Up Against the Wall: A Short History of Resistance to Policing in Philadelphia


By Arturo Castillon

Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas

Relations of Power and Force

One night in April 1936 on South Street, at the time a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, a large gathering of youths surrounded a white police officer that struck and detained Luke Carter, a black man, for no apparent reason. The crowd demanded Carter’s release and argued that the officer was drunk. The cop in question called the riot squad and when they arrived, they arrested Carter along with two of his defenders from the crowd.

A newspaper account of this incident would describe the gathering on the street as an “irate mob,” while no negative characterizations were made of any of the police.[1] Why? Is it because the young black people were “irate,” and the police were simply doing their job? This is what many people believe, liberals and conservatives alike. But there is something else going on here.

From the start, it’s presumed that the use of violence by the police is legitimate. It is not even perceived as violence; it is seen as force, “necessary” force. But what constitutes the realm of legitimate, necessary force? It’s obviously not greater values since the most unethical, immoral people often times exercise the greatest, most legitimized force. It’s not public safety since police are often violent and dangerous to the public.

It is often said that “might makes right.”  However, what determines which group is interpreted as “right” in the above situation is in the end much more than a superior organization of force. The conflict between the police, on the one side, and black youths protecting each other, on the other, reflects an uneven relation of power, not just force. Police violence is perceived as legitimate because the police protect the power of the wealthiest groups in society.

In racist societies like the United States, the police uphold and reinforce a white-dominated racial order. Poor and working-class black people face the constant risk of harassment, incarceration, or death at the hands of the police (of all colors). Police violence can happen in the most mundane of social circumstances–while driving, while walking across the street, while going to the store, while playing cards outside, while publicly listening to music. On a day-to-day level, the police crystallize and preserve the boundaries that are necessary for the racial division of humankind and the continuation of class society. In moments of revolt and rupture, the police contain and crush the forces that challenge the power of the dominant social classes.

Therefore, the systematic policing and murder of black people is a normalized feature of U.S. society. The fact that police violence is disproportionately directed at black proletariats does not contradict the official duty of law enforcement to “protect and serve,” but proves to be entirely compatible with it. The violence that manifested itself that April night in 1936 on South Street was the rule, not the exception, to the logic of policing.

A History of Resistance

This research was originally undertaken for the purpose of formulating a critical narrative of how policing has upheld the racial contours of the capitalist system in Philadelphia. More than an analysis of policing methods, however, this work became primarily a history of different ways and circumstances in which people have resisted policing in Philadelphia. Drawing from a rich history of social movements among black Philadelphians, whose legacy offers the most insights on the subject at hand, this essay focuses on various methods of protest, with divergent strategies often times reflecting distinct class interests. Black Philadelphians of varying social classes developed a wide range of tactics through which to resist police oppression. These tactics ranged from activist campaigns, to legal proceedings, to media publicity, to street fighting, to rebellions. In excavating the history of resistance to policing in Philadelphia, different forms of struggle receive particular attention in relation to the subject as a whole.

Given the wide-ranging research this topic has received for the period following 1965, especially on issues related to the Black Panthers and the rise of Frank Rizzo, this work does not extend into what is known as the Black Power era. Rather it concentrates on the period prior to 1965, which receives less attention.

Origins of the Philadelphia Police

The predecessor of the modern day Philadelphia police was the civilian-run “night watch,” which monitored the populace from the time of the early eighteenth century up until the mid nineteenth century.[3] The night watch, which developed in Boston as well, was the Northern equivalent of the Southern slave patrols. In 1837 the mayor of Philadelphia declared, “Every colored person found in the street after (the posting of) watch should be closely supervised by the officers of the night.”[4] Whether it was the night watch or the slave patrol, prior to the establishment of modern, municipal police forces, the white population as a whole was expected to police black people, without any distinction of civilian and policing duties.

With the pace of urban growth beginning to increase in the first half of the nineteenth century, the unruly fiefdom of wards that the city was made up of descended into political and social crisis. The fragmented ward territories were contested political spaces, run by political bosses, localized ward police, and neighborhood ethnic gangs. In the “Jacksonian” era, mobs of white workers throughout Philadelphia, including “European ethnics,” often rioted in defense of slavery and racism, lynching black Americans and abolitionists. The social instability that resulted from urbanization led to increased specialization and centralization of power.[5]

