[ the people in your neighborhood ]
Last Saturday, West Philadelphians flocked to Clark Park for its now-familiar monthly community flea market.
Less familiar, perhaps, is the fact that, besides being a great place to buy old tools, vintage vinyl and some killer breakfast tacos, the market also serves as a fundraiser for the politically radical Uhuru Movement, an organization composed of self-described revolutionaries espousing a platform of socialism and black power.
Maybe you've heard of Uhuru: Their fliers are ubiquitous. Or you might have bought a couch from them: Besides the flea market, the group operates Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles at 12th and Spruce streets in Center City. Or, you might even have seen Uhuru in the news a few months back, when two of the group's members were accused of assaulting the civil affairs officer who tried to remove them from a City Hall protest.
So who are they?
The Uhuru Movement — the word means "freedom" in Swahili — was founded in 1972 by radical political thinker Omali Yeshitela. (On a recent visit to Uhuru headquarters at 38th and Lancaster, members were gathered around a video of Yeshitela speaking.) Besides Philly, the organization has a presence in Oakland, Calif., and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Uhuru's Philadelphia chapter was born in the wake of the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of MOVE — another black radical group that practiced a back-to-nature lifestyle. The bomb killed six adults and five children, set ablaze an entire city block, and spurred Uhuru to expand to Philly.
Uhuru has since cultivated its own unique, and uniquely radical niche in Philadelphia.
The group is small, and close-knit to the point of being elusive —members refuse to disclose the group's exact membership.Events attended by City Paper and broadcast on YouTube generally turn out the same dozen or so people.
And, surprisingly, many of the most vocal members of this black power movement are white.
Technically, white Uhuru members belong to an "auxiliary" organization called the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, meant to support their African (Uhuru members don't say "African-American") colleagues. But they make up a good portion of the membership.
"It sounds kind of weird," admits Uhuru organizer Harris Daniels, 29, who is white —"[but] it's about white people ending our isolation from the African community."
But what separates Uhuru most from the rest of Philly's activist crowd is the sheer severity of their ideology.
Members dub themselves revolutionaries, fighting for reparations and black self-governance, and against what they call a city-waged war on black people. In their estimation, the battlefields stretch through the city's black communities. They speak of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and District Attorney Lynne Abraham as if they were invading generals, and the Philadelphia Police as soldiers suppressing an Uhuru-led resistance.
Uhuru disavows any black politician who disagrees that African people should be self-governing. Mayor Michael Nutter, says group president Diop Olugbala, is "white power in blackface." President Barack Obama is an "imperialist tool." The NAACP serves to keep blacks "from struggling to be free."
Indeed, Olugbala (born Wali Rahman), who is black, first made mainstream headlines when, at the height of the presidential campaign, he took the mic at a town hall meeting in St. Petersberg, and — after referencing Sean Bell, the Jena Six and Hurricane Katrina, among other things — accused then-candidate Obama of ignoring the black community. The scene, and Olugbala's name (which means "war"), made national news, and netted Olugbala interviews with NPR and ABC News.
Standing more than 6 feet tall, and capable of talking for hours on end, Olugbala was happy to oblige.
Last fall, on the heels of that publicity, he arrived in Philadelphia and became president of the local branch. And, under his leadership, it's been a busy year.
Last December, Uhuru members interrupted one of Nutter's town hall budget meetings; before being led out by security, Olugbala walked up to the mayor and handed him a "people's subpoena" to appear before an Uhuru tribunal for "crimes of genocide" against the black community. Later, Uhuru found Nutter guilty in absentia when he failed to appear.
In March, the group staged a protest at Nutter's budget presentation, again shouting and holding signs. And again, security was called in to remove them. When a civil affairs officerattempted to forcibly take away Olugbala's banner ("Throw Nutter in the Gutter"), a scuffle ensued, which was recorded and posted online, and ended with felony assault charges for both Olugbala and fellow Uhuru member Shabaka Mnombatha. Uhuru defends their actions as lawful self-defense, and have begun a campaign called "Hands Off the City Hall 2!"
Accusing the mayor of genocide is one thing, but it's probably when it comes to police that Uhuru takes its most inflammatory tone. Uhuru considers the Philadelphia police foreign occupiers of black neighborhoods —Alison Hoehne, head of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, compares Philadelphia police to "death squads in El Salvador."
And among the victims of police "terrorism," Uhuru members tout Daniel Giddings —who killed Highway Patrol Officer Patrick McDonald last year.
On Sept. 23, 2008, Giddings —on parole for hijacking a car and shooting the driver in both legs, and wanted for injuring two other police officers after his release — shot and killed McDonald while fleeing police in North Philadelphia.
While police and public officials denounced Giddings, Olugbala called him a "warrior." While officers processed through the city in honor of McDonald, Uhuru members held a candlelight vigil for Giddings. "[Our goal is] not to get into personal politics," Olugbala says, "but to expose the oppressive relationship that police have with the African community."
Olugbala says he doubts that Giddings murdered Officer McDonald. But, in his view, it doesn't matter. "Even if he did kill McDonald," Olugbala says, "he had a right to."
The issues that Uhuru tackles — police brutality, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, inequalities in income and education — are, by themselves, commonplace themes among leftist activists. But the extreme stance Uhuru takes on those issues, the sometimes-outrageous rhetoric they use and the rigidity of their beliefs leave them largely by themselves.
"They don't accommodate anybody," acknowledges Theresa Weir, a former (white) member of Uhuru. "If you disagree with them, they're happy to see you leave."
For having been around for 24 years, the group's active membership remains remarkably small —and possibly because of that, authorities haven't paid them much attention. That changed somewhat with the charges against Olugbala and Mnombatha, when the District Attorney insisted on felony charges of aggravated assault at City Hall, even after a lower court dismissed the felonies.
Perhaps unknowingly, the city has provided Uhuru with a new platform for protest.
Says high-profile Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard, who represents Olugbala: "This is exactly what Diop and his organization want."