Wednesday, January 19, 2011

All Power to the Peoples Court: The Struggle for Community Control of the Police in West Philly

A Great example of community exercising it's control over a local police force. When a group has the authority to violate their own rules, to whom do they answer? The question of police is one that is examined after a tragedy. That a local man was assaulted by police, the local people made a witness for peace by surrounding the violent officers and recording their crime. The central message that this powerful story articulates is that every people must unite, to "stand together and protect one another, for direct control of what happens in their community"

"The black working class is currently leading the way in the development of new forms of revolutionary organization in Philadelphia. This is reflected in the community based People’s Courts that formed in response to the near death beating of Askia Sabur in West Philadelphia on September 3rd, 2010. Askia had not complied with police orders to leave a street corner as he was waiting for his food at a Chinese store in his community, on 55th and Lansdowne.

Several people recorded with their cell phones and camcorders the brutal gang of cops as they proceeded to viciously attack Askia. The video clearly shows how his skull was cracked and his arm broken by the blows of the steel baton delivered by officer Jimmy Leocal. As the cops assaulted Askia people in the community steadily surrounded the police, loudly demanding that they stop. This intervention of the community in the unlawful arrest of Askia so threatened the official legitimacy of police violence that one officer felt compelled to reinforce it by hysterically pointing and waving his gun at the growing crowd. Immediately after the cop puts his gun down a person can be heard asking him “yo did you just brandish a fire arm?!” while the officer then resumes to bash Askia over the head with the baton. Someone else in the video can be heard saying, “he’s got one more time to point that gun at me” and “your gona fuck around and kill him.”[1]

One wonders what the police would have gotten away with if the people weren’t there. After the camera cuts out, several observers were ruffed up while Askia was arrested and charged with assault, resisting arrest, and attempted robbery (for grabbing the cop's baton). This incident is of course a regular occurrence for the mostly black working class of Philadelphia. City programs such as “stop-and-frisk,” under the leadership of Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey, have given free rein to police harassment and intimidation and have sparked an ACLU lawsuit. With this routine violence faced by poor people the police are fulfilling their duty to discipline the working class, especially its most revolutionary segments. But the people responded, without any one telling them to, by encircling the police and documenting their crimes.

The story quickly circulated the internet and the grapevine, grabbing the attention of the Poor Righteous Party of the Black Nation, which called for a mass community build on September 11th at the scene of the crime. These local organizers set up a microphone, an amp, and emceed while person after person stepped up and testified about their experiences with the police. Groups such as the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panthers, the Uhurus and other more established organizers were present, even a couple white folks, but most crucial were the everyday people from the community who came out. Of course, the undercover cops were wandering about the scene asking people about Askia, trying to collect information. Naima Wilson, Askia’s sister, addressed the gathering, warning people that the under-covers were trying to incriminate Askia. As the assembly grew to around fifty people they began to take up the entire street, obstructing the passing trolleys, forcing the cops to cordon off the block.

Everyone shared their frustration with the criminal Philadelphia Police Department, most notably Askia’s father and sister Naimah. More importantly, they encouraged people to stand together and protect one another, for direct control of what happens in their community. One young woman in her early teens expressed this spirit:

“I’m not gone go look for no cops if something bad happen to me. If I have to run to somebody else, I want it to be one of y’all. I do not want it to be no cop. I don’t even think they would do anything. I don’t feel safe around these cops patrolling these streets. Stuff happens every day around here and they really don’t care. It’s like, what are they here for? Ain’t nobody protecting us, we protect ourselves.”[2]

In next two days more People’s Courts were held at the same corner, attended by twice as many people. All the gatherings remained peaceful although those in the crowds and speakers made it very clear to the police that they would defend themselves if necessary. The police knew better than to try anything. Again, the streets where taken over and the people, especially the family, aired their grievances, which were compiled by the growing number of organizers and activists that were forming into the Askia Coalition Against Police Brutality. They put together a “People’s Subpoena” that was given to the local 19th Police District on September 17th at the conclusion of a 300-person march through West Philly.

Unlike the insular protests we are all too familiar with, this energetic mass of people was joined by children and elders coming off their porches, by the lumpen-proletariats from the corner, by people in the few local shops along the way. They chanted “Who runs these streets? Not the police!” and “No Justice, No Peace!” as they marched along the fenced off streets to the 19th District. The demonstrators arrived, some speeches were made, and the family and representatives entered the heavily guarded building and served the police with their list of demands. They called for the police to immediately release Askia, to drop the false charges against him, and to charge the culpable officers with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, inciting a riot, kidnapping, etc. Many people emphasized that these demands would be carried out regardless of whether the police fulfilled them or not. They were so ready that some organizers felt the need to order them to stop threatening and taunting the police and to back away from them, reflecting diverging interests between the rank and file and the official leadership.