The Philadelphia Police Department was created in 1854 by recruiting from youth gangs associated with white “nativist” fire departments.[6] The PPD was one of the first modern, citywide bureaucracies—it shifted power away from the localized ward governments, towards the consolidation of a municipal city government.[7] From the start police made arrests on their own initiative, not in response to citizen complaints (as it was with the prior localized ward police), but instead for misdemeanors related to victimless crimes, such as public drunkenness, vagrancy, loitering, disorderly conduct, etc.[8] By the late nineteenth century it became a regular police practice to arrest people based on suspicion and in advance of a crime.[9] This point of contact with the masses of people did not bring about greater social peace. However, it did allow the capitalist state to better control all the expanding segments of the increasingly industrializing society, and to neutralize any potential contestation of its authority in advance.[10]

Following the Civil War increasing numbers of black migrants came to Philadelphia from the South and Border States looking for work in shipyards and as domestic servants. They moved into the city’s oldest and poorest wards located between Center City and South Philadelphia, where the majority of Philadelphia’s black population lived. At the same time, a small black middle-class started moving out into the new residential areas north of Market Street in West Philadelphia, where many whites lived, resulting in an intensification of white riots against black people.[11]

As the city became more black, the state adapted. In The Philadelphia Negro W.E.B. Dubois described how in 1884 Mayor Samuel G. King appointed the first sixty black officers to the police department, a move that was opposed by most whites. The hiring of the first black police officers reflected the growing size of the black population. These police were put on duty exclusively in black neighborhoods and only permitted to arrest black people. Dubois also noted that none of the original black policemen would ever receive any promotions.[12] The addition of black people into the police force, therefore, was not a sign of racial progress, but instead a means to better control the increasingly black metropolis.

With the onset of World War I, and the labor shortage during the war, a large wave of black migrants from the South came to work in the city’s wartime industries and to live in the overcrowded slums of South Philadelphia. Middle-class blacks continued to settle in West Philadelphia. In reaction to these new migrations and demographic shifts there was another cycle of white riots and lynching, which was ignored or supported by white police.[13]

“Police Brutality” as a Civil Rights Category

By the nineteen twenties the growing refusal of northern blacks to quietly submit to racial discrimination, extended to policing. Along with discrimination in housing, education, and employment, police discrimination was becoming a popular civil rights issue.[14] Although black newspapers had been reporting on police violence for decades, it was not until the late 1920s onward that the black press in Philadelphia, most notably the Philadelphia Tribune, began to regularly report on what was being called “police brutality.”[15] Other black newspapers throughout the country, such as the Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News, and Baltimore Afro-American provided detailed coverage of regular incidents of police violence against black people. These newspapers also reported on people’s efforts to resist the police.

During the Great Depression, in October 1933, in nearby Camden, New Jersey, the Colored Women’s Civic League (CWCL) campaigned against “police brutality.” They appointed an investigating committee to report and publicize cases of police abuse and racial intolerance.[16] A few months later in December, in the aftermath of the police murders of two Polish youth, a multiracial coalition was formed between the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Polish Churches, and the local Socialist Party in Camden. The exoneration of the three white detectives who shot and killed the Polish youths was the catalyst that brought the coalition into existence.[17]

As community groups organized against police violence, spontaneous confrontations in the streets also became a popular form of protest. In 1938 in Darby, a close suburb of Philadelphia, people confronted the police after a white policeman forcefully removed Florence Slater from the “white only” section of a 10-cent movie theater. When Florence refused to leave the “white only” seating, the policeman threw her on the ground, and kicked her. Slater retaliated by scratching the officer’s face. But the officer overpowered her, and as he dragged her out of the theater others followed them. Slater was brought to the local jailhouse, and a large crowd began surrounding the tiny building where she was being subjected to further harassment. Those in the gathering of about two hundred people openly threatened to riot if Slater did not receive a fair sentence. William Linvill, the local Justice of the Peace, tried Florence Slater on the spot for assault and battery and disorderly conduct, hoping to release her as soon as possible and avert a rebellion. The charges against Slater were dismissed after the white manager of the theater agreed to pay for all the costs of the trial. Several police had to escort the manager back to the theater.[18]

As new waves of black migrants from the South came to the city during World War II, many looked for better housing outside the congested slums of South Philadelphia, moving into North and West Philadelphia, where a large number of whites had settled. Once again, increased racial tension was felt all over the city. In Southwest Philadelphia, in 1940, a mob of one thousand confronted several police on motorcycles who had fired ten gunshots at three young boys. The boys had taken off running after a black officer told them to stop throwing pebbles, and were consequently chased by nearby white police who then shot at them. The boys were not hit by the bullets, but were beaten after the police caught up with them. As the beating was taking place a massive crowd from the neighborhood of 20th and Fitzwater Street surrounded the officers, threatening them with violence if they didn’t stop the beating. The boys ended up being released without charges. In the aftermath of the near melee a coalition was formed between the NAACP, the Philadelphia Youth Movement, and the Allied Civic Clubs, while Superintendent of Police, Howard Sutton, launched an investigation into the beating.[19]

