Splashed across the front pages the other day - and over the TV network screens that night - were pictures of the kind the news media love. An army of police, wearing flak jackets and helmets, crouched tensely and fired at their enemy.Shades of Vietnam or Watts of a decade ago: our own updated scenes of war in the summer of '78.
The story in this paper described the gun battle, which left one killed and 18 wounded, as a clash between authorities and "a small radical primitive sect." It reported: "The confrontation with the small band called MOVE, which included women and 11 children, began shortly before dawn with the massing of hundreds of flak-jacketed policemen, assisted by police assault teams, fire-fighters with water cannons, an armored car, a bulldozer, a large crane, a city dump truck protected by sandbags and sheets of iron, and helicopters."
After police had launched their attack, and turned their arms, tear gas and waterhoses on the enemy, members of the group were dragged from a building, some by the hair. On TV you could clearly see one person being kicked in the face by a policeman, while lying on the ground. Others reportedly were kicked by police in the same fashion.
All this took place in Philadelphia.
Nowhere in the story was there any explanation of what MOVE stands for although buried inside the paper was an inexplicable reference saying the group "objects to being described as anarchist."
The group, apparently consisting of 12 adults in addition to the 11 children, some of them infants, was described as being "opposed to washing with soap, killing animals, eating cooked food and all the products of industrialization." They lived in an old house standing inside a compound strewn with garbage: neighbors had been complaining of the filth and foul stench there for months. The city and the group had been involved in a long dispute over violations of the housing code.
Well, now. Somehow, it seems, we have been harboring a dangerous organization on the East Coast, an Atlantic Version perhaps of the old SLA terrorists in California - and yet all this came as new news.
But not quite new, it turns out, upon examining the newspaper files. Last March we briefly reported that Philadelphia authorities were trying to force the group out of the house by cutting off all utilities and food supplies. MOVE was described then "as a group of armed radicals." A few days later we reported that more than 500 Philadelphia police and firemen had set up a barricade in a six-block area surrounding the house. Police sharpshooters were stationed on nearby roofs, and others trained their weapons on the house from behind sandbags placed in windows of neighboring buildings. MOVE - still no explanation for the name - was termed "an anarchist organization."
Two months later another report said members were beginning to surrender to police one by one. They were then described as "a radical primitivist sect."
These events were the prelude to the gunfire of last week, and crushing of the "radical primitive sect," as opposed to the armed radicals, anarchists and primitivists of the past.
After the smoke had settled and the house was leveled by police bulldozers, the mayor of Philadelphia issued a statement about the members of MOVE. "Put them in the electric chair and I'll pull the switch." Frank Rizzo said. "That's when I'll be sure they won't be around."
Frank Rizzo has been the mayor of America's fourth largest city since 1971, and such remarks from him are all too familiar. Several years ago, in urging a return to capital punishment, he said: "I will personally pull the switch if they run out of people who want to do it. I'm available."
When he first ran for mayor, after 27 years as a Philadelphia cop and police commissioner, Rizzo promised the voters, in an infamous statement, that if elected he would "make Attila the Hun look like a faggot." His record shows how well he has lived up to his promise.
The real Philadelphia story last week was not the breakup of some "radical" group by police. It was that another outrageous abuse of power had been committed by th political reign of Frank Rizzo. For what happened to that small group of violators of the city's sanitation code followed the deadly pattern of violence swirling around Rizzo's supposed keepers of the peace.
Pre-dawn police raids, secret dossiers compiled from police surveillance on critics of his administration, inflammatory statements courting violence, repeated charges of police beatings administered to suspects taken to "The Roundhouse," Philadelphia's police headquarters shaped in the form of handcuffs - all these and more have been the history of police-community relations there in this decade.
"My Dad was tough with us," Rizzo once said, explaining his philosophy. "He'd knock us down quick as look at you. No democratic process there."
Another time he gave his prescription of how to treat criminals - "spacco il capo," he said in Italian, "break the head."
Two examples, out of the many, showing the Rizzo technique:
September 1970: 150 cops wearing bullet-proof vests, carrying rifles, shotguns and tear-gas canisters stage a pre-dawn raid on a Black Panther headquarters. The assault comes as the climax of three days of gun battles between police and blacks, leaving six policemen dead and several wounded.
November 1977: Another police brutality case makes the news after a 23-year-old man charges he was savagely beaten by a gang of policemen until he collapsed in a pool of his own blood next to splinters from shattered police night-sticks. Rizzo's public reaction: "It's very easy to break some of these night-sticks."
One's first reaction to the latest brutal news from Philadelphia is of a flash of rage - against the mayor and his thugs, not the "radicals" whose most serious crime, it would seem, is of being either different or a public nuisance. Reflection, though, brings a different sort of anger - against the citizens there who not only tolerate such behavior but condone it by electing, and reelecting, such officials.
Human rights remains a powerful cause. The abuses, as we learn anew, are not limited to foreign shores. They can also occur in the cradle of our liberty, our own City of Brotherly Love.