The state has responded to this large outpouring of direct action against it by trying to establish its legitimacy. The large manifestations of discontent with the police state, tied with the video, which had received thousands of views and was seen all across the country by that time, sparked a series of 22 community-police meetings across the city on September 29th. These efforts are a desperate attempt to pacify the popular anti-police sentiment of the people. At a police-community meeting at the 19th District over a dozen people testified to the oppression they had experienced from the cops, which was countered with the hope of a more polite police force. After a woman expressed how she was sexually harassed by the police, one cop from the panel offered her his personal phone number.[3] This man’s patronizing gesture crystallizes the ongoing attempt by the cops to present themselves as “problem-solvers.”

Some radical leaders themselves envision a friendly neighborhood police state. Will Mega, the official family representative, for example, argued at the same police-community meeting that “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.” [4] Similarly, at the rally on September 17th, some speakers urged the police to “take time out to get to know our community.”[5] Rather than the people directly holding the police accountable and taking matters into their own hands, the focus shifts to pressuring the police to learn how to respectfully interact with the people. But the official leadership, which acts as a mediating force, does not exactly reflect the consciousness of the working-class. Although a split in the ranks of the police has certainly taken place, relying on the police to keep themselves in line is not only ineffective, but also exactly what the state wants. The people know this and for this reason are not calling for a more sensitive, better-trained police force.

Kristian Williams shows in Our Enemies in Blue how the expansion of police militarization has gone hand in hand with community-policing. Violent repression like “Cointelpro” is used in reaction to full-on revolutionary movements, while community based policing allows the police to legitimatize themselves when the movement is still small and isolated. Since the revolutionary period of the 1960’s this has been in fact a deliberate counterinsurgency initiative. By working with local residents to address their concerns, by reinventing themselves as more than a uniform and badge, the biggest gang in the city is currently trying to gain the community’s trust and prevent independent action. [6] This battle for legitimacy is critical for a police department with such a tarnished image as Philadelphia’s to prevent in the long-run any kind of revolutionary movement against it and the system it represents.

Attempts to offer the possibility of a more liberal police state function as soft form of repression—to snip the rebellion in the bud. The state doesn’t have to respond with outright violence since this movement has yet to develop its political power. At this stage the state is attempting to cut off popular support for the demand for direct community control of the police by offering solutions that are acceptable. Fortunately, the role being played by “respectable” leaders in offering solutions that perpetuate the police-state has not reached the level experienced in Oakland, where many non-profit organizers have directly opposed the popular rage of the Justice for Oscar Grant movement. Brother Tommy of the Poor Righteous Party described the struggle against this kind of opportunism as a “class struggle within the leadership.” A multi-ethnic alliance of working class militants of various tendencies have identified the model of the People’s Court—where the community literally takes over the streets, documents and observes the police, opens up the space to address grievances against them and makes plans to hold them accountable—as a viable alternative. This form of restorative justice is derived from the self-activity of the working class and operates beyond the confines of the state. The development and reproduction of neighborhood rooted People’s Courts, in connection with other struggles, is a strategy that can lead to a mass revolutionary movement.

The impossibility of reconciliation was underlined on October 26th when cops from the 19th District broke into the home of Tanya Yates, Askia’s cousin, attacking her and Askia’s 80 year old grandfather without legal justification. The Philadelphia police continue to get away with stealing money and drugs from those they arrest and keeping it for themselves, with robbing corner stores, and with raping and murdering people at record highs. Despite the attempts of some police leaders to cooperate with the FBI and reinforce internal affairs, the corruption and lack of accountability goes on unabated. While officer Jimmy Leocal is under investigation and Askia’s charges of assaulting him were dropped on December 1st, [7] this not due to the benevolence of some in the Philadelphia Police Department or the moderate positions of the official leadership, it is the direct result of the state fearing a mass uprising of the everyday people.[8]

-Iladelph Liberation


[2] This quote can be found in Dave Onion’s article, (live footage of the speaker can be found at


[4] ibid


[6] see chapter 9, “Your Friendly Neighborhood Police State.”





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