Protesters in West Philly call for release of radical Black activists who ‘fought’ Rizzo

Black Philly Radical Collective Free Them All Protest

Yvonne Platts says the threat of COVID-19 remains high for incarcerated people. She demands inmates 65 and older be released from prison. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Roughly 200 protesters at West Philadelphia’s Malcolm X Park kicked off the first of 13 public actions Sunday afternoon, each demonstration representing a demand made by the Black Philly Radical Collective.

The demands from the coalition of Black liberation groups include calls to decrease the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget over the next five years, as well as ending cash bail and probation and parole systems that “target” community members.

Organizers Sunday focused on freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Joseph Bowen and Fred “Muhammad” Burton, whom they call “political prisoners,” all serving time for the killing of white police officers.

The convictions of Shoatz, Burton and Bowen all occurred while Frank Rizzo was Philadelphia’s police commissioner, infamous for his record on police brutality, especially against communities of color. Organizers said releasing these men would take recent efforts to remove a statue and mural of Rizzo a step farther in undoing that legacy.

“These men fought him when he was alive, when he was the police commissioner and when he was the mayor of Philadelphia … ,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, with the Black Philly Radical Collective and Abolitionist Law Center, “when he boasted that same police force could invade Cuba and win. That same police force was unleashed on our neighborhoods.”

Abu-Jamal has been in prison since 1982 for killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner during a traffic stop. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, but prosecutors dropped the penalty for a life sentence in 2011. The former Black Panther has long maintained his innocence and a judge in 2018 granted him permission to once again appeal his case. Maureen Faulker, the wife of the slain officer, has consistently advocated for Abu-Jamal to serve his full sentence with the backing of the city’s police union.

Another former Black Panther, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, is also serving life without parole. Shoatz was one of six people convicted for the murder of Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln during an attack on a Cobbs Creek police station in 1970, and was held in solitary confinement for 22 years. Fred Muhammad Burton is also incarcerated for the killing of Van Colln.

Joseph Bowen was convicted of the 1971 killing of Police Officer Joseph Kelly. In 1973, Bowen and Burton fatally stabbed a warden and deputy in the now-shuttered Holmesburg Prison, after they were denied a room to meet with their Muslim group.

“We’re not really here to go over whether they are innocent or guilty,” said Saleem “Our position is clear: They have done enough time. They’re seniors.”

The collective’s calls extend to all those behind bars who are vulnerable to COVID-19, particularly incarcerated people who are 65 and older.

Yvonne Platts, with the Free People Strike, pointed to the fact that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration identified more than 1,200 people eligible for release to prevent the spread of the virus, but only 159 of them have been released as of mid-June. Advocates have complained the release process moves too slowly, especially for a virus that can spread quickly in confined spaces — something the governor has acknowledged.

Black Philly Radical Collective Free Them All Protest
The West Philly rally drew a mostly young and white crowd of about 200 people. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

“What’s dragging their feet? We don’t know,” said Platte. “We’ve been fasting, hoping to get attention, compassion from Gov. Wolf, but nothing has happened.”

Speakers at the rally, which drew a mostly young and white crowd of about 200 people, discussed how Black activists have been calling attention to flaws in the criminal justice system for decades and welcomed newcomers who have been moved to action after seeing the police killing of George Floyd on video.

Gabriel Bryant, a member of the collective, said rallies like these are just the beginning.

“The goal is to plug people into a variety of organizations, the groups that do the work,” said Bryant. “The participant drives, the calls, going to offices of elected officials — that’s the real work that happens. This is the rally point that allows us to engage the community in a real way.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.