West Philly Uprising
On September 3rd police approached Askia Sabur in the doorway of a Chinese Restaurant at 55th and Landsdown where he was waiting for food. Police threw Askia to the ground and subjected him to a storm of violence. For nearly 3 minutes, 6 cops swung down on him with clubs, cracking his skull and breaking his arm in the process. A video recorded from a cell phone shows Askia on the ground, handcuffed by one hand, blows raining down with no indication he was even physically resisting the abuse, let alone attempting to fight off the cops. One cop in an apparent frenzy of rage and violence pulled his gun and pointed it at individuals in the crowd including the person filming. Police then did what they always do after sending someone to the hospital: they pressed charges. For being a victim of the beatdown, Askia was charged with assault on an officer as well as attempted robbery (of the cops baton).
West Philly Takes the Streets
The cell phone video that circulated through listservs and social networks in the days that followed quickly made its way around Philly and within days West Philly was getting organized. An organization called the Poor Righteous Party of the Black Nation quickly pulled together a ‘Mass Community Build’ on the 11th of September, attended by roughly 50 people, the first of a series of 'People's Court' speak outs. Cautiously the organizers set up a sound system in an empty lot adjacent to the scene of the violence, but were quickly moved to the front of the restaurant where the actual beating took place, then into the street by the crowd that showed up. The community was not shy. One after another people testified about issues in the community from police harassment to calls for community solidarity. One young girl took the mic: “I’m not going to go look for no cop if something bad happens to me, I have to run to somebody else. If I run to somebody else, I want it to be one of yall. I don’t want it to be no cop.... there are cops patrolling these streets every day and there’s stuff happening on the street every day around here and they don’t care. It’s like what are they here for, ain’t nobody protecting us. We protect ourselves.”
Purpose of Mass Community Build:
1. To publicly support and defend Brother Askia and his family
2. To support the people’s resistance in defense of the HUMAN RIGHTS of the Black community
3. To learn from our people the real facts of what happened that night
Demands of Mass Community Build:
1. Black People Unite and get Organized!
2. Drop all charges against Askia and pay monetary restitution to his family
3. Jail the Police Thugs! Stop the War on the Black Community!
Word about the Community Build spread and the protests that followed grew exponentially. By the next day the crowd had doubled. The day after crowds swelled again. Though the crowd maintained an angry edge, all the marches stayed peaceful. Still, the police were ready for an escalation of conflict as were apparently a number of West Philadelphians who spoke out publicly reminding the crowd about the imminent possibility of reciprocal violence from the people if such a case were to happen again.
The march on the 17th of September was the culmination of the previous days of People’s Court, the day when demands and concerns were brought to the 19th District. Some 300 people marched through West Philly energetically taking the streets to hand the 19th District Police a “people's subpoena,” demands accumulated over the days of People's Court. The crowd chanted “Stop and Frisk Means Beat Your Ass” and “Who Runs these Streets, Not the Police” as they made their way to the 19th District.
Pam Africa, of the MOVE organization addressed the crowd in front of a heavily guarded and locked down 19th District: “People, what you're witnessing here is an uprising of the black community. A community that is sick and tired of being beat down, shot down, jailed illegally! People Join Us!”
Cops Call a Meeting
In response the police announced a series of 22 community meetings to address the issue of police violence across Philly on September 29. A West Philly (19th district?) event drew crowds of angry locals who had personal experience being harassed or brutalized by the police. Again over a dozen people testified they had personally experienced violence by the police. The police bureaucrats at the meeting feigned ignorance. When one woman complained she had been sexually harassed by cops on her block, a police bureaucrat offered his personal phone number. The out of character politeness of the cops at the meeting was not lost on those who had come to express their grievances. Will Mega, from the Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality sharply criticized some of the language put out by the police: “I think it's unfair to lay the premise that suggests the people need to learn how to interact with the police, not that the police need to learn the constitution and learn to interact with the people. Truth be told, the officers when getting out or addressing anyone need to speak to people in a respectful manner.”
Targeting the Family
In the aftermath of the police beating Askia was lucky to have a community and family who expressed defiance and courage to be vocal despite a situation were Askia is still facing serious charges and the police have been nothing less than aggressive. His sister Naima and father in particular have been especially present, helping with the organizing and speaking out at protests and in the media against police terror that touched their family.