Attempts to Reform the Police

More and more civil rights organizations in Philadelphia were trying to catch up to the growing movement against the police. In the 1940s groups such as the NAACP, the West Philadelphia Civic League, and the Philadelphia Committee to Fight Terror against the Negro People, as well as the Philadelphia Tribune, publicized incidents of police violence as they occurred.[20] Many groups organized public tribunals to demand that officers who violate people’s civil rights be fired. By July 26, 1950, there was one such tribunal where survivors of police violence and civil rights activists aired their grievances. Reverend E. T. Lewis, president of the local NAACP chapter and pastor of the Mutchmore Memorial Baptist Church proclaimed to the large audience that if the police did not stop abusing their power “the time will come when the race will not respect the law at all, and it doesn’t take a wise man to figure that one out.” Dr. William Gray, a clergyman and educator, criticized the approach of “sell out artists and Uncle Toms” to police brutality. Police leader Thomas Gibbons of the Crime Prevention Division was also there in support of firing the officer in question.[21]

Pressuring the government to take action was seen as a viable strategy after the FBI investigated two policemen and a Grand Jury indicted them in January 1951 for violently forcing confessions.[22] A few months earlier, in September and November of 1950, the NAACP organized several public meetings to demand that Police Superintendent Howard P. Sutton issue a directive to all police districts for officers to stop beating those detained.[23] The NAACP also organized letter-writing campaigns, organized numerous petitions, and set up conferences to negotiate with police leaders like Howard P. Sutton, Thomas Gibbons, and Director of Public Safety Samuel H. Rosenberg. In one such meeting Rosenberg responded to the NAACP’s demands for police reform with the promise “that the day of the policeman wielding a big stick to achieve law and order was over and that he was trying to develop a well-trained, intelligent force.”[24] The NAACP also had some success in helping people get common charges dismissed, such as “resisting arrest” and “disorderly conduct.”[25]

Representing part of a small black middle-class that had grown substantially since World War II, the NAACP challenged police oppression through the legal system. Other middle-class black leaders, like the clergy, went in a different direction, focusing on internal social problems such as “vice” and crime. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights leader and reverend from the Zion Baptist Church, blamed the rise of what was being increasingly categorized as “juvenile delinquency” on the leniency of the police and court system.[26] This reflected the growing national hysteria over “youth crime” in the nineteen fifties, especially in urban areas. In Philadelphia this panic was fueled by the wave of black southern migrants and Puerto Ricans who settled in the city during and after World War II, whom whites and middle-class blacks blamed for deteriorating “their” communities. Functioning as the public voice for this bourgeois fear of the youth and underclass, the Philadelphia Tribune sensationalized the theme of the out-of-control “delinquent” as counter-posed to the “respectable” citizen.

Following this line of thought, Sullivan organized a citywide coalition of neighborhood block associations in 1953 known as the Philadelphia Citizens Committee against Juvenile Delinquency and Its Causes (CCJDC). CCJDC represented an alliance between the black middle-class and the police, one of the earliest attempts in the country at what would later be termed “community-policing.” Although the CCJDC launched a “Clean Block” campaign and also tried to close down neighborhood bars, the organization’s main priority was to fight “youth crime.”[27] The CCJDC targeted and criminalized black youth, making them scapegoats for the socio-economic problems in black neighborhoods. Sullivan endorsed the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in their 1954 campaign against “juvenile delinquency.”[28]

CCJD’s structure entailed a vast block-to-block communication network made up of civilian patrols, neighborhood committees, and police liaisons.[29] In the end, the CCJD failed to improve the strained the relationship between black Philadelphians and the police, because the police continued to target and harm black people. The violent nature of policing was highlighted in 1956 when white officers attacked a pregnant black woman because she and another person were playing cards and music outdoors.[30] Not long after this incident a middle-class black man was viciously attacked by a white off-duty policeman who yelled, “You colored people with your big cars think you own the city!” The man had simply tried to pass the officer’s stalled out car.[31]

After many decades the legal fight against police brutality began to produce some results, although they ultimately proved limited in their scope. Mayor Richardson Dilworth established the Police Advisory Board on October 1, 1958, the first independent agency in the country to hear citizen’s complaints against police. The FOP, the police union, declared that the board was part of a “communist plot to undermine law enforcement.”[32] The NAACP successfully took on the first case brought before the board, resulting “in disciplinary action being taken against the officer.”[33] Nevertheless, out of the nearly one thousand cases brought before the board, dismissal of police was recommended in only one.[34]

