November 18, 2007: Say hey. Philadelphia has a new day. On November 6th, reform candidate Michael Nutter was elected mayor by the largest margin in the history of Philly mayoral elections. A gut reaction against the corruption and crime that flourished during the two terms of Mayor John Street. The feds convicted players in and around Street's city hall. Pay-to-play. No-bid contracts. Campaign shakedowns. Community development scams. You know the drill. Want crime stats? Philadelphia, one of the ten biggest cities in the US, became tops for murder. The wry and weary call it “Killadelphia”.
Michael Nutter, a Democrat and four term city councilman, emerged from a primary pack and won in the general election by targeting the failings of fellow Democrat John Street. Nutter promised to continue the push he made as councilman for open and ethical government-- and to reverse Killadelphia. Strategies include declaring a state of “Crime Emergency” in hard-hit neighborhoods; which will allow the use of curfews, limitations on travel and public gatherings, and let police stop-and-frisk sans warrants. Reasonable objections have arisen re potential racial profiling and constitutional abridgments, but Micheal Nutter is African-American and to a lot of people dodging bullets in drug war zones, the plan sounds damn good. Nutter also promises to tackle crime by addressing poverty and unemployment. Improving education and increasing after-school recreation. Using financial incentives to encourage businesses to hire people fresh out of prison. And Nutter vows to staunch Philadelphia's out-flow of jobs, which he believes is partly caused by the city's “corruption tax”.
City government is the largest employer in Philadelphia. Among big cities, Philly is in the top tier for poverty and unemployment. Yet an ocean of public money and initiatives aimed at alleviating these conditions has poured into Philly for decades, through a series of administrations. Upon occasion, that ocean has lifted some mighty strange boats.
In the 1970's, it helped lift Black Brothers Inc., the community development front of the Black Mafia, an organized crime group joined at the hip with Philadelphia Temple 12, an outpost of the Nation of Islam (NOI). In a city with a venerable organized crime groove, the Black Mafia went unrecognized for years. Black crime was believed to be strictly street stuff. Random. Unplanned. Racist assumptions helped the Black Mafia remain hidden, as did the hush hush attitude of those unwilling to say “black” and “crime” in the same sentence. And fear sealed lips in the places where the Black Mafia trafficked in drugs, shook down lesser criminals, extorted businesses and churches, exploited poverty programs and minority set-asides, and murdered rivals, witnesses, or anyone who offended their eyes.
Oh-- stellar connections at government levels and in the halls of justice, plus a power network in area prisons, also helped keep the lid on.
The Black Mafia as an organization eventually crumbled. But some former members kept doing. Such as Shamsud-din Ali, born Clarence Fowler. Ali had a starring role in municipal corruption during the Street administration. Back in the day, Shamsud-din Ali headed the security force at Temple 12. Convicted of murder in 1972, he was freed several years later when the conviction was overturned. Ali became imam of the Philadelphia Masjid (formerly Temple 12) in West Philadelphia and by the day of Mayor Street, Imam Ali wielded major political clout. Ali supported Street and the two were close personally. The relationship enhanced Ali's position as power broker. Among other things, he served as Street's appointment on the Philadelphia Prison System board.
The corruption probe of the Street administration grew out of a federal investigation of a large scale drug network. Some of its prime movers had family ties to the old Black Mafia. In October 2000, a wire tap caught Shamsud-din Ali hitting up a dealer for a $5000 contribution to “Connie Little”.* Describing her as “the person closest to the person” and naming other people he (Ali) intended to touch. All were under investigation. The feds figured Connie Little was a hitherto unknown queenpin and googled her name. Holy hot potato-- she was Mayor John Street's executive assistant! Other tapes caught dealers complaining about Shamsud-din Ali's frequent cash calls.
Whether Ali delivered contributions to anyone other than himself is unknown. Connie Little and Mayor Street were never charged in relation to the corruption probe. Nor was Ali charged with any crime connected to the drug investigation, which ultimately yielded some 33 convictions. Along the way, a family of six (including a 15 month old baby) was torched to intimidate a witness. The municipal corruption convictions came in at 20. Along the way, the investigation was characterized as a racist witch hunt by pols and opinion shapers who should have known better and probably did.
In 2005, Shamsud-din Ali was convicted on 22 counts of racketeering and fraud related to public contracts involving Philadelphia International Airport and assorted municipal agencies. Ali worked minority set-asides by fronting for majority players in exchange for kickbacks. He soaked Philadelphia's Community College through a school operated by the Philadelphia Masjid. The school, intended for low income students, was also looted. Though generous contributions flowed to the school from unions such as the Building and Trades Council, Local 332 of the International Laborers Union, and locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Imam Ali and his wife ( a no-show “ghost teacher”) let the school rot. An enrollment of roughly 500 dwindled to 6. After Shamsud-din Ali was convicted, he was voted out as the masjid's resident imam. When the masjid board entered the school (with the assistance of a locksmith) they found trashed classrooms and debris clogged halls. The computer room held nary a computer. The boilers in the basement had been ripped out, leaving the room a swamp and the school with no heat.
