By Joe Sharkey
Philadelphia has a tradition of honorable radical politics, inculcated by the founding Quakers and best illustrated, of course, by the 18th Century assembly that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Philadelphia was also a center for the antiwar movement during the Vietnam years. In 1971, a group of eight Philadelphians pulled off one of the great escapades in radical political history when they managed to successfully burglarize an FBI office in the suburbs, and get away with suitcases stuffed with purloined of secret documents that showed the extent of J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on the antiwar and civil rights movements, including the long, illegal surveillance of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
As a young reporter and columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, I was very proud of my hometown. What balls it took to burglarize an FBI office and risk long prison sentences to expose fundamental abuses of rights that were first won in Philadelphia in 1776 and codified there 11 years later.
On the other hand, Philadelphia has also been a center for some radical politics that were truly goofy (they’d pronounce that “gew-fy” [long E] in the Philly I grew up in).
The current example is the nasty commotion created today at the Democratic national convention by what I call the Starbucks Anarchists, a wingeing rump group that seems to be from the Bernie Sanders campaign, but really seems to have developed a life of its own, especially given Sanders’s elegant and forceful speech tonight at the convention, in which he unequivocally stood behind Clinton, while underscoring the impact his campaign has had in energizing young voters and even moving the party, and Clinton, into more progressive positions. [The vile Trump evidently spent his night banging away on Twitter. Sample comment from Trump: “Bernie Sanders totally sold out to Crooked Hillary Clinton. All of that work, energy and money, and nothing to show for it! Waste of time.”
Meanwhile, stamping their little feet in tantrums, some of the Starbucks Anarchists have been shouting “Lock her up!” — the reference being to Clinton, the Democrat who will have to defeat Donald Trump in November, if only to save the Republic and our way of life — as the convention got started in Philadelphia. The Starbucks Anarchists appear to be a fairly small contingent, but Nate Silver’s latest, highly regarded election forecast, released today, has Trump a likely winner in November, so we shall see as the week goes on what kind of unhelpful diversion they might create. And so more on that in a minute.
First let’s go back in goofy local radical history to 1978, to an anarchist group founded by one John Africa, a petty criminal who was so illiterate that he had to commission a starry-eyed social activist from the University of Pennsylvania to write out MOVE’s spectacularly incoherent “platform.” The MOVE members were a bizarre though theatrically inclined group of anarchists, all of whom had adopted the surname “Africa,” including the sole white member, who called himself Jerry Ford Africa. Jerry Ford tried mightily, but he was distressingly unable to style his white-bread reddish hair into the elaborate dreadlocks that his fellow cultists, including the women and children, all wore. To me, Jerry Ford Africa always looked not like a radical anarchist but rather like the stern wife in the old comic strip “Jiggs & Maggie.” But never mind.
The MOVE cultists were antisocial screwballs whose ideology, as far as I could determine it, consisted basically of hatred of the police — a hatred that had been inculcated, in very large part, by the fact that city police were frequently ordered by a municipal court to enforce certain housing regulations (requirements concerning the disposal of trash, for example) at what the media kept calling the MOVE “compound,” a refuse-strewn ramshackle Victorian pile of a house in Powelton Village, a marginal neighborhood close to the University of Pennsylvania campus.
As the citations for housing and zoning violations piled up and police and courts became more insistent on being heeded, MOVE went to the barricades, literally. They reinforced a stockade fence around the house and built a stage, a wide wood platform, on which members took to theatrically taunting police officers who showed in force up every day, as well as ridiculing the city’s populist mayor at the time, a thuggish former police commissioner and well-known racial bigot named Frank L. Rizzo.
As it generated publicity, MOVE was commonly referred to in the local media as a “back-to-nature” group, which I always found hilarious, since the group was ensconced by choice in an urban neighborhood whose sole manifestation of what we would think of as “nature” was raccoons drawn by the trash. I myself routinely witnessed the group wolfing down sacks of very unnatural like fast food — McDonald’s, usually — thoughtfully tossed over the fence by neighborhood supporters, of whom there were quite a few, though many others simply wished that MOVE, its noise, its trash and its generally filthy, rat-infested way of life, would move.
During the summer of 1978, I used to wander over from the newspaper to the MOVE house at lunchtime, along with other spectators who were fascinated by the spectacle of crazed, dreadlocked cultists strutting and fretting on their stage, calling the voluble mayor a “homo” and whatever else they could think of to rile the police. Because of their antics, the MOVE members, especially their major-general, one Delbert Africa, were sometimes very funny, as the growing legion of cops stood stonefaced and glowering not 100 feet away. Before long, you had the makings of what was called the MOVE siege, which lasted nearly all of the long hot summer of 1978, while Rizzo boiled in City Hall like Edgar Kennedy in those silent movie comedies.