But a family critical of the police will also catch their attention. On October 26th, 19th district cops demanded entry into the the home of Tanya Yates, Askia’s cousin, allegedly looking for Odell Balmer, who police say they suspected in a shooting. When Askia’s 80 year old grandfather Paul Balmer demanded to see a warrant, cops responded by kicking at the door until it was opened. Seeing Tanya, one cop pointed in her direction and said “That’s the one” at which point she was beaten badly with batons in the head and kicked repeatedly in the stomach. Police also beat Paul Balmer. As for Odell Balmer, who cops had originally come looking for, he had his room searched and was brought in and released without charges. Cops later claimed they would not have entered the house, had they been aware of the family's relation to Askia.
That Askia faced charges for being beaten by police was only compounded by being on probation for an earlier case. After having his probation extended when harassed by cops years before, Askia was just about ready to be done with it when the incident in September may be adding extra years to his decade of probation, another instance of being punished for being subject to violence. But Askia's court dates have been well attended by supporters and at a hearing on December 1st Officer Jimmy Leocal, the most reckless cop involved in the Askia's beating, didn't show up to court; the judge in turn dismissed all the charges relating to the beating incident. Leocal is still under investigation by the District Attorney's office. But Askia still has other charges pending for assault on Donyule Williams, another cop involved in the beatdown, for allegedly punching, biting and reaching for the Williams' gun, none of which is at all apparent from the video.
Crooked Cops in a Busted System
It's no secret the Phila PD is a total mess. The reinstatements of the cops involved in the highly publicized 2008 beatdown of 3 young Black men happened despite attempts by high level brass to have them fired. The out of control nature of the Phila PD is a liability for the State, which relies on police to maintain their own power.
Even the FBI have been busy infiltrating and busting Philly cops including inspector Daniel Castro, a cop who was vying for Ramsey's position. Castro went down for robbing drug dealers, the 15th Philly cop to be arrested since March 2009. Ramsey also recently announced plans to beef up Internal Affairs to some 138 cops as well as cooperate with the FBI on investigations internally.
One problem with settling for adjustments in a system that is very apparently broken, is that even an efficient and in-tact system contains profound problems. The role of cops has always been to maintain the status quo. In times of social peace, police still use the threat and exercise of violence to keep a system alive that fundamentally ticks on exploitation and violence.
Police violence has flourished and exercised legal legitimacy in numerous acts of anti-social violence by the State. From the enforcement of the dehumanization and violence of slavery, to repression against workers' movements the teens, McCarthyism, the frame ups and assassinations carried out by police as part of the FBI's COINTELPRO program (the Counter Intelligence Program was a brutal campaign of repression directed primarily against the Black power and Native American movements of the 60s), up to the last decade of state terror against Muslims and the radical environmental movement. The same could be said for the War on Drugs, just one aspect of a massive campaign of police harassment, violence and incarceration directed largely at this country's dispossessed Black populations.
It's of course easy to see the possibilities of a more rational and sane system when we see police behaving as irrationally as the cops who beat Askia, but even a well oiled and obedient police force will still use violence and the constant threat of violence to maintain social control. And communities feared by the State (in the US particularly Black communities), will always be under the gun of a police occupation, as long as police remain in the communities.
Now that a community has been mobilized, further organizing is in the works and much of it has its sights set higher than legal reforms or redress. There's been talk of organizing various forms of Copwatch (people's autonomous street based monitoring of police), study groups and networking among organizations and the communities around West Philly have brought some new enthusiastic forms of solidarity onto the scene. In the midst of which West Philadelphians are increasingly finding their voice and growing more bold in vocally standing up to police harassment and violence.
The Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality
While there is mass unemployment and growing poverty, the City of Philadelphia has spent billions of dollars “fighting crime” and using illegal tactics such as “stop and frisk.” This approach has failed. Philadelphia’s homocide rate is still four times New York City’s. At the same time, criminal activity and brutality perpetrated by the police have skyrocketed. At least 17 police officers face criminal charges ranging from murder and rape to drug dealing and armed robbery. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The effort to root out “crime” must begin with the police department and include economic development for the Black community. Make your voice heard. Tell the politicians to Drop “Stop and Frisk”!
Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality
For more information call 267.231.9639 • http://www.acapb.com