Black Philadelphians in the late fifties also increasingly represented themselves in court and gained media attention in their struggles against the police. In some cases people got the charges against them dismissed. James Lett, for example, who was severely beaten by three drunken white officers, had assault charges thrown out in 1959 when the police in question did not show up to the highly publicized trial on five occasions. The NAACP did not represent Lett in court, but they did advocate for him in the press and influenced the atmosphere surrounding the trial.[35] Ethel Lawrence was also cleared of assault charges after she agreed not to prosecute an officer that she and two other people accused of “police brutality” in the press.[36]

In response to the growing protests against the Philadelphia police, City Council President James Tate began to advocate for better police training and began to work closely with the NAACP and the Philadelphia Tribune.[37] But despite the legal work of the NAACP, the founding of the Police Advisory Board, some small victories in the courts, and the attendant publicity, nothing fundamentally changed in the relations of power between the police and the policed.

Exhaustion of Legal Means

At the turn of the decade a more militant stance began to emerge among black Philadelphians, especially among the youth and the poor, who would force a wide range of leaders to adopt new, more radical positions. More people were beginning to realize that the legal system could not ensure their human rights, and that they had to take matters into their own hands.

Students began to organize direct-action protests in solidarity with the sit-in movement in the South. Organizers from the Youth Committee against Segregation began picketing Woolworth’s stores in Philadelphia in 1960. The first people arrested in these protests were two black students who had prevented customers from entering a Woolworth’s store in West Philadelphia.[38]

In June 1960 a seven hundred-person rally was held in response to the police murders of two black men. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the white officer in question, but only after black people in North Philadelphia took to the streets to protest against Chief Police Inspector John J. Kelly’s initial attempt to justify the murders. Kelly originally claimed that the police had “acted in good faith.” In response to Pennsylvania’s first black Congressman Robert N.C. Nix’s assurances at a rally that Police Commissioner Thomas Gibbons would fully investigate the case, former District Attorney Isaiah Crippins proclaimed, “lip service alone won’t end police brutality against Negroes.”[39] People like Crippins saw the need for immediate, concrete action in response to police violence, and were no longer willing to wait on the promises of leaders like Nix.

The tension between black communities and the police was rising in Philadelphia. In July 1960 a small riot occurred in North Philadelphia at Broad and Dauphin Street in response to the police beating a black man who had supposedly tried to “make a pass” at a white woman. The official police story was very different from that of eyewitnesses interviewed by the Philadelphia Tribune. After police attacked Curtis Graham (who was accused of sexually harassing an unidentified white woman), other black people, like Herbert Hirshfeld and Ernest Davis, were also attacked by a group of fifty police.[40] Six people injured during the police riot were sent to nearby Temple University Hospital, five of who were charged with assault and battery on officers. Victims included bystanders like Mary Fletcher, who was struck in the face with a baton and lost four teeth after she objected to the ruthless beating of Delcine Kendust, another observer who was assaulted by police. Edward Byng was arrested at the hospital after trying to call the relatives of one of the injured women. In the end, the white woman who made the allegations of “molestation” never ended up pressing charges against Graham.[41]

The antagonism between black communities and the police continued to grow. In September of the same year, four police and four participants in a mob of one hundred people were injured in South Philadelphia after the large crowd tried to de-arrest and release Kenneth Reynolds from the custody of two highway patrolmen.[42] Shortly after this, the North Philadelphia Committee for Equal Justice (NPCEJ) presented a 3,000 person petition to Mayor Dilworth in November demanding an end to police brutality.[43] The NPCEJ accused then Police Commissioner Albert M. Brown of “dodging” the problem of police violence in black neighborhoods after he declined to comment on the topic at a conference organized by the Commission on Human Relations.[44]

The city government scrambled to save face by allying itself with “respectable” black leaders. In April 1961 Mayor Dilworth held a private meeting with roughly thirty North Philadelphia ministers and police leaders to talk about the problem of “police brutality”.[45] Despite attempts by the Mayor to form an alliance between the police and the self-appointed leaders of black Philadelphia, the tide was turning.

After the police who killed the two black men back in June 1960 were found not guilty, the NPCEJ organized a very large motorcade around city hall and a memorial rally.[46] People were becoming more and more disillusioned with the ability of the city government to protect them from the police. Reflecting the spirit of the time, in November 1961 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission cited police brutality as one of the nation’s most serious social problems, but stated in its report that the prosecution of police was “useless” for the simple fact that there was not one successful case of a police officer being prosecuted for using excessive force.[47] The report confirmed many people’s fear that justice could not be attained in the legal system.

