Reporters Notebook

Philadelphia Mothers Take Aim at Police

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1056, May 28, 2000

On May 13, people in Philadelphia stood up against police brutality and murder in an inspiring and powerful way. Families of the victims of the police marched together with activists from many organizations with a united, clear message: This must stop and united together we CAN stop it!

A flier distributed by Mothers Organized Against Police Terror (MOAPT) explained the purpose of the march: "May 13 is the anniversary of one of the most vicious acts of police terror in history--the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound on Osage Avenue, Philadelphia. May 13 is also the International Day of Support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a well-known victim of police terror. And, May 13 is the day before Mother's Day, a day of sadness for so many mothers who have lost children to police terror, more than 2,000 since 1990! And the toll continues to rise. `How long will they kill our future while we stand aside and look?' These words, paraphrased from Bob Marley's verse, `Redemption Song,' are our call to action because we say NO MORE! We will not stand by and let any more of our people become the victims of police terror without an organized, focused response."

A thousand threads connect the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and the battle to stop police brutality--connections made on this day. In the crowd of 300 people there were many banners and signs for Mumia and relatives of victims of the police spoke out against the system's plans to execute Mumia.

People carried posters with the pictures of Tomasso, Netta and Tree Africa--three of the five MOVE children who were burned alive, in addition to six others, when city, state and federal authorities dropped a bomb on a MOVE house in 1985. Consuewella Africa, who was in prison when her two children, Tree and Netta Africa, died, told the crowd: "It ain't just MOVE people, it ain't just Mumia Abu-Jamal. It could be you, any one of you, your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your husband, your daughter...Today is the beginning to an end, the end of this goddamned police terrorism. We ain't taking it no goddamn more! We're here and we're gonna put a stop to it!"

Speaking Bitter

I had seen Emily Coakley break down in tears many times during the march. When she took the mike I understood why. Her son Arthur Smith was shot by a drug dealer in 1989. Bleeding from critical wounds, he asked people to call 911. No ambulance came, only a fire truck that would not take Arthur to the hospital. The firefighters with the truck "stood there and watched him bleed to death," Emily said. "The drug dealer that shot my son, he's an informant for the police department. He was never arrested, never charged....Eleven years, the 5th of May, my son has been dead and they never touched him (the drug dealer). Never. He's free as a bird...You say we're free? No we're not, not as long as those damn cops are out there doing their thing."

Bar-rae Choice was a college student at Drexel University with two jobs. Three men robbed someone at gunpoint and, as they ran away, they dropped what they had stolen on the porch of the Choice family home. Bar-rae was framed for the robbery and even though he didn't have any criminal record, the judge gave him five to 10 years in prison.

Theresa Choice, Bar-rae's mother said, "This system gave me a terrible smack in the face and I have been out here on the forefront ever since--and not just for my children but for other children that are here and for the ones to come. It seems that our children are not only being framed, beat and murdered because they are Black, they are now being charged for breathing while Black. My son Bar-rae Choice is part of this flowerless graveyard of injustice. Bar-rae was framed in 1996 by officers from the 12th and 18th Police Districts for an armed robbery that they, as well as the D.A.'s office, know he did not commit....There were no fingerprints, no lineup, no confession and Bar-rae was never read his rights. All they had was the victim's so-called identification of Bar-rae."

Barbara Vance spoke about her nephew Kenneth Griffin, who was murdered by Philadelphia parole officers on September 26, 1997. Vance's sister, Hattie Hobson--Kenneth's mother--stood by her side as she spoke: "At 6:00 a.m. in the morning, my sister was rousted from a sound sleep. Her and her husband went to the door. There were six probation officers at the door. The whole office had emptied out, including a supervisor, to come to her house for her unarmed child. They asked where he was and she told them, `He's here, I'll go get him. They pushed her to the side and pushed their way in at gunpoint, had her whole family lined up in the living room at gunpoint as they searched her house. They didn't go directly to her basement where she said he was. They went upstairs first, tore her house apart, even took the ceiling tiles out of the kitchen...

"Kenneth hid under the bed, with his children and their mother. They told him to come out. Kenneth said I don't want to go back. They said you don't have to go back. We're only here as a formality. He didn't know how correct that was. He wasn't going back. They didn't intend to take him back. They did exactly what they came there to do--murder him. Kenneth got up and came out with his hands in the air buck naked--not even a sock on--no weapon, no nothing in his hands, not even anything that resembled a weapon. They told him to come around the foot of the bed and they opened fire, children between them and all, parting his child's hair with a bullet. She ran from the basement, a six-year-old child with her hair smoking. They annihilated him right there in front of his family and children. He was shot in the side of his hand, his elbow, the side of his head, under his arm, the side of his hip, all showing Kenneth was not facing them with a weapon. They gunned him down in cold blood, cold-hearted, cold blood. As if that wasn't enough, they told the children and their mother, `Get the F out of this basement!' So they ran. She didn't have any clothes on either. She grabbed a blanket and ran with her babies. Kenneth's mother jumped and grabbed the phone, dialed 911 and said, `Oh my god, they've killed my baby!"'

The parole officers claimed Kenneth was armed and shot them twice. But there was no evidence of this--no cartridges or bullet holes. The family has fought to bring the men who murdered Kenneth to justice but the D.A.'s office and the U.S. attorney refuse to press charges.

