ONE MORNING THIS past May, three men sat in a Jeep outside a Port Richmond bank and put on new identities.
To Western eyes, two of them became hijabi — Muslim women who cover themselves — by pulling on full-length black burqas. They became, in a sense, invisible. The bank sat inside a busy supermarket, where shoppers would surely notice the two monoliths moving among them; but just as surely, those shoppers would pass by with eyes cast down, or aside, or beyond. They may be drawn for a moment by the sheer otherness of the hijabi, but would dependably look away with a twinge of awkward guilt for having noticed.
The men — Howard Cain, Levon Warner and Eric Floyd — were themselves Muslim, and knew to expect this reaction. Counted on it. Wagered their freedom on it, as they stopped their vehicle in the fire zone outside the market’s door and turned on the hazard blinkers. They climbed out of their dark blue Jeep Liberty and approached the bank. They hadn’t put on mere masks. They had put on entire hemispheres.
Inside the market, two of them — Cain and Warner, who wore a dreadlocked wig — walked straight to the bank, according to police. The third man, Floyd, carried a cardboard box that police say held a Chinese SKS military-style rifle. He set it inside a shopping cart and moved to the store’s adjacent produce section to wait.
Inside the bank, Cain pushed a female supervisor to the floor. He and Warner allegedly stole about $40,000 and headed toward the market’s exit along with Floyd.
In the meantime, the supermarket’s manager realized a robbery was happening, although he hadn’t seen it himself. He picked up his cell phone and dialed 911 as he, too, moved toward the exit. So complete were the robbers’ identities — so perfect their invisibility — that the store’s security cameras recorded the manager as he talked to an emergency dispatcher, and walked out between two of the disguised figures.
The robbers climbed into their Jeep and sped away, not knowing that after turning just a few corners they would encounter police sergeant Stephen Liczbinski in his patrol car. What followed was a clash not only of cops and robbers, or even good men and bad, but of two distinct societies.
The confrontation would reveal something dark at the heart of Philadelphia: a prevalent but scarcely mentioned brand of radical Islam that has appeared almost unremarked upon — like the misused burqas that day, present but so uncomfortable to examine fully — in several of the city’s worst modern moments. And which has, over recent decades, entwined the city from its lowest streets to the pinnacle of public power.
The cost of averting society’s collective gaze, as illustrated by what happened next, can be deadly.
ACCORDING TO THE head of Philadelphia’s anti-terrorism squad, here’s what happens the day you arrive in a local prison, fresh from a conviction for whatever crime: You get word. It could come while you eat your first lunch. While you’re standing in the yard, maybe, or sitting in your cell.
The word is clear: Join.