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Snitch & Die: A Philadelphia Crime Tradition
February 12, 2007: In 2006 Philadelphia became the top spot for murder among America's ten largest cities. Victims numbered 406. The majority were inner city residents. Among the dead were drug turf rivals, innocents caught in the crossfire, and witnesses who made the mistake of talking. Witness intimidation of the fatal variety is big in Philly. It's why many murders go unsolved, or can't be prosecuted. Some think "snitch and die" is a new trend. But for those familiar with Philadelphia's criminal history in the 1960's and 70's, it's deja vu all over again.

That history is laid out by Sean Patrick Griffin in "Black Brothers, Inc." Subtitled "The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia". (Milo Books, 2005.) Griffin is a former Philadelphia police officer turned university professor. His book reflects both his experience as a cop and criminal justice academic. "Brothers" is a crisply written true crime story enhanced by Griffin's eye for detail and time lines. It's also a deeply researched examination of how a well organized group of brutal career criminals rose to power, while staying below the radar of law enforcement and exploiting the social and political milieu of Philadelphia in the 1970's.

"Brothers" moves into Philly's present with coverage of recent federal investigations of municipal corruption and its connection, via several figures, to the bygone Black Mafia. Related probes of development deals involving Philadelphia International Airport and the city's Delaware River waterfront (an area stretching from Penn's Landing south of the city to the Philadelphia Naval Yard) are discussed in an appendix. "Black Brothers, Inc" is due to be re-issued soon. Updates will be included.

Back To The Future

In 1973, Black Brothers Inc. (BBI) was the name of a community action group, established with the stated purpose of "suppressing gang activity and youth crime in South Philadelphia's African American neighborhoods".* In truth, BBI was a criminal central committee and a modus operandi for assorted community development scams. Over the portal of BBI's storefront headquarters hung a sign reading "Through These Doors Walk the Finest People". BBI founders who walked through those doors were members of the Black Mafia. A group formed in the late 1960's, with strong ties to Temple 12, Philadelphia's branch of the Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI was then under the national leadership of Chicago based Elijah Muhammad.

Like the Nation of Islam, the Black Mafia was highly structured. At the time, Philadelphia law enforcement believed regional organized crime was strictly Italiano. Crimes committed by Black Mafia members were seen as random events rather than parts of a pattern. The organization behind the crimes went unrecognized for years.

The initial focus of the Black Mafia was robbery, white collar fraud, and extortion. They shook down legitimate businesses and churches, as well as numbers operations and drug dealers. By taking a cut from dealers and not getting involved with the actual drug trafficking, the Black Mafia avoided some of the risks of the business. Eventually they became more hands on. Doing so contributed to their demise. Before that day came, Black Mafia enforcers subjected Philly's inner city neighborhoods to a reign of terror. Not that they stayed within city limits. They also spent bloody time in South Jersey across the Delaware River. Visiting Atlantic City, Camden (Philly's sister city in crime) and its upscale satellite, Cherry Hill. At times the Black Mafia travelled further. In January 1973, seven enforcers went to Washington D.C. to visit Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a former member of the Nation of Islam.

In the 1950's Khaalis had belonged to the NOI's Harlem mosque in New York City. Khaalis broke with the NOI after angering Elijah Muhammad with criticisms of the Black Muslim version of Islam. Khaalis went on to form his own group, which followed a traditional strain of Sunni Islam. By the 70's the group was headquartered in a residential Washington neighborhood. Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and his extended family lived in the building.

Khaalis' transition from the NOI to a form of Sunni Islam was not singular. Malcolm X and Wallace D. Muhammad (Elijah Muhammad's son and successor) took similar paths. Like them, Khaalis sparred publicly with Elijah Muhammad over theology. On January 5th 1973, Khaalis sent a proclamation to a number of mosques (including Philadelphia's Temple 12) in which he excoriated Elijah Mohammad and the Black Muslims. Calling them "false prophets" and denouncing Elijah Mohammad as "a lying deceiver". On January 17th the Black Mafia crew invaded Khaalis' home. Khaalis was out. Over a period of hours seven members of his family were slaughtered, including four infants between the ages of 9 days and 22 months. The babies were drowned in a bathtub and sink. When one enforcer had qualms and asked another why the babies had to die, the answer was "because the seed of the hypocrite is in them".

Though the murderers of the Khaalis family were caught, none received the death penalty. Several got considerably less than life sentences, and one beat the rap by cooperating with the prosecution. It was never established that either Elijah Muhammad or Jeremiah X. Shabazz, the head of Temple 12, ordered the killings.**

While religion lay behind the murder of the Khaalis family, Black Mafia violence was most typically driven by greed and self interest. Drug debtors and rivals went down, as did those who resisted extortion. Witnesses were targeted relentlessly. Family members weren't spared. Unlike other organized crime groups, the Black Mafia didn't give wives and children a pass. Meanwhile, folks with tight Black Mafia and Temple 12 ties moved in high circles. Wielding political clout at city and state levels. Talking community development and safe streets. Collecting and dispensing government funds, jobs, and contracts. Denouncing those who raised questions of criminality as racist or anti Islam. Many sincere progressives echoed the accusations-- as did pandering and/or complicitous pols. Meanwhile, on Philadelphia's inner city street, the government goodies and hoi poloi support confirmed suspicions the Black Mafia was connected to the max.

