The Dirty Work of Philly's Political Police

Part 2: Spying on a New Generation

Revolutionary Worker #1091, February 18, 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 only to control the streets, but to infiltrate and 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.

This Civil Affairs Unit, once known as the Civil Disobedience 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.

Part 1 of this series discussed how the Philadelphia Civil Affairs Unit worked closely with the FBI during the 1960s and '70s to spy on, infiltrate, and suppress the movement for Black Liberation--including years of spying on Mumia Abu-Jamal and the leading role of the CAU in the 1978 military assault on the MOVE house in Philadelphia's Powelton Village.


It was December 9, 1981. Mumia Abu-Jamal, Black activist and crusading radio journalist, lay near death on a Philadelphia street, with a police bullet in his body. Within hours, he would be charged with "murder" -- in the death of a policeman.

But at that predawn scene, as police decisions were being made, the city's homicide police were not alone on the scene. Among the first to arrive were Chief Inspector George Fencl and other members of his political police squad, called the Civil Affairs Unit. Fencl and his CAU had targeted Black revolutionaries and radicals for over 15 years. They had pursued Mumia himself most of those years, since his teenage years as a high school activist and founding member of Philadelphia's Black Panther Party. They had gathered thick files on him, his activities and contacts--filling hundreds of pages--using informants and wiretaps.

Why, as the authorities were deciding how to charge Mumia and how to build their case, were George Fencl and his political police there?

On December 9, 1981, the CAU quickly confirmed that the man lying near death on the sidewalk was the same revolutionary they had targeted for years. The prosecution that was started that night, which then railroaded Mumia onto death row, was the culmination of years of work by this political police unit.

Collaboration under a New Name

"The NYPD, of course still maintains its intelligence division and they, of course, are looking, I am sure, at different groups that have impacted on the city that may not be terrorist-related, different violent groups that have caused problems for the police in the past. They would handle the bulk of whatever work the task force would not handle."

Kevin Hallinan, commander
of the JTTF/NYPD, 1986

The spying of political police was never just to "gather intelligence." It was always done as preparation for suppressing radical forces -- raiding them, framing them, and disrupting them using a range of means, both legal and extralegal.

In the 1960s, the FBI had trained and unleashed local political police units against the radical movements of those times -- using the COINTELPRO operations. In the 1980s, this collaboration continued under the name of the "Joint Terrorist Task Force."

JTTF was started in New York in 1980 as a teaming up of the FBI and NYPD (with the FBI in command). This new formation allowed the FBI to incorporate local police agencies directly into its operations, deputizing them as Special Deputy U.S. Marshals. The JTTF model was quickly applied throughout the country, including Philadelphia. In the '60s police spying had been justified by charging that various radical and revolutionary groups were "violence prone." In the 1980s, the new justification for widespread spying was "terrorism."

This heightened level of inter-agency coordination between federal and local police agencies created the architecture for an even more "nationalized" political police--a process that continues today. Local police agencies were drawn into even closer concert with federal police in carrying out their dirty work.

In Philadelphia, this would have devastating consequences, especially for the MOVE organization.

Civil Affairs on Osage Avenue

"For two years prior to May 13, 1985 the Philadelphia Police Department's (PPD) Civil Affairs Unit and Major Investigation Division, the department's major intelligence-gathering unit, had the MOVE house on 6221 Osage Avenue under constant surveillance."

Margot Harry in her book,
"Attention, MOVE! This is America!"

"See Fencl always coming around MOVE headquarters smiling, doing that same bullshit he done trained little goddamn little Fencls to do. See, we know how you motherfucking Civil Affairs cops roll. Fencl done told y'all how to handle people, and y'all think that bullshit work."

From CAU surveillance tape, where a MOVE
member is heard calling out CAU's tactics

On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police launched an assault of unprecedented violence against the Osage Avenue house of the radical MOVE organization. At the end, a state police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE house, MOVE family members were burned alive inside, and others were gunned down as they tried to escape. Fire equipment was withheld, so that the fire eventually burned down the whole neighborhood, leaving hundreds homeless. This would come to be known as the MOVE massacre.

The attack on MOVE in 1985 was the result of the work of an array of law enforcement agencies. The Civil Affairs Unit was the intelligence component, the "eyes and ears" of an operation that included the FBI, the Pennsylvania state police, and the Philadelphia police.

