Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia police killed an Iroquois ironworker, shot his co-workers and got away with it, but four ironworkers were charged and convicted of assaulting the police. Happily, the story didn’t end there.
This Philadelphia story begins with Iroquois ironworkers from New York and Canada who were building a bridge in a seedy part of town, just as their fathers and grandfathers had worked high steel throughout the Northeast. They were bunking dorm-style, one floor above street level on the back side of a low-rent hotel called the Colonial.
On the evening of March 2, 1972, some 25 ironworkers were on their balcony, an open metalwork ledge and railing that ran the length of the hotel. They and residents on the other five balconies above them were watching a cops ‘n’ robbers chase scene being filmed in the alley below for a B-movie, ”Folks in Blue,” a Bagman Production.
After the director said ”cut,” someone threw a mattress off a top-floor balcony. It landed on the pavement, narrowly missing actors who had been there seconds earlier. Police officers yelled at the ironworkers on the first balcony about the mattress. Pointing above them, the ironworkers yelled back that they didn’t throw anything. The yelling match escalated to name-calling, policemen ran up to the balcony and a fight ensued. When it was over, two ironworkers were in the hospital, more were in jail and one was in the morgue.
Onondaga Chief Billy Lazore saw the whole thing. Police detained all the Indian ironworkers, releasing most without pressing charges. As soon as Lazore was free, he called our house in New York City, saying, ”The cops are lying and we’re telling the truth, but our guys are in big-time trouble.”
A longtime ironworker, Lazore was the only chief on the scene and he started organizing: ”We need the best lawyer you can find to meet us at the longhouse in two days.” My husband, Frank Ray Harjo, Wotko Muscogee, once lived in the trailer behind Lazore’s Onondaga house, six miles from Syracuse. We took part in certain ceremonies at the longhouse and never doubted Lazore’s word.
The best lawyer we knew was William Kunstler, the noted constitutional and civil rights attorney. As luck would have it, he was a celebrity reader for a program I was producing at WBAI-FM on Vietnam veterans’ anti-war poetry.
Kunstler readily said yes to what would be his first Indian case. Not only was he willing to join the legal team for free, he agreed to pay his own way to meet with the Onondaga chiefs and clan mothers to audition for the pro bono job. When he returned, he told us: ”I answered questions I’ve based a career on not answering – one chief asked if I were a Communist and I said no.”
The ironworkers’ case needed every bit of star power it could get. The police swore they were attacked first, saying they feared the ironworkers would kill them. The ironworkers swore the police started slugging and shooting, saying they were forced to defend themselves.
”A mattress came flying off the balcony,” stated the police report. ”Officers entered the balcony area to clear it for the safety of those below.” Patrolman Albert Montanaro, 42, said Leroy Shenandoah tried to throw him off the balcony and he ”fired six shots in order to protect myself.” Montanaro and Sgt. Thomas Rambo, 31, shot two other men and took all the Indians to jail. Authorities later announced the arrest of four men: Marvin Crouse, 24; Maynard Gabriel, 34; and Raymond Moses, 21, all Onondaga; and John Benedict, 25, Mohawk from Cornwall Island, Ontario.
According to a Six Nations Brothers report, the police singled out the Indians, started pushing them around and began shooting: ”Raymond Moses, hearing the confusion, left the shower and was shot on sight. John Benedict was shot as he stood with his hands against the wall. Marvin and Maynard were beaten with nightsticks and thrown down a flight of stairs while handcuffed.”
Harjo and I went with Kunstler twice to view the crime scene. When the trial started in September, a bullet hole could still be seen in a doorframe and blood traces remained on the balcony’s metal steps, where Leroy Shenandoah bled to death after being beaten and shot five times.
Shenandoah, 32, was a foreman on the construction job. He lived at Onondaga with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, and was the all-star center of the nation’s lacrosse team. He had been a member of the honor guard for President Kennedy’s funeral and was entitled to an honored military burial, which his family refused, stating, ”We thought not after he was shot down by a uniformed man.”
The Six Nations report stated that Shenandoah ”was repeatedly kicked and his face, smashed against the wall … the police left him for an hour and a half without medical attention that may have saved his life. Although there were two hospitals within blocks of the hotel, his body was thrown into a paddy wagon and taken to a hospital twenty miles away. His brother was refused permission to go with Leroy and instead was taken to jail. A policeman said to him, ‘Get the hell out of here or we’ll kill you too.”’
The medical examiner declared Shenandoah’s death an ”excusable homicide.” Judge Charles Mirarchi found the ironworkers guilty of multiple charges, from aggravated assault and battery to conspiracy, and sentenced them to the state penal system.
While police were tailing and menacing Indian people, the Friends of Philadelphia maintained its reputation as the City of Brotherly Love by providing shelter and publicly expressing their belief in the ironworkers’ innocence.
The subsequent jury trial appeared to be headed toward another conviction, until film of the incident emerged. The filmmakers maintained cameras did not roll after the director said, ”cut.” Harjo and I thought from our experience in radio that the cameraman, more likely than not, recorded the balcony scene. We convinced Kunstler, who sent his brother to Los Angeles in search of film footage.
One week and a purported $100,000 later, the film was turned over to the court. The judge directed everyone in the courtroom to walk in single file to a nearby theater, view the film once and walk back, all in total silence. I sat between Shenandoah’s wife Deena and mother Gertrude, holding their hands as they suppressed sobs and absorbed the shock of seeing their loved one shot, kicked, bleeding and dying.
The film confirmed that the police accounts were false and the ironworkers’ testimony was true. Undisclosed settlements were later paid to the Shenandoah family and the ironworkers, but the police didn’t pay. It was something, but it wasn’t justice. And there was something about having to watch that horror film in absolute silence that also kept anyone from making anything like a joyful noise about the outcome.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.