to order an assault on 3,500 Black high school students demonstrating for a Black studies program. Rizzo arrived on the scene and initiated his "riot plan number three." He reportedly gave the command to move on the protesters by saying, "Get their black asses." The police beat the students and anyone else who happened to be in the area. An official from the American Civil Liberties Union said, "I myself was there and saw children who were fleeing from the police lying on the ground, each with three patrolmen beating them unmercifully with clubs."

One of the most notorious moves by Rizzo's thugs in blue were the raids on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party on August 31, 1970. The raids took place a week before the Panthers planned to convene a "People's Revolutionary Convention" at Temple University. As pretext, the police used recent killings of two cops (which were not connected to the Panthers). Rizzo forced the arrested Panthers to strip and stand naked in front of the news cameras. The picture ran on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News. It was a sick and deliberate attempt to humiliate the Panthers. According to the book Protectors of Privilege, the police "cleaned out all three search sites--furniture, bedding, clothing, file cabinets, party records, and even, in some instances, refrigerators and stoves. In a rampage of destruction, they demolished the cinder blocks with which Panthers had replaced storefront windows and knocked out house windows and covered them over with sheet metal. They even ripped out pipes in some of the bathrooms." The raids were a declaration by Rizzo of "open season" on Black revolutionaries.

Rizzo's tactics were not really new--they have been used by other occupying forces trying to hold down the oppressed. His actions were loudly applauded by top representatives of the ruling class. President Nixon said, "As I see it, other cities could use Rizzo's ideas." Based on his "accomplishments" as the head of PPD, Rizzo was chosen by Philadelphia's ruling establishment as mayor in 1972.

Political Police Operations

Open violence by the PPD went hand in hand with spying and other political police operations. PPD Chief Inspector Harry Fox declared in 1967: "Civil disorder is the number one police problem today. Good intelligence in this field is urgently needed to prevent tensions and demonstrations from maturing into fires, sniping, looting, destruction and death."

In 1964, the PPD started a spy unit known as the Civil Defense Squad (CD). The official task of this squad was to "protect the constitutional rights" of people. In reality, the CD was formed to target political activists and groups. Shortly after the November 1967 attack on high school students, the CD went to a school board seminar attended by students, principals and social scientists. CD agents copied a list of those who registered, identified others from license plate numbers, and compiled reports on the participants.

The CD worked closely with the FBI--they jointly carried out spying and raids against the Black Panthers and other revolutionaries and activists. In a 1972 speech, Rizzo made clear what was at stake for the whole power structure: "Our nation is in peril, facing an assault from the radical left that threatens the fabric of American life. These misguided few glorify all that is anti-American and degrade anything pro-American." Rizzo himself had a tight relationship with the Nixon White House and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The Black Panther Party was one of the main targets of the CD/FBI operations. This was at the height of the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). As a teenager, Mumia Abu-Jamal (then known as Wesley Cook) was a founding member of the Philadelphia Black Panther Party and became its Minister of Information. In recent years hundreds of pages of secret police files surfaced--revealing that Mumia was put under surveillance by federal and city agents starting when he was just 14 years old.

A 1969 incident in which Philly cops killed a mentally retarded Black youth thrust the Panthers into the frontlines. Rosemari Mealy, one of Mumia's Panther comrades, remembers: "[Mumia] spoke to the murdered youth's family and began to write in a prolific manner of this and other wrongdoings of the Philadelphia police (having himself been a victim of their brutality). When flyers and posters appeared overnight in every Black neighborhood all over the city, Black folks responded to the Party's agitation and organizing around the youth's death.... His writings conveyed an interpretation of the daily reality of an entire community under siege and terrorized by a racist police force and a police chief who condoned their actions and openly advocated `white power."'

Other Black activists and organizations were also targeted by the CD and FBI. A major method of attack was preemptive raids on the headquarters of organizations and homes of individuals.

For example, in August 1966, 80 heavily armed cops supported by hundreds of back up officers staged simultaneous raids on four locations in the Black neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. Nine people were arrested, and six were held on $50,000 bail. The raids were labeled "the SNCC raids" (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)--even though SNCC did not have an organized presence in the city. The raids were apparently aimed at preventing SNCC from organizing there. Charges against all those arrested were eventually dropped.

In the summer of 1967 police raided a house they said was occupied by members of the "Black Guard," an offshoot of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). They confiscated pamphlets, manuals and other literature. The raid came after six members of the group were arrested and later charged with conspiracy to incite to riot and other serious political charges. These charges were all eventually dropped or reduced to lesser charges. Another raid followed in October and then again in November 1968--in all the cases prosecutors eventually abandoned the major charges.