Tensions reached a boiling point when in December 1962 a young black man named Elmer Ricks was murdered by a white officer who fired into a crowd of people near a dance hall in Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia. That night a rebellion of five hundred erupted on the streets as people threw bottles and bricks at thirty police who tried to disperse the crowd.[48] In early 1963 there also were several moments of near-riots as large groups of people in Philadelphia surrounded and threatened police who were beating black people.[49] Black Philadelphians were becoming more militant and organized in their capacity to confront the police.

Power in Crisis

In the struggle for human freedom and dignity people inevitably find themselves in conflict with the police. This became apparent in 1963 during a campaign to desegregate the construction of a school building in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. Hundreds of black workers directly challenged their exclusion from the jobs that were created to build the school in their neighborhood, forming picket lines around the construction site located at thirty-first and Susquehanna Street. This resulted in violent clashes with police and white construction workers who tried to break the picket lines in order to enter the white-only work site.

Among those who organized the protests were Stanley Daniels and Maxwell Stanford, Jr., both members of the Revolutionary Action Movement. Daniels explained how he “was shooting pictures of the line, when all of a sudden these construction workers rushed up and tried to crash through. The police came from everywhere.”[50] In We Will Return in the Whirlwind Stanford described the move to break through the picket lines as a “flying wedge,” which was followed by a barrage of police clubs: “singling out Daniels and myself, twenty police jumped us and we fought until unconscious.”[51] Three officers, one black and two white, claimed that the Daniels and Stanford assaulted them and were trying to incite a riot.[52]

At the Strawberry Mansion pickets, those who “manned the lines included everyone from students and gang members to the clergy, from wild-eyed revolutionaries to professional members of the community to pimps and whores.”[53] The NAACP, led by Cecil B. Moore, and the clergy, under the leadership of Leon Sullivan, struggled to manage the militant protesters. At one point during the protests, Sullivan tried to calm the angry crowds after a gun wielding truck driver threatened to shoot any protester who interfered with his unloading at thirty-second and Dauphin Street.[54] Ultimately, the militancy of the picketers was too much for Moore and Sullivan to handle, and by the end of the summer they and other leaders backed off from the campaign altogether.[55]

In the fall of 1963, the radical events of the summer still lingered in people’s minds. In October, a mob of seven hundred people confronted twenty police officers and fifteen squad cars after William Simpson was arrested for refusing to clear a corner in North Philadelphia. By the end of the riot the windows of a stalled out police car were smashed and six people were in police custody.[56] A few months after this, the police shot and murdered Willie Philyaw, a handicapped black man, as he tried to flee, and also shot a bystander. This incident sparked a weeklong rebellion in North Philadelphia where hundreds of people fought against hundreds of police. Crowds of people also looted the stores of white merchants along Susquehanna Avenue. Local ministers tried unsuccessfully to persuade the crowds to leave the streets. Unsurprisingly, the District Attorney’s office claimed that the police murder of Philyaw was justified, clearing the police of all charges.[57]

In a city that was promoted as a national model for managing tensions between black people and the police, the conflict had clearly reached a tipping point. Desperate attempts were made to subdue popular hostility against the police and to limit protests to an acceptable level. The Commission on Human Relations, the Fellowship Commission, and the NAACP worked closely with police leadership to avert a full-blown insurrection. Despite these efforts, there was no way around the fact that the “Philadelphia model” had broken down.

The State Fails to Contain the Rebellion

In the midst of mounting resistance and failed attempts to mediate this resistance, the Philadelphia police took a stab at political policing. In February 1964 Police Commissioner Howard Leary created the Civil Disobedience Unit (CDU). The official purpose of this unit was to protect the civil rights of protesters. Like the CCJD in the fifties, the CDU attempted to re-imagine the police as benevolent civil servants. The reality was that the CDU amounted to little more than what was known as a “red squad.”[58] As Philadelphia Police Inspector Harry G. Fox described in a 1966 interview in the Police Chief magazine, members of the CDU would build personal relationships with movement leaders and rank-and-file organizers in order to “develop intelligence about their connections, background, personal life, and ambitions.” This process entailed files, photos, reports, interviews, and undercover informants, all of which allowed the police to understand the strategy and tactics of a political group’s activities in advance of an action.[59]

