The Dirty Work of Philly's Political Police

Part 1: From Cointelpro to Powelton Village

Revolutionary Worker #1086, January 14, 2001, posted at

The United States officially presents itself as a country where rights of speech, association and protest are protected. But when thousands of protesters gathered at the Republican National Convention during this past summer of 2000 many were shocked to see that the power structure was getting protected, not the rights of the people.

The federal government mobilized a network of political police agencies to contain the protests--not just to control the streets, but to reduce the political impact of those challenging the "Executioners' Ball." There was close cooperation between the national police agencies, like the FBI and Secret Service, with Philadelphia's local political police, called the Civil Affairs Unit.

Plainclothes police were spotted at virtually every street action, mingling with the protesters--some of them wearing official armbands, some not. Philadelphia's top police official, John Timoney, acknowledged that they were agents of the Civil Affairs Unit and claimed that their purpose was "calming things down." Out in the streets, the protesters got a clear sense of how police were working to "calm" them down. There was massive police observation, infiltration, harassment, and disruption. Organizers were picked up and held on ridiculous charges. Organizing centers were raided--using ridiculous pretexts. One of the speakers at the rallies, RW correspondent C. Clark Kissinger, has recently been sentenced to three months in jail for participating in these events.

This Civil Affairs Unit, once known as the Civil Disobediance Unit (CDU), has a long history of surveillance, covert operations, frame-ups and targeted political disruption, all in close connection with the FBI and other agencies that coordinate political repression nationally.

Forging Weapons of Repression

In the summer of 1964, rebellion spread through the cities of the U.S. There were repeated rebellions in Black communities, first in New York's Harlem in July, and then in seven other cities.

On August 28, Philadelphia police yanked a woman out of her car in the heart of North Philadelphia. People watching on the sidewalks decided to fight. Police were driven out of the Black community in three days of intense fighting. 339 people were reportedly injured during the uprising, 100 of them were cops.

The ruling class of Philadelphia ordered their local police to prepare for future resistance--by any means necessary. They elevated a vicious and aggressive cop, Frank Rizzo, to chief of police and then mayor, and under Rizzo's direction, two police units received special attention. In 1964, a new agency for political spying was formed within the Philadelphia police, called the Civil Disobedience Unit. A cop named George Fencl was in charge of directing political police operations for the next 20 years. A second unit, the Stake-Out Squad, was armed with sniper rifles, automatic combat weapons, and body armor.

These were the two police arms organized for political repression in Philadelphia--one for political intelligence and covert operations, the other for Gestapo raids and assassination.

Similar developments were happening in other U.S. cities. Long-standing political police units, the "red squads," were expanded--with a special new focus on the radical forces arising to support the struggle of Black people. At the same time, police departments were given millions of federal dollars to buy combat weapons for new kinds of militarized police units that were called "SWAT teams."


Huge political changes were happening. New radical organizations were springing up. Sections of the people were mobilizing for resistance, demanding major changes, and considering revolutionary politics. In Philadelphia, Fencl and his CD Unit was assigned to infiltrate these movements.

One of their tactics was simply to make contacts. In public, the CDU agents acted as the "good cops." They went out among radical political forces and literally tried to make friends--often posing as willing "listeners" to the complaints of radicals.

Frank Donner, a researcher into the U.S. political police, reports that Philadelphia's CDU specifically looked for agents with the ability to make contact: "The CDU man was to be selected for his congeniality, 'long fuse,' patience, and maturity--young enough to be able to relate to demonstrators but with sufficient experience to stay cool under pressure. Those who qualified were then to be schooled by professionals in sociology, human relations, and civil rights law."

Philadelphia Police Inspector Harry G. Fox described the purpose of these methods in a 1966 article in Police Chief magazine. Civil Disobedience Unit cops, Fox wrote, were using their personal relationship with radical activists to "develop intelligence about their connections, background, personal life and ambitions."

The CD Unit supplemented this with systematic photographing of demonstrations and political offices, and the use of early reel-to-reel tape recordings of speeches and phone conversations.

Meanwhile the CDU also sent secret infiltrators into radical organizations to gather intelligence and often hired the wives of regular police officers for this work. CDU spies were on the look out for activists who they could recruit as informants. They focused on exploiting any political rivalries and hostilities and targeted people facing heavy criminal charges--hoping to force them to provide information.

Over time, police organizations like the CD Unit developed networks of informers, not just within radical organizations, but broadly among the people in the Black community and on college campuses-- anywhere the police sensed radical political activity.