Ramona Africa is the only adult survivor of the 1985 MOVE bombing and the only person to serve time in connection with what happened that day on Osage Avenue--not one official has been charged with any offense. Ramona said: "I've sat here and I've heard the list go on and on and on of people murdered by this government, by cops. My family was murdered by the cops. I was almost murdered by cops--by this rotten, senseless, corrupt system.... People are being patted on the back like they've got notches in their belts now for how many people they killed, while our family, the MOVE family, sits in prison with a total of a 900-year sentence for a murder everybody knows they didn't commit, while our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal sits on death row for a murder he didn't commit and not one of these killer goddamned cops are sitting on death row next to Mumia. We ain't having it!"

As we marched through the streets of downtown Philadelphia, past the Convention Center and the Galleria Mall where hundreds of people go shopping on Saturday afternoon, we blocked traffic at an intersection. Ella Forbes took the mike and spoke to people on the sidewalk: "We are many mothers, fathers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews of victims of police terror and we're asking everyone not to stand aside and let any more of our future be demolished. We are asking you to join us. If I had known that this would happen to me, I would have been out here 20 years ago. If you think that you can stand aside and it has no bearing on your life you'd better think again. It is not Black, it is not white, it is every color, every sexual identity, every class that this happens to."

An Epidemic of Police Brutality

While Philadelphia is one of the worst cities in terms of police brutality, the nationwide epidemic of police murder and brutality was also reflected at the march. Copies of the Stolen Lives: Killed By Law Enforcement book were distributed and a banner with the names of 1,000 people murdered by police across the country formed the backdrop of the makeshift stage at City Hall. A statement in support of Mumia from Nicholas Heyward, Sr. was read. Nicholas' 14-year-old son, Nicholas Heyward, Jr., was murdered by a New York City housing cop in 1994. A banner was sent signed by parents in New York City whose children were victims of police brutality that read: "Families of People Killed By Police Say Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal! Jail Killer Cops!"

Representing the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality, RCP National Spokesperson Carl Dix held up a copy of the Stolen Lives book and said: "Stolen Lives--it lists over 2,000 people killed by cops in the 1990s in the U.S. Most of these victims were unarmed and weren't committing any crimes when they were killed. But they're all dead now, and the cops who killed them are almost all still patrolling the streets of our communities, with badges and guns and with a virtual license to kill. Let's look at this. Our brother Mumia has been on death row for 18 years, railroaded there in a kangaroo court before a lying judge based on manufactured evidence. But almost none of the cops who have murdered our loved ones and who brutalize our people on a daily basis ever spend a day in jail."

The victims who were remembered on May 13 were mostly Black--but there were also a number of white people in the march whose family members or friends were murdered by the police. George Webb explained how his cousin Tommy died: "On November 29, 1998 my cousin Thomas Webb got locked out of our apartment... and found refuge in my car that was parked outside our building. He got into my car through a vent window which had been broken a week prior to the incident. A neighbor alerted a cop that lived in our building that someone was breaking into a car outside the building. Police officer Terrance Jones, an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, grabbed his pistol then went outside and savagely shot my cousin in the abdomen as he was sitting in the car...

"If you come from poverty, if you're poor, low income families, they take everything and drain you down to the ground. They use you, they abuse you and that's what happened in our case. We need to get together and stop it now before it happens to anyone else. It's unfortunate that we have to gather today under these circumstances, but it's also a good feeling to see so many people out here crying for help." Tommy's family finally succeeded in getting the cop who killed Tommy dismissed, but he has still not been charged with murder.

Ella Forbes is one of the founders of MOATP and a spokesperson for the group. She is a professor of African-American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. As the action neared its end I had yet to hear the story of how her son Erin was killed. Graciously, she had arranged for all the other family members to speak before her. She is a woman with a deep love for her son that fuels her struggle for justice. Despite the heartbreak of losing her child only a few months ago, she has stepped to the forefront of the struggle against police brutality in Philadelphia. With a quiet air of confidence, she took the mike and told us about her son Erin:

"Erin is dead because those officers of the law sworn to protect and serve citizens clearly did not see him as a citizen. They did not feel bound to respect his rights as a citizen. What they saw was the image that they had created themselves, the image of a criminalized Black man. They'd been socialized to believe that that is the real Erin.

"They did not see our Erin, the sensitive, articulate, activist, exceedingly bright, kind, promising, committed, well loved and cherished young man. They did not see the young man who drove an hour and a half one way to tutor and connect with children who did not have the privileges and benefits that he's had growing up in southern Chester County. They did not see a young man who was so concerned with the plight of his people in a nation that does not respect our rights that he consciously investigated joining several organizations for the purpose of working to prevent such injustice. They did not see the young man who was as equally concerned with social justice for all people regardless of race or social station. They did not see the poet, musician, writer, seeker and thinker that we know.

"They projected their own fear on Black men and they acted on that fear. Surely a slightly built, 150 pound, unarmed young man was not a threat to the at least six policemen who surrounded him, policemen who had mace, bulletproof vests and nightsticks but chose instead to approach him with guns drawn and then chose to use those guns to kill him and then, after they shot him, they maced him and handcuffed him....

"We must challenge a system which holds Black life to be of little or no value, a system that allows law enforcement officers to believe that they are not bound to respect the rights of Black people or Asian people or Latino people or transgendered people, a system that allows racial profiling and the perpetrators of racial profiling to use the excuse that the people they execute constitute a danger to their safety as justification for summarily acting as judge, jury and executioner."

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