As the PPD tried their hand at political policing, street protests continued to become more confrontational, a reality which some black leaders tried to contain and manage from within the movement. In the summer of 1964 black urban rebellions spread like wildfire through the United States, starting in July with Harlem, New York City, then spreading to Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth, in New Jersey, and eventually reaching North Philadelphia on August 28th. As usual, the spark that exploded into an uprising began as a routine occurrence. Two officers, one black and one white, tried to pull a black woman out of her car and on the spot people in the neighborhood began fighting back. This incident escalated into pitched street battles that lasted for three days. Roaming groups looted and burned white owned businesses along Columbia Avenue, a commercial strip in the heart of North Philadelphia. One group threw a garbage can through a squad car window. Large crowds de-arrested prisoners and even pulled them out of police wagons.[60] As Cecil B. Moore and other official leaders fruitlessly tried to restore calm and disband the angry masses, rioters directed some of their anger at Moore, criticizing him and the NAACP.[61]



Florence Mobley, in North Philadelphia in late August 1964, was heard to curse the NAACP leadership and declare to the men nearby: “I’m a black woman. Let them [police] take me.” Quote: Philadelphia Bulletin, August 29, 1964. Picture, printed during Mobley’s trial: Philadelphia Tribune, September 19, 1964


One of the two deaths that occurred during the rebellion was that of a rioter who was shot by a police officer.[62] Of the 339 people reportedly injured during the rebellion, over 100 of them were police.[63]



 Police arrest a protester during the 1964 riots in North Philly.


The uprisings of 1963 and 1964 in North Philadelphia redefined the struggle against the police as a struggle against a racist society, not just a few bad cops. These rebellions came on the heels of decades of daily struggles involving countless victories and defeats. The compromises between the police and moderate civil rights leaders failed to resolve the conflict; the exhaustion of liberal means for challenging police violence over time gave rise to more radical forms of struggle. As Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell argued, the urban riots that occurred in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia in 1964 occurred as a result of the limitations of legal reform.[64] In defiance of the illusion that the police and city government could ensure peace and justice, black Philadelphians fought for their own freedom.

Towards a Revolutionary Praxis

By examining a multiplicity of forms of struggle, from the liberal to the revolutionary, this work allows us to trace the development of the small conflicts that would eventually explode into mass rebellions. Such an investigation goes against the pervasive tendency of studying oppressed people as homogeneous entities with a single conception of struggle. Even when it came to a single area of struggle—policing—black Philadelphians responded with a diverse array of strategies, in many centers of action. From legal protests, to the press, to the courts, to coalitions, to riots, distinct approaches combined and diverged in various ways, and were adapted to shifting historical conditions, often times according to class differences.

Philadelphia’s pioneering of community-policing, civil rights legislation, police review boards, and political policing reflects how the upper and middle classes responded to policing by mediating antagonisms and devising legal solutions. When oppressed people attack their oppressors, the liberal sections of the ruling class and those in alliance with them loudly proclaim the need for judicial and legislative reforms within the existing structure. The main conclusion of this study is that such mitigating approaches cannot in the long run change anything fundamental in society.

The growing demand for police reform is even more doomed today than it was sixty years ago. Rather than settling for the strategies and tactics of those who fight for concessions from the ruling classes, this research looks towards methods of struggle that can sustain a protracted transformation of power relations. In analyzing the history of resistance to policing in Philadelphia, many concrete lessons can be learned for developing a revolutionary praxis and for avoiding the mistakes of the past.

In light of the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions, it should be clear that the prospect of mass revolt against the police is just as pressing today as it was in the 1960s. It is not a distant and far-off abstraction, but a moment that revolutionaries must prepare for in the present. Not because the struggle against the police is the most important area of struggle, but because it can open up the possibility for mass revolutionary action. To transform the riot into an insurrection, to support it in making a far-reaching impact on society, a patient and well-prepared force must be organized around a revolutionary class of people. Such a force can be organized to intervene in favorable conjunctures of circumstances, in order to seize the means of subsistence and to wage a protracted struggle against capital and the state.



Police Advisory Board Records, 1958-1980. Urban Archives, Temple University

Newspapers and Magazines

Chicago Defender

Evening Bulletin

New York Amsterdam News

Philadelphia Tribune

Pittsburgh Courier

Police Chief

Books and Articles

Cashmore, Ellis, and Eugene McLaughlin, ed. Out of Order? Policing Black People. London: Routledge, 1991.

Countryman, Matthew. Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Dubois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, 1899.

Dubois, W.E.B. “The Study of the Negro Problems.” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, vol. XI [1898]: 1-29.

Gibran, Khalil Muhammad. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Gross, Kali N. Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Jeffries, Judson L. Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Shoats, Russell. “Black Fighting Formations: Their Strengths, Weaknesses and Potentialities.” New Political Science 21, no. 2 [1999]: 151-169.