The CAU had spied on MOVE for years. In the 1996 civil trial brought by Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the MOVE massacre, CAU cop George Draper testified how this had intensified before the 1985 assault. The CAU had recorded public speeches MOVE members made outside their house -- right up until the police assault that would kill them.

While his Civil Affairs cops conducted surveillance, the Civil Affairs Unit commander, James Shanhan, worked on the negotiations. (His predecessor, the long-time commander of the spy unit George Fencl, died early that year.) Shanhan was on the scene as a "negotiator" when the police decided to ignore a last-minute proposal for talks from MOVE. Shanahan claimed he didn't know MOVE had suggested negotiations, but the Civil Affairs Unit's own tapes recorded the suggestion.

In the aftermath, 11 men, women and children were murdered by fire and gunfire.

The Civil Affairs Unit, however, was not done. Since 1988 Civil Affairs has posted its operatives inside the new house built on the site of MOVE's Osage Avenue home. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Their sole mission is to prevent any remaining MOVE members from retaking the house."

Tried and True Methods

"He wisely makes it a habit to talk regularly, not just with other police officials, but with protest groups' leaders. He's even trying to warm up to local anarchists."

Philadelphia Inquirer on current
CAU head William Fisher

It has always been a major method of Philadelphia's CAU to act friendly to the very people they were targeting for attack--shaking hands and attempting small talk while they trawl for information, look for vulnerabilities, conduct surveillance and work to infiltrate. These techniques, which MOVE knew so well, are still very much in use.

This method is widely used by similar political police units. For example, in advance of the Bush inauguration the commander of the D.C. police Special Operations Division tried to gather information by sitting down to dinner with one group of protest organizers.

In Philadelphia, the Civil Affairs Unit has been the first unit sent out against political activists who take to the streets. The CAU/CDU has been on the scene during demonstrations by the RCP, ACTUP, death penalty opponents, people opposing U.S. domination of Puerto Rico, housing activists and most prominently actions in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Civil Affairs has been in full effect during protests in front of the house of Judge Sabo--whose kangaroo court condemned Mumia to death. They were there when Mumia supporters demonstrated at the Liberty Bell--leading to the current imprisonment of leading activist C. Clark Kissinger.

CAU head Fisher recently told Philadelphia's City Journal that his forces were preparing for the possibility of Mumia appearing publicly in court: "It's obviously going to happen in the near future. It's going to impact on a lot of things, on the emotions of the city."

Civil Affairs is on the front lines of every major political struggle and movement, and it is their job to gather intelligence and undermine the people's struggle.


When the Republican Party chose Philadelphia for its 2000 National Convention, the city's political police unit went into high gear. CAU started planning its spying and suppression operations well in advance, coordinating its work with the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware state police, the Pennsylvania National Guard, Secret Service and the FBI. Once again, it was to be the "eyes and ears" of a much larger police operation. And once again, it was supposed to infiltrate and spy --in preparation for possible suppression of radical forces.

As the Republican Convention and the protests arrived in Philadelphia, there was massive police spying, infiltration, harassment, and disruption.

The CAU gave its members some special advanced training. In December 1999, "police representatives" were sent from Philadelphia to study the anti-globalization protests (and the brutal police attacks) in Seattle. In April 2000, CAU head Fisher went himself to observe the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Washington, DC. Fisher went with a crew of his agents to spy on May Day activities in New York City. Though it is illegal, under a "consent decree," they photographed crowds of immigrant marchers in Union Square who were demanding amnesty for undocumented workers.

In Philadelphia itself, various authorities called in CAU forces when they came into contact with the activists in the city. On July 4, a group of young activists were watching fireworks from a parking garage in West Philly when they were arrested by University of Philadelphia police. They were turned over to the CAU red squad, held for 24 hours and interrogated--including especially about plans for the Republican National Convention.

Other activists publicly denounced the Philadelphia police for spying on them before the RNC. The police denied they were doing this--until a local paper traced the licenses of the surveillance cars back to the PPD.

One incident is especially revealing of ways the political police circumvent legal restrictions on spying.

On August 1, Philadelphia police tried to disorganize the RNC protests by raiding a warehouse where large street puppets were being assembled for the coming protests against the Executioner's Ball. They first sent in police spies, disguised as construction workers--to study the activities in the building and prepare their raid.

