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2000-07-31

Philadelphia: A Legacy of Police Brutality

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Most people are aware of the recent police beating of Thomas Jones here in Philadelphia, but fewer people remember the police beating of Delbert Africa in 1978 caught on videotape and broadcast worldwide. This incident prompted the Department of Justice to file the first ever lawsuit against a city for police brutality. In 1985, the police dropped C-4 plastique from a state helicopter on the MOVE house resulting in the death of eleven people including five children. Sixty-one homes were burned to the ground. Ramona Africa emerged from the flames and still carries the scars from that day. Our guests will discuss the history of police brutality in Philadelphia. [includes rush transcript]

Guests:

  • Ramona Africa, Minister of Communication for MOVE. She is the sole adult survivor of the police bombing of the MOVE home in 1985.
  • Linn Washington, Jr., award winning journalist and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black newspaper in the country. He is the director of the Print Track for Temple University School of Journalism.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, broadcasting live from the Independent Media Center in Center City, Philadelphia. I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez on this first day that the Republican National Convention is taking place in Philadelphia. It will go on for four days. We’ll be broadcasting live for five.

And for listeners who are just joining us around the country and community radio stations, we welcome you all. You are joining an even larger public TV-viewing audience on public access cable television, as well as the DISH Network. We are involved right now in an unprecedented project, which is the joining together of community media. Public radio and cable public access television, for the first time, are doing a joint national live broadcast that will last two weeks, this week in Philadelphia and then from August 14th to August 18th, in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention. And we welcome you all to this quite amazing experiment, so that we can view these uprisings against corporate power, not through a corporate lens or listen to them not through a corporate microphone, but through the grassroots microphones and video cameras of independent video activists, reporters, and here in the background for viewers who are watching this and for listeners, you can hear it through your ears, we’re in the midst of the Independent Media Center — is where — which is the center of that independent media activity.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Yes, and, Amy, we’re going to talk now about a topic that is growing throughout the nation in controversy and in importance, the issue of police brutality, and no better place to discuss that than right here in Philadelphia. The history of police disregard for the civil and human rights of the people in the City of Philadelphia has existed here for — back into the nineteenth century. During the past three decades alone, Philadelphia police stripped Black Panthers naked in the streets, fatally shot hundreds of blacks and Hispanics, plus they have starred in scores of brutality incidents captured on videotape. Philadelphia is the only American city where police have been sued by the US Justice Department and criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

And we’re joined now by two people who have had lots of experience with that. One is an old friend of mine, a former colleague at the Philadelphia Daily News, Linn Washington, an award-winning journalist and columnist now for the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black newspaper in the country. He is also the director of the newspaper Track at Temple University School of Journalism.

And, Linn, you have been following the police abuse problems now for years. First of all, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to see you again.

LINN WASHINGTON:

Thank you. Good seeing you, Juan. Good seeing you, Amy.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And tell us a little bit about the history of the Philadelphia police and the citizens of the city.

LINN WASHINGTON:

A very ugly and outrageous history, one that has been documented in numerous lawsuits, reports by internationally respected organizations, and also one that is etched into the minds of so many of people of color in this city.

Police abuse not only includes fatal shootings and outrageous beatings like we saw a few weeks ago with this guy, Michael Jones, but it also includes a more insidious nature, which is false arrest. I mean, there have been literally tens of thousands of people who have been falsely arrested and police have perjured themselves in court to put in prison, and also just daily racial slurs and other epithets. I mean, right now we have a very interesting lawsuit in the City of Philadelphia, where three white police officers and three black police officers are suing the police force for racism, and the commissioner criticized the white officers for filing the suit and fired them. It’s outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN:

We certainly saw the police brutality of Philadelphia very clearly over the last few weeks. Another videotaped beating. This time we saw the videotape of the beating by police of Thomas Jones.

We’re joined as well in the studio here at the Independent Media Center in Philadelphia, by Ramona Africa. She’s the minister of communications for the MOVE organization, the sole adult survivor of the police bomb that was dropped on the MOVE home in 1985. The bomb was made up of C4 plastique. It killed eleven people, including five children.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ramona Africa.

RAMONA AFRICA:

Ona move.

AMY GOODMAN:

What about this videotaped beating of Thomas Jones in the lead-up to the Republican National Convention?