Stanford, Jr. Maxwell. We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations, 1960-1975. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007.

Sullivan, Leon H. Build Brother Build. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company, 1969.

Williams, Kristian. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Cambridge: South End Press, 2007.


[1] “Irate Mob Threatens Policeman Riot Squad Quells Disturbance,” Philadelphia Tribune, 13 August 1936, 3.

[2] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 183.

[3] Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007), 44.

[4] Homer Hawkins and Richard Thomas, “White Policing of Black Populations: A History of Race and Social Control in America,” in Out of Order? Policing Black People, ed. Ellis Cashmore and Eugene McLaughlin (London: Routledge, 1991), 71.

[5] Williams, Our Enemies in Blue, 60.

[6] Ibid, 61. For a more detailed history of the PPD, see Alex Elkins, Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia,“Police Department (Philadelphia),” http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/police-department-philadelphia/

[7] Williams, Ibid, 63.

[8] Ibid, 69-70. For a discussion of late nineteenth century white attitudes about the supposed criminal tendencies of black people and the disproportionate representation of blacks in the criminal justice system, see Kali N. Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006) and Khalil Muhammad Gibran, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).


[9] Cashmore and McLaughlin, Out of Order, 71.

[10] Williams, Our Enemies in Blue, 76.

[11] W.E.B. Dubois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia, 1899).

[12] Dubois, The Philadelphia Negro, 132.

[13] Matthew Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 18.

[14] “POLICE BRUTALITY AGAIN,” Philadelphia Tribune, 3 December 1931, 16.

[15] Philadelphia Tribune, 30 May 1929, 2.

[16] “New Women’s Club Founded by Camdenites: Colored Women’s Civic League Organized as Non-Political Unit,” Philadelphia Tribune, 26 October 1933, 9.

[17] “NAACP Joins White Groups in Protesting: Police Brutality Brings Interracial Cooperation in Camden,” Philadelphia Tribune, 14 December 1933, 9.

[18] “Movie Attack Stirs Threat Of Mob Ire: 200 Darbyites Seek Reprisal On Cop Charged With Assault JIM CROW THEATRE Picture Halted, Theatre Lights Put On As Resentment Grows,” Philadelphia Tribune, 30 June 1938, 1.

[19] LAUNCH ACTION AGAINST COP WHO SHOT AT BOYS: Thousands Attracted to Scene Threaten Cops—Son of Courier’s Philly Editor Beaten,” The Pittsburgh Courier, 20 July 1940, 1.

[20] “Police Brutality Fought in Phila,” The Chicago Defender, 25 May 1946, 2.

[21] Mark Hyman, “Protest of Police Brutality Draws Crowd to Meeting,” Philadelphia Tribune, 15 August, 1950, 1.

[22] “Fed. Action Seen as Way of Curbing Police Brutality,” Philadelphia Tribune, 12 September 1950, 1.

[23] “Police Directive Barring Brutality Overdue—NAACP,” Philadelphia Tribune, 30 September 1950, 2.

[24] “Hopeful of Police Reform after Rosenberg Conference,” Philadelphia Tribune, 30 October 1951, 9.

[25] “Veteran Acquitted Of Police Attack; May Sue In Turn,” Philadelphia Tribune, 13 May 1952, 1.

[26] Leon H. Sullivan, Build Brother Build (Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company, 1969), 63.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 62.

[29] Ibid, 63-64.

[30] “Cop Beatings Bring Wave Of Protests From All City Areas: Expectant Mother Struck By Cop For Step Card Playing,” Philadelphia Tribune, 31 July 1956, 3.

[31] “Ruthless Police Brutality Against Negro Continues Unabated: Father Of 3 Children Latest Victim Of Atrocious Assault,” Philadelphia Tribune, 13 November 1956, 2.

[32] “Background,” Police Advisory Board: Records, 1958-1980, Manuscript in Urban Archives of Temple University, Philadelphia: http://library.temple.edu/collections/urbana/pab-670.jsp?bhcp=1 (accessed 29 April 2011).

[33] Countryman, Up South, 95.

[34] Ibid, 283.

[35] Ruth Rolen, “Victims of Police Brutality Freed, Judge Throws Case Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, 10 January 1959, 2.

[36] “Free Woman After She Vows Not To Take Action Against Officer,” Philadelphia Tribune, 7 April 1959, 1.

[37] “Four Councilmen Blast Illegal Raids by Police,” Philadelphia Tribune, 14 November 1959, 1.

[38] “F. W. Woolworth Pickets Charge Harassment,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1960, cited in Countryman, Up South, 98-99.

