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Seth Williams and second chances

It’s all about second chances.

Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s disgraced former district attorney, has recently emerged as a “poster boy” for second chances.

Following his release from federal prison last April after serving three years on bribery charges, Williams — the first Black district attorney in Pennsylvania history — was installed last week as director of the new Herbert J. Hoelter vocational training center at 8th and Girard Avenue.

The new center is modeled after a program in Baltimore. It is a nationwide initiative, whose parent is a non-profit known as the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA).

The prospective centers that are opening in various locations throughout the nation, are designed to help veterans, at-risk youth, people with intellectual and emotional disabilities and those with criminal records.

“We believe if we can change one life, we can change their family’s life, it changes the life of the community,” CEO Herb Hoelter said recently.

Participants receive 15 weeks of training in one of five areas: HVAC, automotive, truck driving, culinary arts and drone training.

Williams says he believes the center is tailor-made for his skills in the aftermath of his Icarus-like fall from his position as Philadelphia’s first Black district attorney.

In his mask, sweats and blue shirt, a fit-looking Williams was almost indistinguishable from the rest of those at the center for an orientation last week. The program is said to already have 40 participants.

The NCIA, begun in Baltimore, has boasted a 75% job placement of vocational trainees in the past.

The organization aims to do the same in Philadelphia. Trainees typically average $18.15 per hour on their new jobs, according to NCIA officials.

Williams says he believes directing the center makes good use of both his experience as a former district attorney and as a former prison inmate. For him, heading the center is a promising step in his drive for a “second chance” for himself and others like him who may have strayed.

For Williams, it is an opportunity to redeem his tarnished name after serving close to three years in prison on the bribery charges that undercut his charismatic rise and accomplishments.

In June 2017, Williams pled guilty to taking a trip to a Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic with money from a business owner. It was one of 29 federal corruption charges.

According to federal officials, the business owner then turned around and asked Williams to help a friend avoid jail time.

Williams pled to one count of violation of the Travel Act, which involves a charge of traveling and using interstate facilities to promote and facilitate bribery.

Though Williams was sentenced to five years, he got out in a little less than three years for good behavior and participation in a substance abuse program.

Williams admitted that he did try to “self-medicate” through martinis and Jack Daniels as a district attorney to soothe some of the trauma of the job as well as the “full-bodied contact” of Philadelphia politics in which he could trust no one.

He said substance abuse is one more thing he has in common with many of those who may come to the center.

“I’m now much happier,” said Williams of his post-DA and post prison life. As he sat in his new office in the bowels of 801 W. Girard Ave., he proudly pointed out an open Bible in front of him. A black English racer he rides to work was tucked away in a corner of the office.

He said he sees a lot of supportive Philadelphians during his commute.

“I catch SEPTA and ride my bike to work,” Williams said. “People tell me on SEPTA to keep my head up. Cars honk at me when I’m riding my bike.”

He added, “Now I know God speaks to everyone, you just have to listen.”

Before his appointment, Williams, 54, had increasingly been in the public eye following his April 2020 release.

“I feel called to use the combination of my professional and personal experiences, to prevent crime, reduce recidivism, change lives and give hope,” Williams said last week as he helped carry metal tables and folding chairs into a room for an orientation. He says he believes his new position gives him an opportunity to utilize what he knows now about getting out of jail and being at the bottom of society’s caste system.

“I lost everything,” said Williams of his conviction and subsequent incarceration. Among the passports to a normal life he lost were his law license, his city pension and military pension, his house, his political and military career, and his wife and family.

His downfall was such that even an inmate threatening to commit suicide was talked out of it after he saw Williams.

“That’s Seth Williams,” Williams quoted the inmate as saying. “If he can go on living after losing everything I can too.”

OIC of America to honor legacy of Rev. Leon H. Sullivan

It’s been 20 years since the passing of Rev. Leon H. Sullivan and the impact of his accomplishments is still being felt throughout Philadelphia and beyond.

With that in mind, Opportunities Industrialization Center of America Inc. (OIC) will celebrate Sullivan’s impact with a “Moving Mountains” tribute April 23 at 1 p.m.

Sullivan founded OIC of America in 1964 to address the lack of education and job training programs available to minorities in Philadelphia so they could prepare themselves and become part of a highly skilled workforce.

“We felt that this was a unique opportunity for us to talk about what’s happened in 20 years — to sort of go back and help people to understand his contributions and accomplishments within the country as well as his impact and influence in helping to bring down apartheid in South Africa,” James Haynes, OIC of America president and CEO, said of the organization’s tribute to Sullivan.

“In my opinion, he’s a giant and he doesn’t necessarily get the credit or just rewards for all the things that he did.”