RAMONA AFRICA:

Well, it was shocking, but not surprising. To remind people, right here in Philadelphia in 1978, twenty-two years ago, preceding the beating of Thomas Jones, preceding the beating of Rodney King, there was the beating of Delbert Africa by Philadelphia police as he came out of MOVE headquarters, unarmed, clearly not a threat. He was beat almost to death. For close to thirty years now, MOVE has been telling people about the brutality, particularly of Philadelphia police, but police brutality across this country. As you stated, I’m one of the living, you know, survivors of police brutality. You can’t get any more brutal than being bombed, having a bomb dropped on you, you know, by Philadelphia police. It’s a problem that people have complained about for years.

And the problem is that officials have never, ever been concerned about addressing or resolving the complaints of people. Their response is more brutality and intimidation. Just a day or so after the brutal beating of Thomas Jones, people complained and protested. What was the official response? For cops and the Amtrak train station to say, “Oh, you didn’t like that beating? Well, take this.” And they shot a homeless man to death, because he raised a chair. If somebody raised a chair at me and I shot him to death, I’d be in jail charged with murder.

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re talking about the shooting death of a —

RAMONA AFRICA:

Of Robert Brown.

AMY GOODMAN:

—- black man in the Amtrak station -—

RAMONA AFRICA:

That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN:

—at 30th Street in Philadelphia.

RAMONA AFRICA:

A day or so after the beating of Thomas Jones.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Well, Ramona, I was a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News, and I’ll never forget that day, Mother’s Day of 1985, in the MOVE siege, and being there, turning my back for a second when that helicopter came and dropped the bomb on your house. And the most amazing part of that, not just the fact that a city dropped a bomb on its own residents, but that I recall for over an hour, as a fire in that house raged and all the fire trucks had arrived, for over one hour, none of the firemen lifted a hose to turn that fire out. And as a result, it not only caused the death of so many people, but then also left something like eighty-five homes were destroyed as a result of the city’s refusal, in an attempt to try to force all of the MOVE members out of the house, to let an entire community burn.

RAMONA AFRICA:

Two points really need to be made here about the viciousness of what happened that day. Number one, officials tried to tell people that the cops were out there, because neighbors complained about MOVE. We’re telling people, “Use your brain.” When has this government ever cared about black people complaining about their neighbors or white people or any other people complaining about their neighbors? You’re from Philadelphia. You know 8th and Butler. Those people down there have been complaining for years, hollering, screaming, protesting, demanding that something be done about the drug trafficking there. You know, did they drop a bomb down there? No.

The second thing is, when you talk about the fire trucks arriving, the fire department was there from ground zero, and they poured tons of water from four deluge hoses on our home for hours, hours before there was a fire. But then when the police bomb ignited a fire, all of a sudden the fire department did not want to put water on our home to douse the fire.

And thirdly — I cannot overlook this — when we realized that our home was on fire, we immediately tried to get ourselves, our children, our animals, out of that blazing inferno, and the instant we became visible to police, we were met with the barrage of police gunfire. They deliberately opened fire on us to try to prevent anybody from escaping that blazing inferno.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And, of course, I remember well the story that was leaked from the police department then, that the MOVE members had come out shooting, and I remember a long discussion —

RAMONA AFRICA:

Automatic weapon fire.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

— and our newspaper at the time, the Philadelphia Daily News, ran that story from police sources. And I’ll never forget Bill Marimow, who’s now an editor at the Baltimore Sun, was then an investigator reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bill told me in a conversation long after that, because the Inquirer did not report that story, and Bill says, “Juan, your newspaper ran the cover story of the shooting that occurred in the back of the house,” as you were all coming out unarmed, “and our newspaper fell for it, and we ran the cover story for the police after what actually happened there.”

RAMONA AFRICA:

Yeah, they said that we came out shooting automatic weapons at them. And they have yet to ever find an automatic weapon.

LINN WASHINGTON:

You know something, Juan, there’s a little footnote to that, in terms of the coverage of the Daily News, because you and I were on Cobbs Creek Parkway watching the firemen sitting around —

AMY GOODMAN:

Linn Washington.

LINN WASHINGTON:

—- but the next day, I talked to one of my sources who lived on Osage Avenue. He told me that he saw police shooting at MOVE members. I reported that back to the desk, and they weren’t interested in it. They said, “It’s just hearsay at this point. We don’t want to inflame the situation.” So that shows the kind of -— I don’t know if “subtle” is the right word, but the way the media manipulates news to keep the public uninformed, under the rubric of informing the public.