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Police Brutality Charged In Bloody Riot At Broad And Dauphin: Fight Started When Man Made Pass At Woman, Fifty Policemen ‘Quieted’ Things With Nightsticks,” Philadelphia Tribune, 12 July 1960, 1.

[41] “Broad & Dauphin Riot Victims Set NAACP Appeal: Two Women Claim Police Clubbed Them In Face With Blackjacks,” Philadelphia Tribune, 16 July 1960, 1.

[42] “4 Cops, 4 Men Hurt As Half-Hour Riot Erupts In S. Phila: Youth’s Arrest-Triggers Melee; 40 Officers Battle Angry Mob of 100,” Philadelphia Tribune, 20 September 1960, 1.

[43] “Equal Justice Committee Seeks End To Police Brutality In City: Demand Police Action; Citizens Ask Mayor’s Aid 3,000 Names On Petition From N. Phila. Group,” Philadelphia Tribune, 22 November 1960, 3.

[44] “Charge Commissioner Brown With Dodging ‘Brutality’ Issue: Citizens Group Accuses Police Chief at Meet Human Relations Commission Set Up Conference,” Philadelphia Tribune, 24 December 1960, 3.

[45] Charles Layne, “Police Brutality Reviewed, Clergy Inspection Invited,” Philadelphia Tribune, 8 April 1961, 1.

[46] Leroy Farmer, “N. Phila. Protests Marinelli Trial ‘Whitewash’; Vows to Continue Fight: Equal Justice Committee Memorializes Victims With Mass Meeting, Motorcade Around City Hall,” Philadelphia Tribune, 13 June 1961, 9.

[47] “Police Brutality Cited as Nation’s Most Serious Problem: Federal Civil Rights Commission Says It Is Now Useless to Sue,” Philadelphia Tribune, 21 November 1961, 1.

[48] Fred Bonaparte, “Cop Held For Fatal Shooting Of Chester Boy: 30 Police Quell Riot of 500 At Tues. Wingding,” Philadelphia Tribune, 1 December 1962, 1.

[49] “52nd & Arch Riot Hearing Thursday: 3 Cops Hurt; Youths Charge Police Brutality,” Philadelphia Tribune, 22 January 1963, 8. “Suspect’s Arrest Triggers Near-Riot at 13th and South: Angry Crowd Seethes as Cops Subdue Victim Witnesses Claim Patrol Wagon Was Driven Over Man,” Philadelphia Tribune, 5 March 1963, 8.

[50] Art Peters, “Camera Taken, Clubbed Says Social Worker: Taking Photos In Picket Line When Group Rushed,” Philadelphia Tribune, 28 May 1963, 1.

[51] Maxwell Stanford, Jr., We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations, 1960-1975 (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007), 107.

[52] “Slate Another Hearing for Injured NAACP Pickets: Police Brutality Claimed by Two Duo Arrested; Attacked Law,” Philadelphia Tribune, 8 June 1963, 5.

[53] “Six Injured on School Picket Line Blocks Most Workers,” The Evening Bulletin, May 27, 1963, 117th Year, No. 46, 1, from Stanford’s Return in the Whirlwind, 107.

[54] Fred Bonaparte, “NAACP Leaders Plead For No Violence; Injuries Mount: Near-Riot Thursday Triggered By Truck Driver Carrying of Gun Pickets Out As Usual on Sunny Holiday Duty School Board In New Move To Halt Picketing,” Philadelphia Tribune, 1 June 1963, 1.

[55] Stanford, We Will Return in the Whirlwind

[56] Henry Benjamin, “Police Car Stalls, Cops Imprisoned In Middle of Near-Riot for Hour: Peacemaker’s Arrest Triggers Wild Fracas,” Philadelphia Tribune, 22 October 1963, 2.

[57] Henry Benjamin, “Philyaw Slaying Stirred Furor: Rioting Vandalism Erupted Along Susquehanna Ave. After Slaying,” Philadelphia Tribune, 31 December 31, 3.

[58] Williams, Our Enemies in Blue, 192.

[59] Harry G. Fox,  “The CD Man,” the Police Chief, November 1966, 22.

[60] Alex Elkins, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “Columbia Avenue Riot,” http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/columbia-avenue-riot/#13207


[61] Countryman, Up South, 157-159.

[62] Alex Elkins, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, “Columbia Avenue Riot,” http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/columbia-avenue-riot/#13207


[63] Jeffries Judson, Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana

University Press, 2007), 219.

[64] Rep. Adam C. Powell, “Anatomy of A Riot,” New York Amsterdam News, 28 August 1965, 1.


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