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Sullivan died in April 2001 at the age of 78. He moved to Philadelphia in 1950 and became the pastor of Zion Baptist Church at the corner of Broad and Venango streets until his retirement in 1988.

Sullivan opened Progress Plaza in 1968. It was the first African-American-owned shopping center in the U.S.

The civil rights leader organized the “Selective Patronage” campaign, pulling together 400 ministers and their congregations to boycott major companies that refused to hire Blacks.

In 1971, Sullivan became the first African American to join General Motors’ board of directors. Sullivan served on GM’s board until 1991, when he took his fight against racial injustice international. His Sullivan Principles played a key role in the downfall of apartheid.

During the upcoming tribute, OIC of America will recognize General Motors with a trailblazer award for appointing Sullivan to their board of directors.

“We’re going to recognize GM for their social consciousness of that era,” Haynes said.

“The country was going through a racial awakening arguably in the ‘70s that kind of started in the late ‘50s and sort of found its way into corporate boardrooms.”

The award will be accepted by GM’s Global Chief Diversity Officer Ken Barrett.

OIC of America will also highlight when Sullivan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award that the American government can give, by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

During the event, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pa., who was influenced by Sullivan’s philosophies, will participate in a Fireside Chat. He will discuss Sullivan’s work and impact.

While OIC of America’s tribute will highlight Sullivan’s legacy, it will also focus on addressing what the workforce development organization has been doing to remain relevant. During the pandemic, some of the organization’s affiliates helped provide food to people and were instrumental in helping those who were laid off find new employment.

“We want to spend some time talking about our mission and the kind of the things that we are doing: from food security to our ability to put people back to work,” Haynes said.

“The U.S. has a problem with putting people back to work. But we think that OIC and its network of affiliates is the answer to that because we provide wraparound services. We provide training and support people need when they are on the job.

“We’re not just talking about jobs for the sake of jobs,” he said. “We’re talking about jobs that lead to what will be considered sustainable living and moving people from poverty to the middle class. Economic development is kind of our focus and being a workforce development agency, there’s a lot to do and we take what we do very seriously.”

To RSVP for the upcoming virtual event, visit Facebook.com/oicofamerica.

National Guard troops, increased police patrols: Philadelphia readies for verdict in Derek Chauvin trial

Philadelphia officials are mobilizing resources and calling in the National Guard in preparation for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

On Friday, Mayor Jim Kenney called “active peace” in response to the verdict over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which could come next week, as Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw pledged her department is “prepared for any possible civil unrest that may unfold.”

The pair of city leaders were joined by more than two dozen officials, and community and faith leaders on the steps of the Municipal Services Building.

National Guard troops are deploying here starting Saturday. Police will increase their presence and patrols on foot, horseback and bikes around critical infrastructure, businesses and neighborhoods.

The city’s Emergency Operation Center will be fully staffed as of Saturday, said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management. (The center has been active for more than a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies.)

Businesses were encouraged to take precautions to protect their storefronts, Commerce Director Michael Rashid said.

Police were not aware of any specific threats at this time, Outlaw said. Several demonstrations were planned this weekend.

Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, faces murder and manslaughter charges. The jury has heard 13 days of testimony in the trial. Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and declined to testify on Thursday.

The jury is expected to hear closing arguments Monday and then enter deliberations. A verdict could come any time after that.

Floyd, who is Black, died May 25, 2020, after Chauvin, who is white, kneeled on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed for more than nine minutes. A video capturing Floyd’s death set off mass protests across the U.S. against racism and police brutality.

In Philadelphia, Floyd’s killing sparked protests and civil unrest. Scores of businesses were looted, including several in West Philadelphia and Center City.

The response to the 2020 protests from the Kenney administration and police department was riddled with missteps, heavy-handed police tactics, and over-policing of some neighborhoods, including Black communities in West Philadelphia.

Kenney acknowledged those errors again on Friday.

“I’m committed to making sure that we learn from our own mistakes, demonstrate accountability, and hold ourselves to a higher standard,” the mayor said.

The mayor also penned an open letter to residents Friday about the trial.

Outlaw said her department would protect people’s First Amendment right to protest but stressed that “unlawful behavior will not be tolerated.”

“The safety of all demonstrators along with the safety of our residents, business owners and visitors is a top priority of the PPD (Philadelphia Police Department),” Outlaw said.

Outlaw did not rule out the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other non-lethal munitions during any civil unrest that may result from the verdict. She came under significant criticism for green-lighting the use of tear gas against protesters during last year’s demonstrations.

“I do believe it does not make sense to really remove a less-lethal munition in our toolbelt because we never know what would happen,” Outlaw said.

The bungled response to last year’s protests led to the resignation of Brian Abernathy, the former city managing director. He oversaw the city’s operational departments in that role and was among Kenney’s top aides.

