Meet the little-known black power group behind a well-known institution.
by Tom Dreisbach
Aug 12, 2009
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
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
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
Says high-profile Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard, who represents
Olugbala: "This is exactly what Diop and his organization want."