Then in August, tone day after a pope died in Rome (I myself always thought the emotion of this not-unforeseen event impelled the hot-headed, religiously devout Rizzo into a reactive rage), the police attacked like an Army battalion one morning. When it was over, a cop had been killed in the shootout; the MOVE house had been razed to the ground by bulldozers ordered in by the enraged Rizzo; eight MOVE members had been arrested (and subsequently sentenced to long prison terms); while Rizzo himself fulminated, John Africa fled to parts unknown and I, in fact, was that very night on an airplane headed to Rome, there to cover the story of the dead pope, Paul VI. It being mid-August, professional Rome was mostly on vacation, and big trouble ensued at the Vatican. But that’s a story for another time.
Back in Philadelphia, seven years later, incidentally, MOVE had reconstituted itself with several old and many new members, and had established new headquarters in a rowhouse on an otherwise quiet residential block in West Philadelphia. The new MOVE house, true to form, began to resemble a barricaded fortress, as neighbors complained about the noise (as before, MOVE liked street theater and shouted insults at the police through bullhorns day and night) — and the usual household filth and rats became growing problems. Then, one day in mid-May, police responded in force to serve warrants for contempt of court, weapons violations and terrorist threats.
Long story short, because this event is well known and will live in infamy in the history of epic big-city police ineptitude, police decided to move in, first by destroying a fortified wood bunker on the roof of the MOVE house. This plan did not work out very well. The mayor was different now, a black fellow, but the police department was pretty much the same. Clattering in by helicopter, the police dropped two small bombs of C4 explosives on the rooftop bunker, which burst into flames and set fire to the MOVE house itself, and the fire quickly spread, destroying 65 adjacent rowhouses and rendering the entire city block homeless. Eleven MOVE members, including five children, died in the conflagration, and Philadelphia became known as the only American city that had ever bombed itself.
I got to thinking about MOVE, because one of those earnest out-of-town reporters that the Philadelphia Inquirer, which had become one of the finest papers in the country by the mid-70s, drew to Philadelphia, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. Jennifer Weiner’s paean to her adopted city allows that it is rough around the edges, but “still standing,” which I thought was a declaration of a somewhat modest triumph. She also alluded to the 1985 MOVE fiasco (while everybody seems to have forgotten about 1978, perhaps because 1985 was such an epic goatfuck that there is no need to ever gild that lily). Somewhat generously, she describes MOVE as as a “black liberation group,” rather than what I think it was: a radical crackpot cult that made no damn sense and probably could only have had its origins in Philadelphia.
Which brings me to today’s news regarding the Starbucks Anarchists gathered to disrupt the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, where some of the die-hards anti-Clinton activists in the Democratic party are screaming that Hillary Clinton should be locked up — while Donald Trump, basking in his post-apocalyptic orange glow that is roughly the shade of the wildfire-lit skies of Los Angeles, urges his approval from afar. For the first time today, a Trump presidency seemed to me to be a genuine possibility. So strong is the inchoate hatred the Starbucks Anarchists have for Clinton that they were even booing their former hero Sanders as he implores them to basically cool it.
If you grew up in Philadelphia, this kind of nuttiness isn’t all that surprising.
Having been born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, at 19th and Girard in West Philadelphia, in 1946, when my parents taking me home as an infant were pinned down by street gunfire, I cherish my ambivalence about my hometown, where the term Legionnaire’s Disease was coined literally during the 200th celebration month for the Declaration of Independence. That’s when a ventilation problem at one of the few hotels then operating in the city, the Bellevue Stratford on Broad st., caused 25 people to die and another several hundred others to be hospitalized during a convention of the American Legion. Talk about timing.
Downtown Philadelphia, which unaccountably started to be called “Center City” when the Inquirer arrivistes began moving in, now has lots of high-class hotels, and the dining scene has moved far beyond those wretched bellybuster cheesesteaks and a third-rate seafood restaurant called Bookbinders that once was considered one of the best places in town, as Ms. Weiner herself notes. For a long time now, you can get a drink on Sunday — though attendees at the Democratic convention will undoubtedly be confounded by Pennsylvania’s arcane alcohol laws that require liquor and wine to be sold in state-run stores, beer by the case in designated beer stores, and beer by the six-pack in taprooms where, thank God, a shot and a beer is still sold over the bar.
Ms. Weiner’s mixed appreciation of Philadelphia today was written before the Starbucks Anarchists started up denouncing Hillary and threatening electoral defeat and an America saddled with a President Trump. As NBC News reported this afternoon, “when confronted with the reality that not backing Clinton could benefit Republican rival Donald Trump, a common refrain emerged: It’s not my problem.”
Yo, I would say, it is your problem.
Meanwhile, anyone who grew up in Philly knows a little secret. Atop the 1894 City Hall Tower is a major local landmark, a 37-foot-high bronze statue of William Penn. At 548 feet, the top of Penn’s hat used to mark the height of the tallest building in the city — that is, till the real skyscrapers began arriving in force in the late 1980s. The tower and the statue of Penn are now harder to spot on the city’s gleaming skyline, but they’re still there, of course.
And here’s the secret. Penn’s statue has his hand outstretched at his waist. It really is not always sunny in Philadelphia, and on days when the rain is coming down hard, look up to old Billy Penn, and you will see that the way the water cascades off his right hand makes it look as if Penn is peeing on the city he founded.
So if the Starbucks Anarchists take to the streets of Philadelphia all week, I do hope it rains.