A leader of the antiwar organization Resistance remembers that CDU agents openly bragged about having "inside men." He said, "They liked to drop things to you like, 'So you're having a meeting on such and such a date,' or 'Your leaflet had a spelling error,' or 'Our informer told us such and such.' They say that all the time and they enjoy doing it--in fact, the last time we were arrested they tried to convince us that [another Resistance leader] was an FBI informer.... I have begun to believe that they like to make their presence known and to tell us they have infiltrated our group with spies because they know it freaks us out."

A once-secret FBI document entitled "New Left Notes-Philadelphia," confirms that this was exactly the intent. It encouraged police contacts with activists saying "it will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

After Mumia Abu-Jamal was railroaded to Pennsylvania's death row in 1982, the FBI and Philadelphia CD Unit were forced to release some of their files on him. The documents give a vivid picture of the kind of intense surveillance that the political police conducted using informants and wiretaps. Police records on Mumia started when he was a high school student in 1967. The spying continued over the following years--when Mumia was a prominent activist within the Philadelphia Black Panther Party and when he worked as a crusading radio journalist exposing police brutality. There were records of surveillance of his mother's house and attempts to gather evidence from his high school principal.

In an NBC television broadcast in 1970 called, "First Tuesday," CDU head George Fencl said, "We have made a record of every demonstration that we've handled in the city of Philadelphia and reduced this to writing, first by report and then taking out the names of persons connected with different movements. We have some 18,000 names and we've made what we call an alphabetical file."

Disruption and Raids

During the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation intensified and coordinated efforts at disrupting revolutionary movements--especially those emerging within the Black Liberation struggle. Over the previous decade they had developed Cointelpro (their Counter Intelligence Program) to pursue political trends the U.S. government considered disloyal. In the 1950s this was mainly aimed at political movements associated with the Soviet Union and at the emerging civil rights movement among Black people in the Deep South.

As political struggle radicalized during the 1960s, the FBI's Cointelpro was greatly expanded and focused on the new radical and revolutionary forces. The FBI established close ties with local "red squads" like Philadelphia's CD Unit. The information gathered from political spying was used to fuel an intense, highly secret campaign of covert actions, dirty tricks, raids and even government assassination--all designed to disrupt progressive and revolutionary organizations and "neutralize" promising leaders emerging among the oppressed.

Frank Donner writes, "The evidence is quite clear that as early as the summer of 1967, the CDU had access to a supply of informers, sponsored and paid for by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More important, collaboration between the FBI and the Philadelphia police in destructive counterintelligence initiatives against the Philadelphia black activists was used as a model for the bureau's aggressive intelligence program (COINTELPRO) in this sector [aimed at the Black liberation struggle], begun in August 1967 and expanded in February of the next year."

In 1967 George Fencl and the CD Unit led a police attack on a crowd of 3,500 Black high school students, beating many to the ground. They organized a police campaign against the new Revolutionary Action Movement. RAM was an early revolutionary Black nationalist organization that emerged from the civil rights struggle. It rejected the philosophy of non-violence and advocated a militant struggle against the oppression of Black people.

The FBI and the Philadelphia CDU coordinated a series of raids on RAM. RAM supporters were arrested over and over again--in a campaign of harassment intended to destroy the organization. A memorandum from the Special Agent in Charge in the Philadelphia FBI office to the FBI Director suggested using these tactics in other cities: "This division during the summer of 1967 has had the opportunity to observe an attempt by an extremist Negro group (RAM) to affect the peace of the city. Some of the steps taken against RAM may be of possible use elsewhere under the current program. It is pointed out that in a fast moving series of situations, the police may have to 'play it by ear,' which may reduce Bureau control of the action taken. Actions herein set out were carried out by either the Intelligence Unit or the Civil Disobedience Unit (CDU) of the Philadelphia PD, the large role being played by CDU.... RAM people were arrested and released on bail, but they were re-arrested several times until they could no longer make bail. The above activities appear for the present to have curtailed the activities of this [deleted] group... The above action by local police units is cited as an example of an effective counterintelligence technique. In other cities where close police cooperation exists..."

These tactics were applied and intensified against the revolutionary Black Panther Party after it exploded onto the political stage in the following years. The CD Unit conducted a series of raids against Panther offices in August 1970. Three separate teams of about 45 cops each accompanied by 8-10 detectives raided BPP offices in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia and Germantown. In the raid, personally led by George Fencl, Black Panthers were forced at gunpoint to strip naked in the streets, and this deliberate political humiliation was blasted across the Philadelphia Daily News.

In this same period, the Cointelpro of the FBI and local red squads targeted a wide range of organizations and activists. Among them was the Revolutionary Union, the Maoist organization that was the forerunner of today's Revolutionary Communist Party. In its annual report of 1971 the FBI nervously reported that the RU was operating in 10 states (including Pennsylvania) and that it "doesn't conceal its objectives to smash the existing state apparatus." FBI head J. Edgar Hoover personally wrote an article in June 1971 that noted, "The Revolutionary Union has been successful in attracting both high school and college activists."

