In front of me the pavement is swarming with people in dreadlocks—black people who are taking their turns screaming into an expensive-looking bullhorn and hawking T-shirts with “FREE THE FAMILY AFRICA” stenciled across the front.
But behind me, a street fight is just heating up to the bloodletting stage.
I’m standing near the Market Street East entrance to City Hall Courtyard and I don’t know where to look first. It’s MOVE vs. mayhem in downtown Philadelphia on a sweltering Thursday afternoon during the dog days of this endless summer past.
I might need eyes in the back of y head to take it all in, but the guy across from me looks like he may soon need an ambulance. He’s a middle-aged hot dog vendor, white, who may have sold his last wiener-in-a-bun.
I heard screaming a block away. Now, the shouts have turned to shoves. A short, skinny black kid in an enormous straw hat is lunging for the white guy’s windpipe.
He doesn’t quite make it because a black woman, twice his size, has him around the waist, tugging him away from the hot dog man.
When I first heard the screams, people were just walking by like it wasn’t happening, clutching their briefcases and averting their eyes. But it’s been going on for a couple of minutes now and a sizable crowd—entirely black—has surrounded the hot dog vendor and his assailant.
Between the shrieks and obscenities I can make out that the hot dog vendor is to be put to death: a) because he is a “white mother fucker,” and b) because he waited on someone else—an old, white lady, in fact—ahead of straw-hat’s girl friend.
The hot dog guy, who looked worn-out and sweaty to begin with, and who seems on the verge of a coronary, is holding his ground. But it doesn’t look good. The crowd, too, is calling for his head now.
By this point I’m frantically looking up and down the street for a cop. I notice, incidentally, that I’m the only white person on my side of the street. Damn if I don’t see a man in blue less than half a block away. I take off at full speed.
He’s a big fat highway patrolman with a gold sharpshooter’s medal pinned to his chest and I don’t need to be told any more than the MOVE people around me do, that those high-top black leather boots that he wears aren’t made for walking.
If anybody can save the hot dog vendor, this guy can. Then, as I get close to him, I stop dead. He’s just looking at the fight, too—not making a move to get involved—just leaning against the traffic light, hand-on-hip and contemptuous scowl on face. I’m waiting for him to do something but he just ignores me. The crowd has obscured the hot dog vendor from my sight now, but I can still hear them going at it. The cop looks like he’s trying to decide whether he should cross the street or not and I don’t know what the hell to do. Should I go to the cop or the vendor?
Just then, there’s a loud, shrill whistle—you know it has to be a cop’s whistle—and a beat-up blue paddy wagon comes chugging toward the crowd. Two white cops get out, walking slowly, leisurely, deliberately.
One of them slips his mahogany nightstick through the round loop at his side and looks around menacingly. The other one hikes up his black leather gun belt, just the way you’d expect Clint Eastwood to do in a similar situation.
Neither gesture is lost on the crowd. It suddenly becomes as quiet as a mime troupe, and the cops move to separate the two combatants. The hot dog vendor lets out a sigh I think I can hear all the way across the street.
Now I can concentrate on the MOVE rally in front of me. A loud lack woman in dreadlocks is tearing into Jimmy Carter: “JIMMY, BABY, I SAID TO HIM. YEAH, I SAID IT TO CARTER. Y’ALL HEAR ME. I TOLD THAT MAN. MOTHER-FUCKIN’ COPS IN PHILLY KILLED BLACK BABIES FROM THE AFRICA FAMILY—KILLED BLACK BABIES, YOU GOT THAT? I TOLD HIM, CARTER, YOU BETTER LISTEN TO JOHN AFRICA. BETTER CUT OUT THAT JIVE SHIT AND LISTEN TO THE TEACHINGS OF JOHN AFRICA. BETTER FREE THE AFRICA FAMILY. WE GET YOUR ASS NEXT, JIMMER CARTER. . . .”
Moving past the Africas, past what’s left of the MOVE cult–”a gang of murderers, brigands and thieves,” as the city solicitor of Philadelphia, Sheldon Albert, would describe them for me a week later—I enter one of the damp, clammy arched City Hall passageways that leads to the center of the courtyard.
In the humid, afternoon heat even the ever-present smell of pot is overpowered by the urine stench that rises in almost palpable waves, like the shimmering heat from the asphalt outside.
Once upon a time, Philadelphians—the parents and grandparents of the people who now use this gorgeous, ornate old passageway to relieve themselves in public, or to smoke dope, or to stalk others—used to stroll here. They used to use the courtyard the way it was intended—as the safe, secure focal point of downtown Philadelphia; as the hub of the business district.
They could sit on the benches then, the lovers could, or families headed for Billy Penn’s Tower could stand in the courtyard and gawk; or students could stare in awe at the priceless, historically certified architecture around them.
Now, the lovers have been driven out by flashers; the families, by the gang on Market Street hanging outside the pinball arcade; and the students of design have been replaced by the guys that use the courtyard as a public urinal.
City Hall Courtyard really started to turn bad a few years back when a gang of kids roaming Market Street—maybe the older brothers of the gang outside the pinball arcade—made a foray into the very passageway in which I’m standing. They robber and assaulted the blind man who has been selling soft pretzels for 20 years from a dinky little homemade booth built right into one of the old stone walls.
They still sell soft pretzels in the courtyard, but now there are also African trinkets, incense, jewelry and a whole board stocked with the kind of cosmetic equipment you need to braid your hair into dreadlocks.
But the real action this day inside the archway involves a young Black Muslim vendor and two females, also black, who seem to be haggling with him over the price of a photograph in a cardboard frame. I have no idea who is selling what to whom, but first the girls pull the picture toward themselves , and then the Muslim yanks it back.
The Muslim, a big strapping kid who looks like he could play tight end for the Eagles, is in his warm weather uniform of long black trousers, polished shoes and starched long-sleeve white shirt, tightly buttoned up to the collar. He looks mean. But money must be on the line and the women are adamant.
Since no one there was about to take on the Black Nation of Islam for these damsels in distress, this scene, too, goes virtually unnoticed. I wonder if Frank Rizzo, sitting in his paneled office up on the second floor—or perhaps taking his ease in his imported marble bathroom—realizes just how restless the native are becoming in his own front yard.
Do Rizzo and the Black Muslim vendors ever exchange glances when he leaves his office? Is he ever tempted to taunt them from within the protective phalanx of his bodyguards as Milton Street had once badgered him after a particularly heated City Council showdown?
And what of the other people here? Are they amused, too, at the thought of Rizzo holed up in his regal bunker, seething while the barbarians defile his Roman Courtyard? Had the hot dog vendor outside—the one who had almost been strangled—voted for Frank Rizzo? For the pivotal charter change?
Does the cop who failed to take action think deep down that the people of Philadelphia—this poor helpless hot dog vendor included—are getting exactly what they deserve for failing to vote white as Rizzo warned them? Will the highway patrolman never again break up a fight because the suit filed this summer by the U.S. Justice Department has labeled him a criminal?