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    A Law unto Themselves

    By Tony Norman

    October 30, 2021
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    This article is part of “The Beginning of Understanding,” a symposium in response to Ashley Lucas’s report “The End of Rage” in Plough’s Autumn 2021 issue.

    “If you’re Black / you might as well not show up on the street / ’less you want to draw the heat”
    —“Hurricane”
    by Bob Dylan

    Two cops, both White, jumped out of a patrol car that pulled in front of me the moment I started running to a bus stop half a block away. My bus was several blocks behind me, but gaining fast and I wasn’t in the mood to wait thirty minutes for the next one.

    But they positioned their Philadelphia Police car diagonally between the street and the sidewalk in front of me. I don’t remember whether they had their guns drawn as they shouted to me to stop.

    Because some things just happen automatically, my hands shot up and I dropped my fake leather art portfolio. One of the cops immediately scooped it up while his partner threw me against the side of the Plymouth Fury for a proper frisk and pat down. “Are you carrying weapons or drugs or … ”

    “No,” I said, not faking my incredulity. I was wearing a silver imitation Italian racing jacket and torn jeans, so I already knew I didn’t fit the description of any other Black kid within 100 miles. “What did I do?”

    The cop who pulled my wallet from my back pocket said I fit the description of a man who mugged an elderly woman in the neighborhood earlier.

    Meanwhile, the other cop sifted through the drawings in my portfolio searching for something I’d allegedly stolen. The strong afternoon wind blew at least one of the drawings out of his hands; he made no effort to recover it and I was way too busy trying not to get shot to care.

    Fortunately, my wallet contained enough information for them to get a solid sense of who I was. I wasn’t handcuffed, but they handed me my unzipped portfolio and directed me to sit in the back of the squad car.

    At that moment, the bus I’d been running to the corner to catch slowed to maneuver around the police car. People I rode the bus with every day looked out the window and saw me get into the back of the blue-and-white like any other statistic. It was just one more humiliation that came with being a young Black man in Philadelphia.

    Every Black kid in the back of a Philly police car in those days felt like the next Emmett Till.

    After driving down the street in the opposite direction, we pulled in front of the house of one of the few White families who still lived in the neighborhood a decade after white flight and social unrest turned a once integrated street overwhelmingly Black.

    A White woman was escorted to the police car and asked if I was the culprit. To my relief, she vigorously shook her head no, perhaps sensing I was in the kind of danger she wanted no part in instigating. Every Black kid in the back of a Philly police car in those days felt like the next Emmett Till.

    After they were sure she hadn’t been intimidated into exonerating me, the cops opened the car door and told me I was free to go. There were no apologies – just a sneering self-righteousness and lack of concern for the mini-trauma they’d put me through. They knew they didn’t have to answer to me about anything. As long as they were cops in Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia, they knew they were a law unto themselves. I had no rights they were obliged to respect.

    Nonetheless, I inhaled the crisp fall air, happy to have survived the kind of encounter that more often than not ended in a beating or worse for folks who looked like me. It was late fall, 1979.

    It didn’t matter that I was an artist and that I didn’t have any priors when they made a radio call to check my info. I was still a threat to public order as far as they were concerned. I may have been innocent of that particular crime, but living in that neighborhood meant I was guilty of something, or soon would be.

    While reading Ashley Lucas’s excellent essay “The End of Rage” I felt thrust back into that era where cops were a law unto themselves and Black radicals, though in retreat, still constituted a potent political minority in terms of influence.

    I don’t remember hearing about Russell Maroon Shoatz’s ordeal, but I had heard of many folks like him from friends who were angrier and far more politically radicalized than I was. Philly was alive with the sound of Black dissent. Anyone who wandered down to City Hall on a warm day had the choice of being proselytized by Moorish Science Temple devotees hawking incense and body oil, a Last Days religious sect, or polite Nation of Islam members selling bean pies and their newspaper “Muhammad Speaks.”

    But the folks who fascinated me most – because they seemed to generate the most fear and contempt from the police – were the back-to-nature anarchist collective known as MOVE. MOVE was the only revolutionary group in town that was also racially integrated. Both Blacks and Whites wore matted, dirty dreadlocks that made them look like downscale versions of Bob Marley. Every member adopted the surname “Africa” and they preached against technology and capitalism, though they solicited donations in giant plastic jugs.

    Like most folks, I followed the trial of several MOVE 9 members who had been in a one-way “shootout” with cops in August 1978. It was a show trial and everyone knew it except the jury. You couldn’t help but shudder every time the infamous Philadelphia Inquirer photos of a MOVE leader being brutalized and stomped on by cops as he surrendered were reprinted in pamphlets defending the group as victims of police brutality. That they certainly were.

    At public radio station WHYY, a journalist named Mumia Abu-Jamal made a point of covering MOVE on air and occasionally for a Black newspaper. He was passionate about their cause, but even I knew he wasn’t particularly objective. Mumia made his reputation reporting on that trial. His coverage got him fired from WHYY.

    Mumia Abu-Jamal himself would be arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. I’ve never been convinced of Mumia’s innocence given his unwillingness to explain his side of what happened the night Faulkner was killed during an altercation with Mumia’s brother. Mumia was found at the scene. He’d been wounded by a shot from Faulkner’s gun and the officer was dead from a bullet from Mumia’s. I’ve always seen Mumia’s case as that of a guilty man railroaded by a racist kangaroo court. As Lucas vividly illustrates, there’s incredible power in coming clean regarding one’s own actions. Shoatz is a better man after having told the truth and offered a redemptive apology. But guilty or innocent, such cases are worth studying and thinking about again.

    Contributed By Tony Norman Tony Norman

    Tony Norman is an award-winning columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He is the incoming chair of the International Free Expression Project and a partner in the National A. W. Mellon Democratic Futures Project.

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