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Street Fight

The plan was to compare crowds - those outside the Park Hyatt where President Bush was delivering a progress report on the Iraq war, and those at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where hawkish Democratic Congressman John Murtha was handing out a grade of F.

I got as far as the Italian Bistro on Broad Street. I was tucked in a corner, wondering who these scores of protesters were - socialists? labor? students? Quakers? - when chilling words shot through through the crowd: "waving his gun" and "got out his billy club" and "he just had a bottle of iced tea."

A small woman in a long coat and purple headscraf stood alone on the sidewalk, trembling. Tears filled her eyes. Aisha K. El Mekki said she had come in from West Philadelphia to protest the war with her two grown sons and two grandsons. Now the older men were missing, taken away by police. And the grandchildren were shaken. The crowd was still buzzing, like overhead wires after a trolley.

She had been walking ahead of her 15-year-old grandson, along the east side of Broad Street, about 12:30 p.m. Monday when people - maybe three of them - closed in on the boy. He was carrying a glass jar filled with hot lemonade. It was cold outside, in the high 30s. Apparently, police were worried about what he had in his hand.

The boy's father, Sharif El Mekki, 34, asked what was happening, she said. Two witnesses - a tennis coach from Cherry Hill named Jay Lassiter, 33, and an accountant from Upper Darby named Betsey Piette, 56 - backed the mother's story that a man in plain clothes grabbed him and then a policewoman in uniform approached and started swinging her club.

The plainclothesman had El Mekki in some sort of hold," the mother said. "I tried to pull him away. I said, 'Don't hit him. He didn't do anything." His 32-year old brother, Mikyeil, tried to help.

An hour later, she called the paper: Sharif was in the lock-up at the 9th Police District. His brother had been taken to the hospital. She was hysterical.

A Civil Affairs captain told Inquirer reporter Bob Moran he'd check into the disturbance. He said he saw two men being loaded into the police wagon. "Neither appeared traumatized," he said.

Later, Inspector Bill Colarulo said that the man taken to the hospital was treated for "a prior injury." He faces no charges. But his brother will be charged with aggravated assault on a police officer.

I never did get to see Murtha's crowd. And I have no idea which version of events is the closer one - just a lingering image, of a 5 year-old boy looking stoic on the sidewalk as he held tight to a glass of Blackwell apple jam, filled with now-cold lemonade.

UPDATE: Friday, Dec. 12, a judge dismissed aggravated assault charges against Sharif El Mekki for lack of evidence. Bob Moran reports:

El-Mekki, of West Philadelphia, is principal of Anna H. Shaw Middle School at 54th Street and Warrington Avenue. He had been temporarily reassigned to the district's central office pending the outcome of the court case, said Paul Vallas, school district chief executive. El-Mekki decided to take some personal days off instead.

Vallas called El-Mekki a "terrific principal" and said his job is not in jeopardy. Vallas expressed sympathy for El-Mekki's actions on Monday.

"I don't know how I would have reacted if my kid were pushed or knocked down," Vallas said.

Posted 12/12/2005 08:22:29 PM
Dan, I picked the wrong side for the action. I thought there was a lot of movement and shouting over there. Was that a result of the arrests? I made my way through that crowd at about noon and heard a couple of guys say, "Let's get out of here. I don't have my diploma in riots." I thought that was a funny statement. It didn't seem that tense out there (although it was loud).

I stood across Broad, basically in Walnut Street. The only exciting thing was when the presidential limo sped off it darn near went over the curb on the other side (they had to swerve from the left lane across the median to the right at Walnut). I caught a fuzzy pic of the Prez waving to the crowd. I'm not sure Leave No Child Left Behind worked for him. They weren't waving back. Or more correctly, many we're giving him the one finger salute.

Bad deal about El Mekki. It did seem like the police were on high alert. They really yelped a couple times when I crossed the street to snap a few shots. I know the Secret Service is firm, but my experience with those guys has been pretty good. Cold Philly cops out there seemed more skittish. And that can cascade into an El Mekki moment when a guy just came to be a little vocal. Bummer.
jay lassiter
Posted 12/12/2005 09:18:22 PM
this event was as horrifying to watch as anything i have ever seen at an event like this. i recoil in horror as i imagine what it must feel like to be subjected to that kind of brutality with  your mother and children helplessly watching in tow.
 i am sorry, dan, that you missed your regular beat at the ritz w/ the murtha gang, but i am grateful that someone from the media was there to report on this story. i am only sorry that cameras weren;t rolling as well
as much as the police should be ashamed of themselves, there seems to be something more insidious (a culture of fear) underpinning these types of incidents.
p.s. i also wonder if this would have happened if those involved were white. i muse about that a bit on my own blog.
Posted 12/13/2005 09:00:48 AM
As a close friend of the El-Mekki family, i am angered to see that the police would treat such a honorable family this way. What kind of people pick on a 15 year old with such hostility, then treat his father and uncle with such brutality. The philadelphia police should be ashamed of themselves. 
Posted 12/15/2005 01:55:32 AM
In The Name of The Most Exalted
 your article is very touching; i have read it three times already. it is heart-wrenching to imagine the images you describe of a mother frantic after witnessing such brutality, of two children being subjected to watch such disgusting, unprovoked violence, of a son/nephew in shock,holding a drink that was supposedly looked so dangerous it warranted a group assault on 2 black males, but not too dangerous to be returned for him to mother and nephews were terrorized and brutalized that day...other images are recorded from mother and nephews were terrorized and brutalized that day...and to think i thought i had seen it all with my own eyes...their pain and suffering didn't end with the beating either. below is a poem inspired by the incident:

In The Name of The Most Beneficient

                   The Choice
 to speak out or shut up, to stand down or get up, to hold lemonade* (ha!) or hic-cup, my heroes have proved
They may grab minors and give out shiners, use undercovers to terrorize mothers, beat bros outside of bistros

Copyright 2005 Mikyeil El-Mekki

Posted by: Mikyeil at Dec 15, 2005 5:49:58 AM