A Philadelphia judge has ruled in favor of a local Hebrew Israelite group whose protests in front of the shops at Liberty Place in Center City, Philadelphia, prompted shop owners to sue.
Members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) have conducted weekly protests outside of the shops at Liberty Place in Center City. The group is based in Upper Darby and part of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious movement which believes African Americans are descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
The group has been labeled as “extremist” and “black supremacists” by several organizations, including civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center.
Israelite member John Lightbourne, who goes by his group name and title "General Yahanna," is the head of the ISUPK. He describes their Center City protests as “shock treatment” designed to stir people into action. The protests, which group members record and post on their school website as well as YouTube, feature members shouting statements such as, “the white man is the Devil.” General Yahanna says the demonstrations are within their first amendment rights.
Shop owners at Liberty Place say they’ve heard enough however. Their lawyers appeared in court, arguing that the group is trespassing and making their private space unusable and impossible to rent. They also say the group’s offensive language frightens customers.
“They preach about how they hate white people and how they hate gays,” said attorney Jason Gosselin. “They’re calling women whores. Really hostile language that makes people feel intimidated and fearful. That’s not protected by the first amendment.”
“We don’t hate white people,” said Commander General Yahanna. “But God hates white people.”
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Yahanna says members of his group have never physically harmed anyone at the demonstrations.
“You white people can rest assured,” he said. “We’re not gonna riot. We’re not gonna burn down your cities. What we are going to do though, is fix black and Hispanic people.”
Judge Ellen Ceisler rejected the argument by shop owners. In the ruling, she said that peaceful protests conducted in a peaceful and legal manner are lawful, regardless of their impact on a business.
"The Black Israelites speech is on public issues," Ceisler said. "It is protected by the highest laws."
She added that "people annoyed or security costs" are not legitimate reasons to stop the free speech of a controversial group.
Gosselin argued that the group is trespassing the building's property, standing and shouting anti-gay and anti-white speech. Gosselin said there are "no cases that say you can trespass on private property unless you're exercising First Amendment rights. The First Amendment is not a defense to trespass."
Attorney James Funt, representing the ISUPK, said in its 30 years of existence, the group has no arrests, maintaining that the rallies may involve offensive dialogue, but have remained peaceful and remain protected under Free Speech.
Gosselin showed videos of rallies held in New York City's Times Square, where group members berate a white passerby attempting to walk directly through the Israelites. But Ceisler said the speech was not directed individually and could not hold strong evidence of a hostile environment.
Other important Free Speech cases were used as precedence, including Snyder v. Phelps, where members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its "God Hates Fags" slogan, were allowed to protest a soldier's funeral.
Despite Gosselin's argument that the rallies create a tense atmosphere around the popular shops, no economic changes were reported. Businesses have not lost money because of the protests.
"I empathize with Liberty Place, and with the diminished ambiance of Liberty Place," said Ceisler, "but that's the price we pay for Free Speech. If a Neo-Nazi protested in front of my synagogue on Yom Kippur, they would not be arrested."
Yahanna hailed the ruling as a victory for African Americans, Hispanics and native Americans, whom he describes as "the Lord's People."
"The judge was absolutely fair," Yahanna said "This means black people will not die silent."
When asked about the group's inflammatory speech he replied, "We use these words to bring attention to us. The First Amendment was written for words not liked."
Yahanna said that other rally groups such as the KKK are allowed to use their Freedom of Speech without backlash from police, but believes his group is targeted because "'it's black men with braids and boots."
The Israelties plan to return to 16th and Chestnut Streets next Friday at 1 pm.
Judge Ceisler reminded them that they cannot put people at risk, violate laws or block the sidewalk.