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On May 5th a Fox29 helicopter news video crew came upon a graphic display of Philadelphia police brutality. More than 12 white Philadelphia policemen were filmed dragging three African American men from their car where they brutally kicked, punched and struck them. Like the Rodney King incident the tape has made international headlines. Nineteen policemen have been identified in the video. Three suspects remain in jail but to date not one policeman has been arrested in the beatings
A few days later, a trail began that explored the case of three Philadelphia police officers who blew the whistle on the entrenched racism in the force. They were all ostracized and banished from the department. After a decade mired in the courts the case wound its way to trial. On May 14th a jury of nine made a stunning judgment. The police officers, brothers Billy and Michael McKenna and Ray Carnation, won $10 million, the highest such judgment for retaliation of its kind.
Ironically in April 2008 the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers held their annual conference right in Philadelphia. The top agenda item of the three-day affair was racism in police departments. “While the profession of law enforcement has indeed made strong advances, the institution of policing is inherently biased against people of color, the poor and low-income,” said Charles Wilson, chairman of the association.
It’s as though no one is listening. Indeed, the $10 million racism judgment story has not received the attention it deserves except for a few outlets like CounterPunch. The tale illuminates how a culture of entrenched police racism can persist through time and seem impervious to change. It centers around a young cop named Billy McKenna, a man with high integrity who could not believe what he witnessed on the job. Maybe this historic trial judgment can help alter things. I will now share the story where in began in Philly’s Badlands, in 1997.
“Why do they keep hiring these niggers? They are as stupid as sin.” Sergeant Maroney was mad.
“I don’t appreciate that Sarge. You’re held to a higher standard than I am,” responded Billy McKenna, a white (Irish-Italian) police officer.
It was 1997. Maroney was the supervisor of the 7th squad in the 25th District, also known as “the Badlands,” a term police used to describe this high crime area of North Philly. Billy was new to the squad. There had been a recent influx of young African American and Hispanic officers to the district following a court ordered agreement to integrate the force. White officers resented this and reacted by creating a hostile work environment for them, not speaking to them, refusing to give courtesy rides, withholding lunchbreaks, assigning them to unrelieved postings in bad weather, not providing backup.
The Badlands were a place where police regularly “tuned up” black suspects (cop slang for a beating) after their arrests or gave them “Temple turbans,” illegal assaults requiring bandages around the head at nearby Temple University Hospital.
In other words, in Philly’s Badlands, African Americans – even if they were police officers – were not quite human, as judged by the local police hierarchy. Morale in the 7th unit was very low.
Billy McKenna was shocked at this behavior against blacks. He hadn’t been brought up this way. A five-year veteran of the department McKenna had just been transferred to the 7th squad. There he joined his twin brother Michael and partner, Ray Carnation. They all witnessed a culture of entrenched racism and intimidation. Instinctively, expecting resolution, they all politely told their superiors that they opposed discrimination against African American officers. This action would come at a terrible price.
Love of His Father ( And his brothers)
Billy’s father Eddie had also been a policemen, a man who rose from extreme poverty (his family of seven kids was the last on their block to own a television set) to become detective and then Sergeant, before dying young, in his 50s, from lymphoma in 1983. Billy idolized his father.
“I remember dad telling me in a stern voice saying that I had better never discriminate against anyone. I recall playing basketball in front of our home and my father observed a black male sitting on the sidelines itching to play but our teams were already picked. He stopped the game and made it a point to get the black kid to play in the game and if we couldn’t do and that, we would not be allowed to play at all.”
“My dad worked in the Police Administration Building downtown for over 20 years and he worked with Mrs. Florence Brown, a black woman and with Mrs. Kay Coleman, another black woman. They would eat lunch with him almost everyday. When my father died they told me how much they praised my father.
“When dad was buried it was 2 black men who folded the American Flag at the grave site and they came up to me with tears in their eyes saying, ‘your father was the greatest we had so much respect for him, everyone loved him.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Sergeant Eddie McKenna had a big Irish-Italian family of ten children, of whom Billy was perhaps the closest to him. They always went to Sunday mass together. Although poor, they were raised with solid values of equality and tolerance towards others. “He sat me down and told me if I ever was going to be a cop for me to study the law and try to promote yourself and take every test that was available. He never really had that opportunity because of his cancer. I was determine to join the force and take every test available but I didn’t think I was going to run into this road block of racism.”
