BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY In the spring of 1969, four activists from the Philadelphia chapter of the Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) were arrested for plotting to blow up the Liberty Bell after the police found bomb-making materials in the refrigerator of their West Philly apartment. According to the police, the planned destruction of the Liberty Bell was part of a larger plot hatched by a network of student radicals to destroy national landmarks across the country. The shocking news spread quickly when footage of the police search of the apartment — captured by a KYW film crew invited by police to document the raid — and the ensuing arrests made the evening news. The Daily News trumpeted news of the plot in two separate cover stories with the blaring headlines: COLLEGE REBELS HELD AS RAIDERS FIND ‘MAKINGS OF BOMB’ and REBEL STUDENT PLOT TO BLOW UP PHILA. HISTORICAL SHRINES REVEALED BY POLICE.
Once again, a potentially tragic incident of domestic terrorism was narrowly averted, it seemed, thanks to the aggressive due diligence of the Philadelphia Police Department and its take-no-bull commissioner Frank Rizzo. There was just one problem: There was no plot to blow up the Liberty Bell and there were no bomb-making materials, aside from what the police brought with them. But for the two long years the case kicked around the courts — long enough to put the SDS out of business in Philadelphia — none of that really mattered.
Forty years later, Rizzo and just about everyone on the police and prosecution side of the case are dead and buried. But all four of the accused SDS activists — Steve Fraser, Richard Borghmann, Jane “Muffin” Friedman and Paul Milkman — continue to insist there never was a plot to blow up the Liberty Bell, that the Philadelphia SDS was loudly and proudly avowedly non-violent, and the cops planted the bomb-making material to discredit their politics and scare off potential sympathizers. The judge overseeing the case seemed inclined to agree and eventually threw the case out after two years of pre-trial hearings. But by then it was too late, the Philadelphia SDS, having been successfully tarred as a dangerous terrorist organization, was dead in the water, along with their ambitious social justice agenda for improving schools, housing and job prospects for the city’s downtrodden.
“The backlash happened very quickly, by the time I got out of jail and went back to the Penn campus people were scared of me,” says Friedman, one of the four SDS members arrested that day. “When I tried to organize a rally in support of us people would back away from me when they saw me coming like I was some kind of mad bomber.”
To fully understand the significance of the case, it must be placed in the wider context of Philadelphia police’s war on perceived subversives in the late 60s — the way they systematically harassed, intimidated and brutalized ‘uppity blacks’ and white collegeboy troublemakers — under Frank Rizzo’s leadership. Rizzo routinely invented or exaggerated these threats to scare the public and amass political power, resulting in two contentious and deeply divisive terms as mayor in the 1970s. The bogus Liberty Bell Bomb Plot bust was just the latest in a series of trumped up arrests of activists by the police department’s Civil Disobedience Unit, which was created the early 60s to protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators while keeping the peace. Upon the appointment of Rizzo to police commissioner in 1967, the CDU became an blunt instrument of surveillance, intimidation and infiltration used to neutralize political dissent. MORE
RELATED: In the 1960s the U.S. system was being rocked by the Black Liberation Movement and uprisings in cities across the country. Philadelphia went up in flames in August 1964–one of the first major cities to be hit by rebellion. Philadelphia’s establishment responded with extreme measures: blatant white supremacy, secret political police operations and massive police brutality. The personification of these efforts was Frank Rizzo, who came to be regarded by the rulers as their “super cop.” Rizzo made a name for himself as deputy police commissioner when he “put down” the 1964 rebellion. In 1967 he was promoted to police commissioner.
Among Rizzo’s first acts as the PPD head was to order an assault on 3,500 Black high school students demonstrating for a Black studies program. Rizzo arrived on the scene and initiated his “riot plan number three.” He reportedly gave the command to move on the protesters by saying, “Get their black asses.” The police beat the students and anyone else who happened to be in the area. An official from the American Civil Liberties Union said, “I myself was there and saw children who were fleeing from the police lying on the ground, each with three patrolmen beating them unmercifully with clubs.”