To develop a legal justification for their attack, the authorities filed an affidavit giving extremely biased, police-style "backgrounds" on many of the political forces organizing the protests--including Refuse and Resist!, ACTUP, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others. Much of this background information was supplied by John Rees and his Maldon Institute. Rees is a long-time operative of the political police--who specializes in conducting privately the kinds of spying and political record-keeping that the police themselves are not allowed to do. In the early 1980s it was revealed that Rees, who was then with an organization called Western Goals, had received massive spy records of the Los Angeles red squad, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID). The PDID was notorious for sweeping political operations--including widespread targeting of the Revolutionary Communist Party and involvement in the 1980 murder of RCP member Damián García.

On paper, the political police of the U.S. are sometimes forbidden to conduct certain kinds of operations. This raid on peaceful protesters was itself illegal. And its justifications were manufactured using a private spy network--that gathers information "outside" official police offices.

There were many kinds of other political police activity and suppression during the RNC 2000. Plainclothes police were spotted at virtually every street action, mingling with the protesters. Some of them wore official police armbands, some did not. Philadelphia's top cop John Timoney admitted these were agents of the Civil Affairs Unit and claimed (as usual) 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.

Hundreds of people were arrested in Philadelphia. But alongside the street-sweeps was a more targeted operation against people the police considered to be important organizers of the protests. Such people were identified, followed, arrested, and often held on ridiculous charges-- to disrupt their work and the protests.

One of the speakers at the August 1 rallies, RW correspondent C. Clark Kissinger, has recently been sentenced to three months in jail for participating in these events. A covert police recording of his speech was key "evidence" against him.


"You step out of line, you threaten them in the least and you'll see what the reality of so-called freedom and democracy in this country is--you don't even have to be organizing politically against them. Anybody that challenges, questions, doesn't go along with the program and especially if you're among the basic masses of people on whose back this system lives-- the full force of this dictatorship will come down on you."

Bob Avakian, RCP Chairman

The CAU is a political police in every sense of the term. They have targeted the political opposition to this system, and their goal is political too: to suppress that opposition.

Over decades, the CAU persecuted radical organizers, revolutionaries, militant high school students, Black nationalists, anti-war protesters, and anyone else the system considered a potential challenge. They spied, they infiltrated, they gathered files, they taped. They worked to flatter and deceive people who they thought might be weak, corrupt, desperate or naïve enough to give information. They planned and then carried out murderous raids, where their "intelligence" was used to guide squads of killer cops armed with explosives and machine guns.

The authorities in the U.S., of course, deny they even have political police. They deny that they persecute or target political opposition forces. They deny their prisons hold any political prisoners. They say that a few excesses may have been carried out in the past, in the days of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO--but that these days are over, and that nothing similar is possible today.

This story of Philadelphia's Civil Affairs Unit reveals a different story-- one that is repeated by similar units across the U.S. The red squads and their agents sometimes operate shamelessly in the open, but more often they hide their faces and operations in the shadows of this society, where oppressors live in constant fear of the consciousness and organization of those they rule.


"Mumia Abu-Jamal, Enemy of the State," Mike Ely, RW #1076, 10/29/00

"Attention MOVE! This is America!", Margot Harry

"Handwriting Expert Says Africa Wrote the Note," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4, 1996

"MOVE Made Last Offer to Bargain With Police," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 1996

Burning Down the House, John Anderson and Hilary Hevenor

Oversight Hearings, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, First and Second Sessions on Terrorism, August 26, 1985, February 28, May 14 and 15, 1986

"MOVE Disaster Still Grips City's Conscience," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 1995

"Mumia Protest Blocks Liberty Bell," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 4, 1999

"Vieques Traffic Ties Up Traffic on Broad Street," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 6, 2000

"Police Were Spies at NY May Day Rally," Philadelphia Daily News, July 13, 2000

"Do You Look Weird?" Philadelphia City Paper, July 20-27, 2000

"Talking Cure," Philadelphia City Paper, August 3-10, 2000

"Protests to Go On," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 2000

"At the Ready After Seattle Protests," Philadelphia Inquirer, December 12, 1999

"Waiting for Mumia," Philadelphia City Paper, October 26, Nov. 2, 2000

"Police Rely on Wacky Intelligence Source," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 29, 2000

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