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Guest Commentary: “Help me! Mom, help me!”

Almost 50 years ago, Philadelphia had its own Tyre Nichols moment. But as a legendary Inky reporter and editor recalls, it didn’t end quite the same way

Guest Commentary: “Help me! Mom, help me!”

Almost 50 years ago, Philadelphia had its own Tyre Nichols moment. But as a legendary Inky reporter and editor recalls, it didn’t end quite the same way

“Tyre Nichols Cried in Anguish,” read the headline in The New York Times. “Soon Mr. Nichols was on the ground — not far from the home he shared with is mother and stepfather — crying out in anguish: ‘Mom, Mom, Mom.’”

Reading those words and the horrific description of what transpired last month on the streets of Memphis, where a police squad known as The Scorpion Unit, pummeled Nichols into unconsciousness, transported me back to The Inquirer’s City Hall bureau, where I received an unexpected early morning phone call late in April, 1977.

At the time, my reporting partner, Jonathan Neumann, and I had just completed a four-part series on criminal violence by Philadelphia police, which was running that week on the front page of The Inquirer. The caller that morning was Roberta Hacker, a woman who said she had witnessed Philadelphia police beating a man into submission after dragging him out of his car at the corner of 5th and Spruce streets in Society Hill. Hacker said she thought the man was dead, lying immobile on the street amid shards of glass from his car window, shards of nightsticks shattered on his body, and blood.

“Tell me what I’ve done,” Cradle was shrieking. “Help me! Mom, help me! Somebody, help me! Somebody, tell me what I’ve done!”

That incident, which led to a front-page story in The Inquirer two weeks later and a federal civil rights case against three Philadelphia police officers, was captured in an Inquirer headline that read: “Police beating is witnessed. The battered man cried, ‘Help me! Mom, help me! Somebody, help me!”

What Hacker told me that morning — and later testified to in U. S. District Court — was a story of a frightened African-American motorist and his violent encounter with police officers, who stopped him for running a stop sign. The motorist was a 23-year-old man named William Cradle, and he was en route to pick up his wife Carol at her job near Washington Square.

“Take your Black ass back to the car”

Here is what transpired that night, according to the testimony of Hacker, eight other civilian eyewitnesses, police testimony and The Inquirer’s reconstruction of the case:

Shortly after midnight, Cradle left his Queen Village apartment and drove north on 3rd Street.

Cradle apparently ran a stop sign at 3rd and Fitzwater streets, and a police car began following him. At 3rd and Pine, police signaled Cradle to pull over and requested his driver’s license and registration. Meanwhile, a second police car pulled up behind the first car. Cradle complied and sat waiting in his car. Worried about his wife who was expecting him at 12:20 a.m., Cradle walked back to the police car to ask if he could do anything to speed up their review.

“Take your Black ass back to the car,” Cradle quoted one officer as saying.

Frightened about his own safety and anxious about his wife, Cradle pulled away from the police cars, stopping at a red light at 3rd and Spruce streets and then turned left on Spruce Street heading west toward his wife’s insurance company. At this point, Roberta Hacker and two passengers — Victoria Brownworth, a Temple student, and Charlotte Daley, a shop supervisor at the Philadelphia College of Art — who were driving home from a late night food shopping trip, were directly behind the police cars and Cradle.

At the corner of 5th and Spruce, Hacker said, Cradle stopped at a red light, and the two police cars turned on their lights and sirens, effectively blocking Cradle’s car and all the traffic on Spruce, which was a one-way street going westbound. Hacker, Brownworth, and Daley thus became a captive audience to what happened next.

One officer wielding a nightstick smashed open the front window on the passenger’s side of Cradle’s car and dragged him onto the street where several other officers had already joined the fray. Cradle was pinned against his car by three policemen, while two others battered him with their nightsticks, according to the three women and other witnesses. Cradle’s screaming and the thuds of nightsticks hitting his body awakened residents on the historic block of Spruce Street.