One of the most notorious moves by Rizzo’s thugs in blue were the raids on the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party on August 31, 1970. The raids took place a week before the Panthers planned to convene a “People’s Revolutionary Convention” at Temple University. As pretext, the police used recent killings of two cops (which were not connected to the Panthers). Rizzo forced the arrested Panthers to strip and stand naked in front of the news cameras. The picture ran on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News. It was a sick and deliberate attempt to humiliate the Panthers. According to the book Protectors of Privilege, the police “cleaned out all three search sites–furniture, bedding, clothing, file cabinets, party records, and even, in some instances, refrigerators and stoves. In a rampage of destruction, they demolished the cinder blocks with which Panthers had replaced storefront windows and knocked out house windows and covered them over with sheet metal. They even ripped out pipes in some of the bathrooms.” The raids were a declaration by Rizzo of “open season” on Black revolutionaries. MORE
RELATED: Open violence by the PPD went hand in hand with spying and other political police operations. PPD Chief Inspector Harry Fox declared in 1967: “Civil disorder is the number one police problem today. Good intelligence in this field is urgently needed to prevent tensions and demonstrations from maturing into fires, sniping, looting, destruction and death.” In 1964, the PPD started a spy unit known as the Civil Defense Squad (CD). The official task of this squad was to “protect the constitutional rights” of people. In reality, the CD was formed to target political activists and groups. Shortly after the November 1967 attack on high school students, the CD went to a school board seminar attended by students, principals and social scientists. CD agents copied a list of those who registered, identified others from license plate numbers, and compiled reports on the participants. The CD worked closely with the FBI–they jointly carried out spying and raids against the Black Panthers and other revolutionaries and activists. In a 1972 speech, Rizzo made clear what was at stake for the whole power structure: “Our nation is in peril, facing an assault from the radical left that threatens the fabric of American life. These misguided few glorify all that is anti-American and degrade anything pro-American.” vRizzo himself had a tight relationship with the Nixon White House and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. MORE
RELATED: At the Republican National Convention protest in Philadelphia last summer, the police rounded up hundreds of activists in pre-emptive arrests and targeted and arrested on trumped-up charges those they had identified as leaders. Once many of those cases appeared in Philadelphia court, they were dismissed because the police could offer no reason for the arrests. In December the courts dismissed all charges against sixty-four puppet-making activists arrested at a warehouse. A month before, prosecutors had told the judge they were withdrawing all fourteen misdemeanor charges against Ruckus Society head John Sellers for lack of evidence. These were the same charges–including possession of an instrument of a crime, his cell phone–that police leveled against Sellers to argue for his imprisonment on $1 million bail this past August. MORE
RELATED: Meanwhile, Philadelphia city and police harassment of organizations preparing for demonstrations during the Republican National Convention (RNC) continues. On July 22 city building inspectors shut down a Center City art studio where activists have been building floats and puppets as demonstration props. Even though city records showed the building passed its most recent inspection and had no outstanding code violations as of December, the inspectors claimed the building was a fire hazard. Three hours after activists had removed most of the materials for banners, posters, puppets, props, as well as computer files, aides for Mayor Street’s office intervened and had the studio reopened.
“It should never have happened,” said Matthew Hart, director of the art studio, Spiral Q. “People were totally terrified and disrupted, not knowing if we were going to be arrested, not knowing anything, and I’m sure it’s not over.” Several activists compared the inspection to a mass preemptive arrest of activists in Washington, DC in April, the night before scheduled protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
The day before, a police spokeswoman acknowledged that police had been photographing those attending organizing meetings for demonstrations during the Convention. Lt. Susan Slawson, commander of the Police Public Affairs unit, had stated early in July, when activists wanted to identify individuals taking photographs, that any such activity by police would violate formal curbs on police intelligence-gathering “and we are in no way violating it.” After reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer informed department officials that car registration records showed that a car used during one surveillance was owned by the Philadelphia police, Slawson said, ““I wasn’t aware that we were doing surveillance. Everybody else knew. I didn’t check into it before I made the comment.” Slawson refused to say whether the surveillance was still going on or who had authorized it. MORE
UPDATE: Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey today said the department plans to meet with organizers of Occupy Philly and is still planning how the police will monitor the demonstrations. […] One key concern for Philadelphia police, Ramsey said, is making sure people can navigate around the demonstration to reach jobs, businesses and Septa stations. “Their right to protest is something we recognize and respect,” Ramsey said. “And we’re there to help make that happen, in a sense.” MORE
WASHINGTON POST: D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other police officials conspired to deflect blame and cover up evidence of their wrongdoing during the mass arrests of anti-globalization demonstrators in September 2002, according to a D.C. Council committee that investigated the incident. The Judiciary Committee criticized police for not telling protesters to disperse during the demonstrations and then arresting them for failing to obey the nonexistent order. Hundreds of protesters and bystanders were arrested. In the months afterward, Ramsey changed his account of whether he had approved the arrests, according to a copy of the committee report obtained yesterday. The investigation found fault with the police department’s handling of demonstrations dating back to 2000. The report challenges the force’s use of undercover officers to infiltrate protest groups, saying some continued surveillance after organizations were found to be generally law-abiding. MORE
JUDICIARY COMMITTEE REPORT ON POLICE CONDUCT DURING THE 2002 ANTI-GLOBALIZATION DEMONSTRATIOIN IN PERSHING PARK: The investigation by the Committee on the Judiciary into the policies and practices of the Metropolitan Police Department in handling demonstrations has found:
Metropolitan Police Department use of undercover officers to infiltrate political organizations in the absence of criminal activity and in the absence of policy guidance meant to protect the constitutional rights of those individuals being monitored.
A pattern and practice of misrepresentation and evasion on the part of leaders of the Metropolitan Police Department with regard to actions by the Department.
Repeated instances of what appear to be preemptive actions taken against demonstrators including preemptive arrests.
Failure of the Metropolitan Police Department to effectively police its own members for misconduct associated with demonstrations.
Failure of the Metropolitan Police Department to acknowledge and to protect the rights of individuals to privacy, and to free speech and assembly.
PREVIOUSLY: We The People
PREVIOUSLY: U SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION
PREVIOUSLY: The Declaration Of The Occupation
PREVIOUSLY: The People Are Too Big To Fail