Meanwhile, Imam Ali and Ghost Teacher lived in a $650,000 dollar home and tooled around in a spanking new Mercedes Benz. Possibly popping in on their two other half-a-mil properties.
Last Summer, Shamsud-din Ali took a sabbatical from the prison where he's now serving 7, to testify before a grand jury in the capital of Harrisburg. The subject? Ali's past chats with a union pal allegedly chummy with organized crime. (The venerable white kind.) Part of an investigation of another guy who wants to operate slots on the Philadelphia waterfront. Where political pay-to-play is already big. Smoking in public is forbidden in Philly but casinos look good to go. Gambling will revitalize Killadelphia oh yeah!
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, mayor of Philadelphia prior to John Street, is gung ho on casinos. Mayor-elect Michael Nutter seems less enthused. Though he hasn't exactly said NO. The Boy Scouts however, will definitely be evicted from their city owned property on Ben Franklin Parkway.
Black Mafia: The Book
In 2005, Milo Press published Black Brothers, Inc. Subtitled: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia. Author Sean Patrick Griffin is a former Philadelphia cop turned criminal justice academic. Brothers combines true crime grit with scholarly cause and effect. When the book went on sale at Robin's, the oldest independent bookstore in the Philly area, the store owner said he hadn't seen a book sell so quickly since The Tropic of Cancer. A comparison of note since in the 60's, Robin's was the only store in Philly to ignore the city's attempt to ban sales of Tropic. As result, buyers beat down Robin's door.
The buyers beating down the door in 2005 were largely black Philadelphians wanting to read about a bad long ignored or smoothed over-- one which continued to impact the now.
The 2005 edition of Black Brothers Inc. deals mainly with the Black Mafia in the 70's and 80's. While the corruption probe of the Street administration and Shamsud-din Ali are covered, the investigation was still in progress. In October 2007, Black Brothers Inc. was reissued. The reissue fills in the blanks. It also contains an appendix detailing the politically correct responses to Brothers, and to Griffin's earlier academic works on the Black Mafia and African-American organized crime, including a paper discussing economic development initiatives in relation to corruption. Griffin cited a Philly example. In the late 1990's, a Philadelphia Empowerment Zone containing three of the city's poorest neighborhoods received $79 million in federal funds. In 1999, an audit found that much of the money empowered the powerful and Zone achievements were greatly exaggerated. Quoting Griffin: “Such massive infusions of capital have a history of fueling corruption, perhaps best illustrated in the case of post-WWII Sicily.”
In early October, Black Entertainment Television (BET) kicked off the second season of its popular series American Gangster with an episode based on Black Brothers, Inc., titled Philly Black Mafia: 'Do for Self'. Sean Griffin was consultant and is interviewed extensively. Ving Rhames narrates. His voice is a guiding star through American Gangster's tangled tales of sleazy souls who do the absolute worst unto others. Yeah, sometimes Gangster slips into thug worship or echoes its subjects' self justifications, but more often it's a unsentimental and historically valuable look at the multi-cultural left hand of human endeavor, as perpetrated by African-Americans in their specific social circumstances.
American Gangster's promo for Philly Black Mafia includes these words: “...the group extorted, hustled, plundered and murdered with impunity. It also maneuvered skillfully through many worlds... conning politicians and other leaders, and devising multiple layers of protection and cover. The Philly Black Mafia played the race and religion cards so effectively that authorities were hesitant to go after them.”
Old times. Old games. Bring on the change.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Black Brothers Inc., Sean Patrick Griffin, Milo Books Ltd, 2005, reissued edition
Sources include but are not limited to:
The Nutter Plan for Safety Now: Ten Weeks to a Safer Philadelphia [PDF] Michael Nutter, 2007
"Taubenberger takes on Nutter in a final debate," Thomas Fitzgerald, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/05/07
"Congrats, Mayor Nutter!" Tom Namako, Doron Taussig, City Paper, 10/24/07
"Slots grand jury hears ex-Street aide," Kitty Caparella & Chris Brennan, Philadelphia Daily News, 09/27/07
"School in Ruins: Mosque's board shocked," Kitty Caparella, Philadelphia Daily News, 10/23/06
Pennsylvania Company Owner Jailed Seven Years and Ordered to Pay Over $652,000 for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Fraud and Other Schemes, Office of Inspector General, Department of Transportation, 09/19/05
Black Brothers Inc., Sean Patrick Griffin, Milo Books Ltd, 2005, reissued edition
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