Still, by the mid 80's the Black Mafia as an organization was over. A number of factors, over a period of years, contributed. Direct involvement in drug dealing made them too visible. There were too many murders in the public's face. An investigative reporter detailed the organization in print and supplied a phone number for tips. People who wouldn't talk to the police burned up the line. Elijah Mohammad died and Wallace Mohammad, who as an apostate had feared the NOI's "punch-your-teeth-out" squads***, cracked down on the superbad image of Temple 12. Law enforcement agencies realized that organized crime comes in all colors and collaborated on a take down. Prison doors were slamming...

That was then. How about now?

Over the last few years a federal investigation of pay-to-play corruption in Philadelphia's city government has swept away a number of people close to current Mayor John Street. Including Imam Shamsud din-Ali, an influential figure in the city's black community, and a good friend of Mayor Street. The corruption probe grew out of a drug ring investigation, during which FBI tapes caught dealers discussing corruption in city hall and talking with-- and about-- Shamsud din-Ali. On one tape, din-Ali was allegedly heard extorting a dealer. On another a dealer complained that "Cutty" (a din-Ali nickname) was "walking with kings and we're out there hustling". In 2005, Shamsud din-Ali was convicted on 22 racketeering and fraud charges related to public contracts. He was never charged with any drug related crime.

Back in the day, Shamsud din-Ali was a captain in the Fruit of Islam (the Nation of Islam's security force) at Temple 12. In 1972 he was convicted of first degree murder. The killing was a Black Mafia affair and took place during a home invasion. The victim was an elderly black minister. The motive was either robbery or extortion. Shamsud din-Ali's conviction was overturned several years later on the grounds that the police pushed the one witness (the minister's daughter) into an identification. The case wasn't retried. The witness no longer wished to testify.

After being released from prison, din-Ali became head of what was once Temple 12. (Under Wallace Muhammad, the NOI was renamed the World Community of al-Islam in the West, and "temples" became "masjids"-- the Arabic word for mosques.) As imam of the Philadelphia Masjid, Shamsud din-Ali moved in high circles. Wielding political clout at city and state levels. Talking community development and safe streets. Collecting and dispensing government funds, jobs, and contracts. Eventually serving as Mayor Street's appointment on the Philadelphia Prison System board. As for the municipal corruption probe, din-Ali declared it a racist conspiracy by a government secretly ruled by Satan. Many sincere progressives, plus pandering and/or complicitous pols echoed the accusations. (Though most left out the part about Satan.) After the investigation resulted in a slew of convictions (including the city treasurer and several investment bankers) and a jury found Imam Shamsud din-Ali guilty of extorting kickbacks for municipal deals, looting a local Muslim school, and serving as a front for white businesses to obtain minority business advantages, the chorus quieted.

Mayor John Street hasn't been charged with any crime and will be term limited out of office come Autumn. Several of the pols who denounced the corruption investigation as a racist conspiracy are among those seeking his seat. They promise to crack down on crime and deliver safe streets. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia's inner city neighborhoods, life-- and death-- go on as usual.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"Police were able to identify the child when they found an unsent Valentine's Day Card to his mother in his backpack."

"Schoolyard slaying trial highlights Philadelphia's witness problem," Maryclaire Dale, Associated Press, 03/16/06

"So I'll go out before work now, and clean up the empty little glass bottles, and the discarded pipes. I'll take an all the way out of my way route to get to my bus to avoid this cocky, lousy, dangerous creep who continues to sell drugs right in front of his sisters home. He's endangering my family..."

"Ace", Drugs Drugs Drugs, 07/25/05

Sources include but are not limited to:

"On streets of Philadelphia, crime is back," Jon Hurdle, Reuters, 01/31/07

"Philly mayoral race dwells on crime; Has incumbent done enough?" Patrick Walters, Associated Press, 01/28/07

Snitch and Die, Capital Commentary, The Center for Public Justice, 04/03/06

"Pennsylvania Company Owner Jailed Seven Years and Ordered to Pay Over $625,000 for Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Fraud and Other Schemes," Office of Inspector General, Department of Transportation, 09/15/05

"Shamsud Din-Ali, Farad Ali, and Five Others Charged in Connection with Racketeering Enterprise," U.S. Department of Justice, 09/29/04

"Dueling images of Philadelphia's Imam Ali," Nancy Phillips, George Anastasia, Maria Panaritis, Philadelphia Inquirer, 09/27/04

"Black Brothers Inc., The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia's Black Mafia," Sean Patrick Griffin, Milo Press, 2005, Distributed in the U.S. by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution

"Islam in Black America," Edward E. Curtis IV, State University of New York Press, 2002

*All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from "Black Brothers Inc." by Sean Patrick Griffin.

**Hammas Abdul Khaalis believed that if his family were white, the legal outcome would have been different. By 1977, Khaalis had snapped: he and a group of followers invaded the offices of the B'nai B'rith and the Islamic Center in Washington, took hostages and made a series of demands, including that the killers of Khaalis' family be delivered into their hands. One hostage was killed, forty others were injured. Khaalis and his followers eventually surrendered. Khaalis was sentenced to 41 to 123 years in prison for murder and kidnapping.

***"Islam in Black America," Chapter 6, "Wallace D. Muhammad, Sunni Islamic Reform, and the Continuing Problem of Particularism," Edward E. Curtis IV, State University of New York Press, 2002

Note: This article was revised and expanded on February 18.2007. The original version appears on Blogger News Network.

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Copyright (c) 2007 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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