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Philadelphia People’s Tribunal exposes police brutality

Published Jan 20, 2011 9:40 PM

In a fitting commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a People’s Tribunal Against Police Brutality and Misconduct was held at the Songhai City Cultural Center in north Philadelphia on Jan. 15. Called by the Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality, the tribunal gave voice to community residents who have been victims of police brutality and misconduct and documented cases of police brutality for legal actions against the police department.

Coalition member Gabriel Bryant said, “King’s legacy has been turned into a service day, when his real legacy was about protest. ... Forty-three years later there is still no recourse for the people as far as state repression is concerned.”

Police brutality and corruption are rampant in Philadelphia. Since early 2009, 11 officers have been arrested on charges including murder, rape and drug dealing. They are among 51 police officers fired for misconduct since May 2010. Brutal beatings and assaults by Philadelphia police continue particularly in African-American and Latino/a neighborhoods.

The Askia Coalition was formed in response to one bloody incident. On Sept. 3, while waiting to pick up food outside a west Philadelphia restaurant, Askia Sabur, an unarmed 29-year-old Black man, was brutally assaulted by several Philadelphia police. He reports that as he sat calmly on the sidewalk repeatedly telling the police that he didn’t do anything, police cuffed his hands, put him in a chokehold and struck him at least nine times with a metal baton. One officer drew his gun, threatening onlookers who were yelling for police to stop beating Sabur.

This incident might have ended as another buried statistic except that Sabur’s beating was caught on cell phone videos. He is still recovering from back problems, a broken arm and head trauma from a deep gash that required six staples. Two of the officers involved have been the subject of multiple civilian complaints over the last five years. Despite this and the images captured of the incident, Sabur was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest.

Chilling testimony shows extensive police brutality

A tribunal highlight was testimony by Abdus Sabur, Askia Sabur’s father, who described his own first encounter with police brutality in the early 1950s when police came to his house looking for his uncle. “I was a little boy, but I got a broom and I wanted to fight those people coming into my house,” he said.

Abdus Sabur also reported about police retaliation and harassment of other family members who organized community protests after Askia’s beating. He said that on Oct. 26, police punched and kicked Tanya Yates, Askia’s cousin, after kicking in the door of her grandfather’s house. Police claimed they were pursuing a male, but Yates was the only one arrested. Like Askia, she now faces assault charges.

Other victims of police brutality related their stories to the two-judge panel: Inez Rogers, Assistant Counsel General of the UNIA-ACL Legal Defense Fund, and Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League and a member of the National Black Police Association.

Tahira Pollard described her assault by 22nd District police officer Scott Ross, who claimed he pulled her over because he saw her talking on her cell phone. Pollard alleges Ross yelled at her, “I’m tired of you b-----s,” and then punched her in the head, knocking out a tooth, threw her cell phone on the ground and ran over it with her car. The incident was caught on a security camera and witnessed by Pollard’s friend. Pollard was charged with resisting arrest. She has since learned that 13 other women filed assault complaints against Ross in the past five months.

Basiymah Mu-Bey, a long-time activist and Mumia supporter, described another assault on a Black woman by 22nd District police. Mu-Bey reported that on Nov. 27, Niamah Shabazz-Jones parked outside her home to pick up a suitcase, leaving her 12-year-old in the car to watch over two younger siblings. When Shabaaz-Jones returned, she saw a white man banging on the car window.

Shabaaz-Jones says that when she approached the man to tell him to keep away from her children, he grabbed her in a chokehold, pushed her face down to the ground and only then identified himself as an undercover police officer before repeatedly tasering her. Shabaaz-Jones could not testify on her own behalf because she still faces charges.

Diop Olugbala, president of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, showed a video of his assault by police during a 2010 protest at Philadelphia’s City Hall against massive city budget cuts.

Ernest Ford, Haitian activist and Mumia supporter, described how police targeted and beat him at a west Philadelphia rally against police brutality in July 2005. Ford was charged with 27 counts, including making terroristic threats. He was convicted only of simple assault for stepping on a police officer’s foot as he was being tackled to the ground. Ford has written a book about his case.

Ramona Africa, sole survivor of the 1985 police fire bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia, described the ongoing murderous police campaign against her family. She is in the process of bringing a civil suit charging city officials with murder.

Annette Dickerson of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York described an October 2010 report about the New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk statistics, which revealed a pattern of unconstitutional stops disproportionately affecting Black and Latino/a New Yorkers. Of almost 600,000 people stopped in 2009, 80 percent were Black or Latino/a. A similar pattern involving Philadelphia’s Stop-and-Frisk program is the basis for a recent American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

Dickerson stated that the motivation behind these police tactics, usually directed against people of color, the homeless, residents of public housing and lesbian/gay/bi/transgender communities, is about control. “The administration wants to sanitize the city and drive us out,” Dickerson said. “They don’t care where we go.”

Sobukwe Bambaata, an Askia Coalition member, compared these tactics to the U.S. military’s scorched earth policies in Iraq: “In Iraq it was for oil. Here they need to drive us out of areas where million-dollar condominiums are being built. It’s for profit.”

Conditions in the once predominantly African-American neighborhood around the Songhai City Cultural Center, long a gentrification target, bear this out. Blocks of high-priced town houses ring the area, with huge billboards in vacant lots advertising luxury condos yet to be built.

Bambaata also noted, “If you’re a young Black man in Philadelphia your chances of getting locked up and thrown into jail are considerably higher than your chance of getting a job.”

Shasheena Bray announced the Askia Coalition would hold training on community control over the police in late February. “We have given too much power to too many people who do not have our interests at heart.” She invited audience members to attend the coalition’s weekly Monday meetings at 6 p.m. at 5301 Media St. in Philadelphia.