Security was tight at the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse for a November 9 hearing by the Third Circuit Appeals Court to consider the death sentence of local journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose 1982 conviction for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer has been widely questioned (Extra!, 11-12/95; Extra! Update, 2/99).
Some 500 demonstrators calling for Abu-Jamal’s freedom were on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, and U.S. Marshals and officers from the Federal Protective Service had erected two parallel rows of metal gates to separate the crowd from the building, and to create an enclosed “cattle chute” to funnel spectators into the building and the 300-seat courtroom where a three-judge panel was to convene.
A dozen journalists, myself included, were allowed to enter early. We went to the start of the chute, where federal marshals checked our press credentials. We were then checked by an explosive-sniffing dog with the Marshals Service, after which we were led some 75 feet to the far end of the chute, which was in an open plaza in front of the main building entrance. There we were met by more marshals, who were not opening the gate yet, leaving us stranded at a dead end.
Suddenly we were surrounded on three sides by Philadelphia police, both uniformed and in civilian suits. The uniformed cops, carrying cameras and a large shoulder-mounted video-cam, began photographing and videotaping us.
A bemused French journalist turned to me in surprise and asked, “Is this how they treat the press here in America?”
As the aggressively close-range photographing continued, I attempted to ask the officers why they were recording us, and what was being done with the photos and tapes. No one would answer.
Eventually, the marshals opened the gate and headed for the courthouse. The police photographers remained, filming other journalists who followed us. Journalist Linn Washington, who reports for the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest African-American newspaper, says he was photographed and videotaped as he walked alone down the chute. “It was absolutely a process designed to intimidate us,” he says.
Asked for an explanation, Lt. Raymond J. Evers, head of the police public information office, said the camera crew was at the scene for “crowd control and training.” He explained, “At demonstrations, we need to have a photographic record in case there are problems, so we can show how the police handled things.” And, he added, police like to photograph demonstrators so that “if there are acts of violence or vandalism,” perpetrators can be identified.
Asked what that had to do with photographing journalists already checked out by federal marshals, he offered two rationales: that there “might have been individuals among the journalists who were not journalists,” and that “if there were a disturbance in the courtroom, we’d want to know who it was.”
Neither explanation withstands scrutiny. In the first case, the marshals only permitted credentialed journalists to pass. Most clearly displayed press passes, while others, freelancers like me, had been required to show signed assignment letters from editors. No one else got cleared. As for the second rationale, local police have no role in the federal court, where federal marshals handle security. Anyone disrupting an Appellate Court hearing would be detained, removed, identified and booked by those marshals.
Reporters on the scene had no doubt about the true reason for the police cameras aimed at our faces at close range: it was an act of intimidation. As Linn Washington put it, “When it involves the Abu-Jamal case, the Philly police just lose it.”
Two blocks down Sixth Street from Federal Court is Independence Hall, Philadelphia’s premiere tourist attraction. Here National Park Service guides show visitors the room where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drawn up and signed, and where Congress initially met. They also show visitors the room at the other end of the building where the Supreme Court originally met, proudly noting that it was “the first courtroom where ordinary citizens had the absolute right to come and witness the administration of justice.”
How ironic that two centuries later, Philadelphia police are actively interfering with that right.
Local news organizations made no mention of the incident.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time (Common Courage Press, 2003), an investigative book about the Abu-Jamal case. He is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, a new independent online alternative newspaper.