Suppressing Protest

Under Mayor Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's power structure repeatedly tried to forbid various forms of protest and organization--by forbidding permits and arresting any public manifestation of political activity. When it was pointed out to them that it was formally illegal to simply ban political activity, they repeatedly unleashed their CD Unit to disrupt specific plans and protests.

This was exactly what they were doing in the infamous 1970 raids on the Panthers, which took place just as the Philadelphia chapter of the BPP was about to host a national "People's Revolutionary Convention" at Philadelphia's Temple University--where Panthers were hoping to develop broad new unity with various radical forces.

A year later, the Philadelphia government tried to prevent antiwar forces from protesting a visit from then-President Nixon. When they could not find a legal basis for that ban, they rounded up key organizers before the demonstrations could happen. On October 21, as Nixon was scheduled to arrive, Fencl and his CDU agents corralled a large group of antiwar protesters at a dawn anti-war vigil. They arrested 30 activists from groups like Philadelphia Resistance, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Friends Peace, chained them, and paraded them around the Roundhouse, Philadelphia police headquarters.

In 1976, revolutionary and progressive forces across the U.S. mobilized to oppose official, patriotic "Bicentennial" celebrations of the U.S. government. The newly formed Revolutionary Communist Party organized a demonstration in Philadelphia on July 4 under the slogan "We've Carried the Rich for 200 Years--Let's Get Them Off Our Backs." Philadelphia's government requested 15,000 federal troops to guarantee their control over the city--justifying it with intelligence reports from the renamed Civil Affairs Unit.

Mayor Rizzo's request for troops was turned down--apparently because the wholesale military occupation of Philadelphia would have made the "celebration of 200 years of democracy" somewhat hollow. Instead the ruling class shifted their main official celebrations to New York and left Philadelphia to tens of thousands of protesters. When Philadelphia's Mayor Rizzo met with the Deputy Attorney General Harold Tyler to make the request for troops, there was a third person in the room, a young associate deputy attorney general named Rudolph Giuliani.

During the 1970s, the CDU focused, with a special intensity, on the radical utopian MOVE organization--which emerged around 1974 and energetically opposed the intense police brutality aimed at Philadelphia's Black community. Between 1974 and 1976, there were 400 arrests of MOVE members, resulting in bail and fines of more than a half a million dollars--tactics similar to those used against RAM and the Black Panther Party.

In 1978, George Fencl made detailed plans for a massive raid on the MOVE home in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Powelton Village. On August 8, 600 heavily armed police carried out Fencl's plan. Teargas was shot into the home. A withering police barrage raked the MOVE house. A deluge of water was used to force MOVE members from the building's basement. As television cameras rolled, four cops from the Stake-out Squad viciously beat MOVE member Delbert Africa--snapping his head back and forth with their kicks. Officer James Ramp died from a single gunshot, most likely from a police rifle. In the trial that followed, nine MOVE members were sent to prison for the death of James Ramp.

In those days, Mumia was working as a radio journalist in Philadelphia. He energetically found ways of exposing these police attacks on the air--and Philadelphia's CDU kept him in their sights.


These experiences in Philadelphia from the '60s and '70s mirror the political police activities in other cities across the country. Despite all the talk of "freedom of speech and association," the U.S. power structure maintained this elaborate structure of covert police operatives and spies, and when revolutionary ideas spread among oppressed people, they ruthlessly expanded the size and scope of the repressive operations.

Part 2 will discuss the role of Philadelphia's Civil Affairs Unit in the frame-up of revolutionary activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the bombing of the MOVE organization, and the government attacks on protests at the 2000 Republican national convention.


Case Study of a Riot, The Philadelphia Story, Lenora E. Berson, Institute of Human Relations Press

Frank Rizzo, the Last Big Man in Big City America, S.A. Paolantonio,

"FBI Said to Urge Use of Boy Scouts as Informers," New York Times, May 18, 1971

Protectors of the Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, Frank Donner

The Age of Surveillance: The Aim and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System, Frank J. Donner

Philly Cops: A History of Brutality in Blue, RW #1013, July 4, 1999

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Enemy of the State, From Panther to Voice of the Voiceless, Mike Ely, RW #1076, October 29, 2000 (RW articles on FBI/CDU targeting of Mumia Abu-Jamal available online at

"Maoist Drive in U.S. Reported by FBI," New York Times, Dec. 12, 1971

"Mao's Red Shadow," J. Edgar Hoover, New York Times, August 17, 1971

Rudy! An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani, Wayne Barrett

Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret War Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill and Jim VanderWall

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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