Another focus of PPD's political police operations was the Free Press, a radical newspaper. People working on the paper were under constant police surveillance and frequently arrested on the thinnest of pretexts. At demonstrations, CD agents often surrounded people selling the paper to keep them from getting it out to the people. At an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in 1970, people in the Free Press contingent were singled out, ambushed and clubbed by the police. The Free Press went to court to demand a stop to the police harassment. The PPD was forced to sign a consent decree saying they wouldn't "enter the homes of the plaintiffs, nor limit their freedom of movement, without warrant...". The wording of the decree still gave the police latitude to attack the paper, but under risk of much greater exposure.

The War Against MOVE

Rizzo became mayor in 1972--with a pledge to clamp down on rebellious elements in the Black community, as well as white radicals, hippies and other "social misfits." That same year MOVE--a mostly Black radical organization--was founded. MOVE--with its politics of denouncing the system and rejecting its authority--and the power structure were clearly on a collision course. The Philadelphia Inquirer's description reflected the city establishment's view of MOVE: "[They railed] against anything that smacked of the system.... Its members were disruptive and tumultuous, abrasive and unyielding, hurling obscenity after obscenity at the system they despised."

MOVE had a compound in Powelton Village in West Philadelphia. This became the scene of repeated confrontations between the Philly police and MOVE. Between 1974 and 1976, there were 400 arrests of MOVE members, resulting in bail and fines of more than half a million dollars.

On August 8, 1978--after a 10-month siege--the Philly police invaded the MOVE house with a 500-man army. During the assault, one cop was killed--quite possibly by "friendly fire." The last to come out of the house was Delbert Africa, one of the most well-known MOVE members. He was shirtless and had his arms over his head to make clear he had no weapons. But the cops beat, kicked and stomped him Rodney King style, in front of TV cameras. Nine MOVE members were tried and convicted for the murder of the cop who was killed during the assault. The MOVE 9 received prison sentences of 30 to 100 years each--while the cops who beat Delbert Africa almost to death walked free.

The siege and assault on MOVE's Powelton Village headquarters served as political justification--and military training grounds--for an even more murderous attack several years later. On May 13, 1985 the Philly police dropped a bomb on the MOVE house at Osage Avenue, setting an intense fire. Of the 13 MOVE people in the house, 11--six adults and five children--were killed. The fire spread through the neighborhood, leaving 61 houses destroyed and hundreds of people homeless. (For a detailed account of the bombing of the MOVE house, read Attention MOVE! This Is America by Margot Harry, Banner Press, 1987.)

By the late 1970s Mumia Abu-Jamal was a well-known radical radio journalist in Philadelphia. The people in the streets called him "The Voice of the Voiceless." The PPD hated Mumia because of his Panther history and his exposures of police brutality. One of Mumia's assignments was coverage of the trial of the MOVE people after the police raid on the Powelton Village house.

On December 9, 1981--several months after the MOVE 9 were sentenced--Mumia saw a cop viciously beating his brother, who had been stopped for an alleged traffic violation in downtown Philadelphia. Mumia rushed to the scene, and there was a confrontation. When the smoke cleared, Mumia was bleeding on the sidewalk with a bullet in his chest. Nearby, Philadelphia cop Daniel Faulkner lay dying from bullet wounds. Mumia was charged for the murder of Faulkner. This was the beginning of the political railroad of Mumia.

When Rizzo was mayor, he had a team of homicide prosecutors in the District Attorney's office who shared his hatred of Black radicals. The key members of the team were Ed Rendell, Ron Castille, and Lynn Abraham. C. Clark Kissinger points out: "The DA's homicide division worked hand-in-glove with the homicide division of the Philadelphia police department. The police homicide division was notorious for the mistreatment, even torture, of suspects, some of whom mysteriously died in custody. Homicide prosecutors like Rendell, Castille and Abraham worked with this unit on a daily basis and were skilled at looking the other way when police misconduct occurred--as it did almost daily."

Rendell, Castille and Abraham have played key roles in the attacks on MOVE and the railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And today, they are among the powerful elite in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Rendell is currently the Philly mayor. Castille sits on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which rejected Mumia's appeal. Abraham, the current Philadelphia DA, is known as "the queen of death" because her office routinely demands the death penalty in every possible case.

To be continued

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