The Kenney administration will offer resources to residents to process the decision in the trial, said City Managing Director Tumar Alexander.

The city will launch virtual events, dubbed “community healing circles,” to provide residents a space to discuss the trial and find support. The events will be held twice weekly over the next three weeks, starting Monday.

In the coming week, the Kenney administration will offer community leaders a detailed blueprint for how to host and guide conversations about the trial and verdict, among other things.

The Kenney administration also is partnering with community members, volunteers and others to form “townwatch groups” to patrol communities and commercial corridors, Alexander said.

“We’re all united in our call for racial justice,” he said. “And channeling justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained and effective action.”

City retracts, apologizes for ‘fear-mongering’ request from police

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and the Philadelphia Police Department are retracting a memo sent to community groups urging residents to hastily sign legal documents in support of certain “quality of life” policing practices.

Philadelphia officials also formally apologized for the note, admitting it made an “untrue and misleading” claim. Sent out Friday with a Monday deadline, it asked residents to commit to their support for enforcing minor offenses such as public spitting, obstructing sidewalks, and smoking marijuana in public.

In response to BILLY PENN’s questioning, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and City Solicitor Dianna Cortes on Saturday issued a joint statement calling it a failed attempt to gather community feedback.

“The way in which that feedback was solicited was inappropriate and misconstrued the purpose of the request,” Cortes and Outlaw wrote. “In no way was the intent to scare community members into hastily providing affidavits … We, as well as the mayor and managing director, strongly condemn any such fear-mongering.”

Behind the memo is a new legal debate in the 10-year-old case seeking to reform so-called “stop and frisk” actions in Philadelphia.

The “Bailey case,” as it’s known, is a federal class action lawsuit filed in 2010 by the ACLU and civil rights firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg that alleged racial bias in policing. For nearly a decade, the city has been engaging in court-monitored reforms, instituting new training and collecting data on pedestrian and vehicle stops.

Last summer, the police department admitted for the first time that racial bias was evident.

Black Philadelphians comprise a disproportionate number of stops in Philadelphia. Although the overall count dropped more than 90% between 2014 and 2020, the share of stops targeting Black pedestrians increased, according to a 6ABC analysis of police data published last year.

In March, the city and the ACLU came to a partial agreement on new reforms in the case — including using police body cams to evaluate bias. But “quality of life” policing remained an issue of contention, court records show.

Stopping such enforcement when reasonable suspicion is present “would deprive PPD of a valuable crime-fighting tool at a time when Philadelphia’s homicide rates have never been higher, and when community members have been increasingly scared for their own safety and the safety of their families,” the city wrote in a March response in the case.

Data shows stop and frisk searches rarely yield firearms, which the ACLU noted when responding to the city’s claim in court.

“[T]here is nothing even close to a causative relationship between [quality of life] stops and shootings in Philadelphia,” attorneys Kairys and Rudovsky wrote. “The notion that requiring an officer, for example, to instruct a civilian to put away an open liquor container, stop littering, or cease annoying behavior before engaging in a forceful stop will increase the murder rate in Philadelphia defies empirical data and common sense.”

The note sent Friday to community groups by PPD Community Relations Officer Juan Delgago was intended to drum up documents showing support of continued quality of life enforcement.

Delgado claimed the lawsuit was “pressuring the police department to cease enforcing certain quality-of-life offenses,” a claim officials later admitted was untrue.

Residents and community groups in Philadelphia do request enforcement of these offenses — most of which are not criminal, and result in police issuing tickets, at worst. The plaintiffs in the Bailey case do not seek to stop officers from responding to quality of life complaints, but rather come to an agreement about how they are handled.

The police department’s request did not seek community feedback so much as blind support. The fill-in-the-blank affidavit provided by the department asked for sign-off on enforcement against public urination, panhandling, marijuana possession, open liquor containers, obstructing sidewalks, littering, spitting and gambling.

City Councilmember Helen Gym said the memo undermines years of work the city has spent decriminalizing lower-level offenses, such as marijuana possession, that disproportionately impact Black and Latino residents.

“It’s staggeringly ignorant of the law — and it’s inflaming tensions right now at a time when the city is trying to call for peace and a better sense of public trust as we are amid this gun violence crisis,” Gym said Saturday.

Commissioner Outlaw and Solicitor Cortes said any affidavits submitted to the department will not be used in court, as the department works on “a more productive way” to get community input.

They also apologized to people who have been targeted by stop-and-frisk policing practices.

“We understand that some members of communities of color in Philadelphia who have suffered their entire lives under systemic racism are offended by this messaging,” the officials said. “To them, again, we humbly apologize…We vow to do better.”

David Rudosky, a civil rights attorney who filed the Bailey case, declined to comment.