“Tell me what I’ve done,” Cradle was shrieking. “Help me! Mom, help me! Somebody, help me! Somebody, tell me what I’ve done!”

A contrast to Memphis in 2023

Unlike Tyre Nichols, Cradle survived his encounter with Philadelphia police; he was treated at Metropolitan Hospital for injuries to his left eye, legs and broken ribs. Three of the officers who originally stopped Cradle were indicted by a federal grand jury and went on trial in November, 1977.

A. Charles Peruto, one of Philadelphia’s most skillful defense lawyers, then at the peak of his persuasive powers, represented all three. In his closing argument, he asserted that Cradle was a man who was prejudiced against White people; that the civilian eyewitnesses’ view of the encounter was distorted by the swirling red and blue police lights reflected off the wet gingko trees lining Spruce Street; and that Cradle’s screams were all an act, designed to help him win monetary damages in a civil trial. He referred to Cradle as “the wild man of Borneo going north on 3rd Street.”

All three officers were acquitted. Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, the one-time police commissioner, was jubilant. When he’d been asked about the case earlier, Rizzo had declared that “it’s very easy to break some of those nightsticks.”

“Nothing will ever equal the horror of that night for me. I saw one man brutalized by seven men. I saw him dragged, bleeding and thrown into a van unconscious. I saw that, and that is the truth,” said witness Victoria Brownworth.

Thomas McCarey, then president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, declared that there was “no police brutality in Philadelphia.” David W. Marston, the U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, promised to continue pursuing investigations of criminal violence by Philadelphia police and said that federal prosecutors would “win our share of them.” Indeed, just four months later, in March, 1978, six Philadelphia homicide detectives were convicted in U.S. District Court of conspiring to violate the civil rights of witnesses and suspects in a 1975 firebombing case.

Contrast the Cradle case with what has happened in Memphis in recent weeks: Six Memphis police officers, including all five members of the Scorpion Unit, have been indicted and charged with second degree murder. The Scorpion Unit has been disbanded, and two emergency medical technicians, who failed to administer prompt attention to Nichols after the beating, had their licenses suspended. The Memphis police chief, Cerelyn David, said the incident was “heinous, reckless and inhumane,” and the videos from police officers’ body cameras and overhead surveillance cameras were released to the public.

Almost 46 years have passed since the Cradle case was emblazoned on the front page of The Inquirer: Imagine how different a trial would have been today if the citizens of Spruce Street and motorists like Roberta Hacker and her friends were equipped with iPhones to record what they witnessed. Or if the police on the scene had been required to wear body cameras. Or if there had been surveillance cameras overhead on Spruce Street to record precisely what transpired that night. Of course, those technologies were not available in 1977.

But then, as Cradle’s attorney Michael A. Shechtman recalled this weekend, “It was a different climate in those days. It was a Rizzo-oriented Police Department, and cops could do no wrong.” As a fledgling attorney at the time, Shechtman said he could focus only on “the miscarriage of justice.”

For me, then an idealistic 29-year-old Inquirer reporter, I learned that the court of law is not the ultimate arbiter of what happened on the street.

For the civilian eyewitnesses, the verdict in the Cradle case was a lifelong lesson about the criminal justice system: They learned that an acquittal in court doesn’t mean that the alleged crime didn’t occur, but rather that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

After the verdict, Victoria Brownworth, the Temple student, was so distraught that she wrote an op-ed piece for The Inquirer, which concluded this way: “Nothing will ever equal the horror of that night for me. I saw one man brutalized by seven men. I saw him dragged, bleeding and thrown into a van unconscious. I saw that, and that is the truth.”


Bill Marimow, a native Philadelphian, was editor-in-chief of The Inquirer and The Baltimore Sun and vice president of news at National Public Radio. As a reporter at The Inquirer, he twice received the Pulitzer Prize. The stories that he and Jonathan Neumann wrote about police violence in 1977 received the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1978.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.

MORE ON VIOLENCE IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

 

A Philadelphia police beating in 1977 unfolded far differently than what we are seeing in Memphis. Black Lives Matter protest photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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