Forty years later, the fallout remains from a notorious case.
Prior to Fraser’s arrival as a student at Temple in 1967, the SDS had struggled to gain a foothold in Philly, but it’s a testament to his charismatic leadership, tenacious organizing and persuasive public speaking that the ranks of the Philly SDS swelled from a few handfuls to hundreds during his tenure.
Among these new converts was Richard Borghmann, who prior to meeting Fraser had little to show for his two semesters at Swarthmore spent majoring in dope-smoking and birddogging. Fraser opened Borghmann’s eyes to the gross inequities and social injustices of the American system, and to the power of committed activists to bring about substantive change.
Another key Philly SDS member was Jane “Muffin” Friedman, a 19-year-old sophomore at Penn who manned the SDS mimeograph machine, cranking out the leaflets the group used to get their message out and lure new recruits to the cause of change.
In February of 1969, the Philly SDS spearheaded a sit-in at Penn, where hundreds of students took over College Hall for six days to protest the construction of the universities Science Center, in which it was rumored biological- and chemical-weapon research was to be conducted. Although nobody realized it at the time, the Penn sit-in would prove to be the high point of SDS activism in Philadelphia and the beginning of the end.
The Philly SDS developed an offshoot which attempted to engage high-school students in the city’s poorest precincts. “We were forming a movement called the Alliance for Jobs, Housing and Education, which was addressing deprivation that many parts of the city suffered, not only with job opportunities and housing, but with the lousy education that the students were getting,” says Fraser. “We would picket and hand out leaflets outside the high schools, and that’s how we forged an alliance with a number of smart, young, committed black students, and some of them were self-styled Black Panthers.”
Such an alliance was anathema to Rizzo, and in March of 1969 he floated a story in the local media that the SDS was planning to blow up schools and was distributing leaflets explaining how to make Molotov cocktails in the ghettos of North and West Philly.
Fraser went on TV and radio and denied any plan to blow up schools or disseminate bomb-making leaflets. Still, the word was out: the SDS was dangerous. “This was clearly designed, in hindsight, to provide a pretext to the arrests that followed,” says Fraser.
In late March of 1969, emboldened by their success at Penn, the Philly SDS members attempted a similar sit-in at Temple, in part to bring media attention to the deplorable quality of life in the ghetto that surrounded the university. Roughly 50 protesters took over the administration building at Temple, assuming that, as with the Penn sit-in, word would spread and reinforcements would come. But they never did. “The sit-in failed to attract wide attention and wasn’t heavily supported on the campus,” says Fraser. “The consequence was that it showed us to be vulnerable. And it’s right after that, just days after, that the police did their things with us.”
The leader of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Civil Disobedience Unit was Lt. George Fencl, a thick-necked man with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair. Fencl was a regular fixture at protests and demonstrations in the ’60s and ’70s. It was his job to monitor, identify, photograph and track dissident groups and their sympathizers. Fencl, dressed in his trademark black overcoat with a white armband emblazoned with the word POLICE, and his CDU boys would show up at demonstrations and photograph everyone in the crowd, taking down names and license-plate numbers of those participating. Sometimes Fencl’s men would brandish cameras that had no film, snapping away nonexistent pictures to intimidate and disperse protesters.
On a 1970 episode of NBC news program First Tuesday , Fencl bragged that the police had a list of over 18,000 names. He also enlisted an army of informers, some of which were criminals cooperating in exchange for charges being dropped and others the wives of police officers encouraged to join activist groups and report back to the CDU in exchange for “pin money.” By 1969, the Philly SDS was well-acquainted with Fencl and vice versa.
There were three people in the West Philly apartment Fraser and Borghmann shared on the night of April 9, 1969: Fraser, Friedman and Fraser’s friend Paul Milkman, an SDS member from New York who worked as a librarian at Columbia University. Milkman was sweet on Friedman and had come to Philadelphia with hopes of romance.
As Milkman recalls, all three were about to leave for the movies when Lt. Fencl and his boys—10 cops all told—showed up around 8 p.m. “The first thing that struck me as odd was that they were all wearing these big heavy overcoats and it was unseasonably warm that day, I remember going in and out of the apartment in shirtsleeves,” recalls Milkman. Fencl instructed Milkman and Friedman to remain seated in the living room and assigned two officers to watch them. Fraser was allowed to follow the rest of the cops as they searched the five-room, two-floor apartment. Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang; Fencl stopped Fraser from answering sending one of his officers instead. It was a camera crew from KYW, which had somehow gotten word of the raid, and they were invited in despite Fraser’s protests.