One reason Billy wanted so hard to be a policeman (like two of his brothers, his twin Michael and Johnny) was to be accepted into the brotherhood that had nourished his father. Billy would soon discover that he was in a no win situation. In order to be part of his father’s fraternity he would have to turn against his father’s values.
“I Can Make your Life a Living Nightmare”
The same was true for his twin brother Michael. One rainy day on October 1997, while on duty, Michael approached Myrna Moore, an African American officer in the 7th squad who was standing outside in the pouring rain. Myrna told Michael that she had been told to stand at that location. Michael told her that she was supposed to be working with him in the patrol car, not on foot.
Later Sergeant Maroney yelled at Michael (not in Moore’s presence), “What’s that nigger doing in your car?”
“Sarge, I told you once before about this. Please don’t use that in front of me again,” said Michael.
Maroney told Michael that Moore was being punished. “Being punished? Since when does the police department punish people by keeping them out in a dangerous area by themselves? She could get killed like that. That’s somebody’s mom, and not just that, it’s somebody’s daughter.”
“Well if you don’t like it,” said Maroney, “ you want to see how it’s like to work with a nigger?”
Maroney told Michael to drive his squad car back to headquarters and drop it off. Then he told Michael to get into his car. He drove him back to stand next to Moore and ordered him not to move from that location.
Around this time Michael heard five or six colleagues talking about how they could get more overtime by having each officer say they were involved in a drug arrest so that each would get called into court. He reported this “piling on” scheme to Maroney. Soon after Michael saw graffiti on the bathroom wall with his name and words like “rat,” “asshole,” “snitch.” This harassment proceeded to get worse. He went up the chain of command and informed Captain Colarulo, who later, in the presence of Maroney, screamed at Michael. Ray Carnation (Billy’s Partner) had made his complaints to Colarulo as well and he stated to Carnation, ‘If you file a EEOC complaint I will make your life a living nightmare.’”
Later Michael was physically assaulted, by an associate of Maroney’s and broke his wrist, injuring it for life. He was transferred out of the unit, but the assaulting officer remained.
While still with the force, Billy filed a federal lawsuit in March 1999. He was then on leave because of stress. Previously he had received 3 sick checks in his first 5 months on medical leave. But in the 2 months following his filing, he was subject to over 30 sick checks in 2 months, almost one every other day until he was dismissed for failing sick checks. “They’d fly their patrol cars down the street, bang on the window with their nightsticks, shine their flashlights into the house,” said Billy.
The retaliation reached a thunder pitch. Defamation, mocking, isolation, surveillance, harassment at the doorstops of their homes, the arrest of one of their wives, white officers refusing to provide them backup (including once during a shooting). The trio were hounded and pushed out of the force. Their lives spiraled down into poverty. All became mired in clinical depressions. They feared for their lives, and still do.
After the firings, they fought on. Few expected the McKennas/Carnation trio to get a trial, let alone to actually win their case, so powerful is Philadelphia’s police establishment. Several lawyers left the case, saying, despite its verifiable truth, it was an impossible cause to win. Philadelphia is, after all, the culture of Frank “lock em up” Rizzo, of Mayor Wilson Goode’s MOVE bombings in which C4 explosives were dropped on a neighborhood family, killing eleven, and of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who still awaits a fair trial.
Media Blackout Except for Black Radio Station W.H.A.T.
In his darkest days, when Billy made beds and emptied trashcans for $35 a day to make ends meet, he found solace with Jeff Hart, a journalist with black radio station WHAT. where he became a regular. WHAT was the station where Mumia Abu-Jamal reported. Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons were broadcast weekly. “I was doing a series, ‘Are you a Blue Shirt or a Black Face?’ about racism in the police force,” said Hart. “We had on the U.S. Marshall who sued Clinton for race discrimination, Black Cops Against Police Brutality, in New Jersey, and others.” We had the three of them on and then Bill would come back and visit with me in the studio while I was on the air from 10-1. Often when the guest didn’t show up, I’d have Billy on again.” Jeff got to know Bill pretty well. “I’d announce him as ‘one of Philly’s finest,” and he would disagree saying, formerly one of Philly’s finest,” and then I would state flatly, “No Billy, you are one of Philly’s finest!”
Billy would sometimes drive Hart home after work.
“Billy really was shocked at the racism in the police department. It was quite clear. It was not the way that his father had taught him about the force.”