AMY GOODMAN:

Ramona Africa, what happened after the MOVE bombing? What happened to you?

RAMONA AFRICA:

I was arrested. I was charged with everything that the police did. I mean, they dropped the bomb on me and my family. We were outrageously — I was outrageously charged with possession of explosives, assault, I mean, everything that they did, I was charged with. I was finally convicted of riot and conspiracy to riot, which merged into one charge, and I was sentenced to sixteen months to seven years in prison.

I was told at the end of sixteen months that I could be paroled. I could walk out of jail anytime I wanted to, with the stipulation that I had to agree to completely disassociate myself from the MOVE organization and agree not to have any contact at all with any MOVE person, something that I would never agree to. My family members were offered the same kind of deal. None of us accepted it. So I ended up doing the full seven years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN:

Were any police officers ever charged?

RAMONA AFRICA:

Not one official ever was charged with any crime against MOVE on that day. Even though they admitted to certain things that they did, they were deemed to have been stupid, not criminal.

AMY GOODMAN:

Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia in charge at the time. You sued.

RAMONA AFRICA:

Absolutely, and he was one of the first people to get immunity and to be dropped from my suit. The man who OKed, took all of a few seconds to OK the dropping of a bomb.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we’re talking about a city of several firsts. This is the home of the first convention in the nineteenth century here in the United States and also the city that is the only American city whose police have been sued by the US Justice Department. Linn Washington, do you see any significant changes here in Philadelphia over time?

LINN WASHINGTON:

Unfortunately, there has been no significant changes. There’s been a consistent struggle legally, as well as in the streets. There have been times when the system has entered into agreements, which they have broken. One instance is this, right now with this Thomas Jones situation, there’s going to be thorough investigations. The internal affairs department of the police department, as a result of a 1993 order from then-Mayor Ed Rendell, has seventy-five days in which to do an investigation.

Last October, a Hispanic minister was beaten by police after he was a victim in a carjacking, which he helped police stop. Very similar to the Jones situation, they drug everybody out of the car, beat the Hispanic minister and his assistant. A week and a half ago, the Hispanic clergy of Philadelphia held a press conference criticizing the police department for its failure to complete the investigation. When they sent a letter to the police department, they got a form letter back saying, “We’re having hard time investing — or interviewing the police officers involved. Can we indulge your patience for a few more months?” So it’s just a farce. The system is an absolute farce.

The irony is that many of the people who are now running the system, like the Mayor and his recently resigned chief of staff, know the extent of police brutality in the city. The chief of staff, the then-chief of staff, Stephanie Franklin-Suber, when she was a law student at the University of Pennsylvania a number of years ago, wrote a law review article on police brutality in Philadelphia. In the wake of the Jones situation, she called it “an isolated incident.”

Lies, farce, cover-up, I mean, whatever adjective you want to use, that is the nature of the system here in Philadelphia. But it’s also the nature of the system across the country, when it comes to police abuse, and this is something that I think should be highlighted at the First Union Center, getting George Bush to comment on this or not comment on it, and making it an issue, because it’s not just the victims, but it’s the collateral damage, where you have innocent people who are profiled and beaten and harassed and falsely put in prison.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Of course, the epidemic that we have of police abuse across the country in this past decade of the law and order crackdown throughout America is certainly not a topic of conversation at this convention.

LINN WASHINGTON:

No. No.

RAMONA AFRICA:

Absolutely not, and it’s really an insult, a slap in the face of the people. And when people take to the streets to voice their complaints, to demand some action, people are treated as if we’re the criminals. And, you know, it’s very interesting, just an aside, that right now, one of the biggest movies out is called The Patriot, one of the biggest megastars in Hollywood starring in it, Mel Gibson, and what does that represent? What is it talking about? It’s talking about a group of people at the founding of this country going to war with the government, with cops called Redcoats, you know, in defense of justice and what’s right. And that’s being applauded, it’s being pushed in Hollywood. It’s celebrated every 4th of July in this country. But when people like the MOVE organization and other people take to the streets and dare to demand what’s right, fight for what’s right, you know, when the government is wrong, we’re called criminals. We’re told we don’t have the right to do this.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Ramona Africa and Linn Washington.

LINN WASHINGTON:

Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re wrapping up this program today. Democracy Now! is being broadcast from the floor of the Independent Media Center in Philadelphia.

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