“I watched him change. I believe that one reason Billy came by so much is that it was healing for him. He could hear the complaints about being black in America and it made him more compassionate.”
“Looking at Billy’s face back then you could see he was mesmerized and traumatized by the experience. I thought that what blacks looked like after slavery. It’s called post-slavery trauma.”
Billy converted his suffering into education. He enrolled at Temple to pursue a degree and he became immersed in the movement for social justice. “We went to several marches. All the marches pertained to equality. We would chant “No Justice, No Peace.” I met so many interesting people there of all races and not just black and white. We felt like one family trying to get the same message across that no one was going to tolerate racism in their country. I also joined a group here in Philadelphia and we met on a weekly basis and that group was called The Institute for the Healing of Racism.”
Struggling a Decade for a Trial
A decade of legal rejections, appeals and other legal entanglements followed. After District Court judge Mary McLaughlin ruled against them in 2003, the trio appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 2006 the three judge panel reversed McLaughlin’s decision and concluded, “We find that a jury might well believe that their supervisors made their lives the ‘living nightmare’ one supervisor promised as payment for opposing unlawful discrimination.” Finally, a trial date was set for early May 2008. When the trio discovered that McLaughlin would be their judge again, they wrote her a letter requesting that she recuse herself. She refused. Billy did not expect a fair trial.
Then, in the remarkable contingency mentioned above, a Fox29 helicopter news video crew filmed a stunning instance of police brutality on May 5th. The story captured the world’s attention.
This may have been on the minds of the jurors when, last Wednesday, May 14, –– after hearing the McKenna/Carnation testimony, a jury of nine individuals (only two blacks made it to the jury), delivered their verdict. They won! The jury deliberated just 3 hours after an 8-day trial and awarded them $10 million. Brothers Michael and William McKenna were awarded $5 million and $3 million respectively. Billy’s partner Raymond Carnation will get $2 million. Brian Puricelli, Billy’s attorney, said that it’s the largest amount any officer has won in a retaliation lawsuit.
“Yes, it is wonderful,” said Billy, “but I’m worn out. . .I still can’t feel it. We’re so used to being down.”
“For 10 years it destroyed my life, and it ruined my life.” That’s what Michael McKenna told the media last Thursday. Michael has since moved to Florida where he hopes for a new life with his family.
And it’s still not over. The jury wasn’t told that the awards would be capped at $300,000 per officer. That is being contested now. Future lawsuits are in process.
But the news has heartened many. Jeff hart told me “I was literally jumping up And down when I heard the news.”
This has been a very eventful year for Billy McKenna. On February 7, 2008 he became the first in his family of ten siblings to graduate from college. He got his B.A. from Temple University. The major was Criminal Justice. “It was a huge accomplishment. It took forever. It’s bigger than this win!”
“But I can’t get a job in it,” he said, “no one wants to hire a cop who blew the whistle.”
The three former police officers want to use the tax-free money to help others like them.
“We’re looking to actually build a foundation to help officers who break the blue wall of silence,” said Billy.
Over the years many people have nodded their heads after hearing Billy’s story and said, “yup, that sounds just like Serpico.” Serpico is well known as the subject of the 1973 movie with Al Pacino. Billy has yet to see the film. But there are many similarities. Serpico, like the McKennas and Carnation exhibited moral courage in confronting a corrupt police establishment. They suffered tremendous scorn and mistreatment just for attempting to do their job with integrity. They still suffer.
The Criminals are Still in Charge
Meanwhile all ten defendants in the suit have prospered in the Philadelphia police force. Many have been promoted. The new Mayor, Michael Nutter, an African American, has taken no action against them as a result of the trial. In fact, he has said nothing publicly about the McKenna/Carnation victory. Instead Philadelphia’s solicitor told the media that the city is disappointed and will investigate legal opportunities to challenge the verdict. By its inaction Philadelphia continues to protect racist officers, fostering a climate of intimidation that no doubt contributed to the May 5th 2008 beatings.
Maybe, like Serpico, whose work inspired the Knapp Commission on Police Corruption, the McKenna/Carnation case will inspire a similar movement for change in Philadelphia.
In any case, Eddie McKenna, watching from afar, is no doubt very proud of his two sons.
BRIAN McKENNA is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. A Philadelphia native, he lives and teaches in Michigan. Brian is Billy’s cousin. He can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com