Ron Whitehorne, a retired schoolteacher from Lawncrest, had drafted an impassioned statement to deliver via Zoom at City Council’s annual hearing on the Philadelphia School District budget, which is now projecting a devastating $38 million budget shortfall. He demanded an end to what he called “educational apartheid," urging Council to eliminate the 10-year property tax abatement and pour the revenue into the public schools.
Or, he would have demanded it. But Whitehorne’s attempt to testify was unsuccessful. “Not sure why,” he said later. “Possibly I screwed it up?”
This is the reality advocates, organizers, and citizens are facing during the pandemic, as City Hall grinds onward and courts resume operation — but in an almost hermetically sealed fashion, with doors locked and business conducted remotely, over Zoom and other videoconferencing services.
“Historically, a lot of our power comes from our numbers. We don’t have any great influence or money, but we have numbers — and if we concentrate them and act collectively we can have an influence,” said Whitehorne, who volunteers with the 215 People’s Alliance and is used to filling City Council chambers with dozens or hundreds of advocates all holding signs and demanding their say. "This whole change really impacts our ability to do that.”
In Harrisburg, while the Capitol was closed, lobbyists worked their cell phones to get lawmakers’ support on everything from permitting cocktails to-go to resuming operations for construction and real estate. Now, citizen advocates in Philadelphia are trying to carve out their own ways of applying pressure to a machinery that looks more like a black box than ever before — strategies that include seizing on any official channels that are available, flooding social media and, for symbolism as much as anything, marching on a virtually empty City Hall.
“It’s just a different environment,” said Erin Hoopes, a library supervisor who sprang into action when she learned of proposed cuts to what she views as crucial services like after-school programming that provide safe places and educational support for thousands of neighborhood children. “We’re trying to figure out how to access power when the doors aren’t open.”
In some ways, this new, atomized form of government can be convenient. On Tuesday, advocates could stand outside City Hall for “Day of Action for a Just Philly Budget," organized by Hoopes and other city workers, in between calling in to a SEPTA hearing with Transit Forward Philadelphia to advocate for more equitable fare structures, and listening in remotely with the Judge Accountability Table to hear how Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judges handled criminal matters.
But whether advocates can make an impact from afar still remains to be seen.
Tuesday’s Day of Action aimed to do just that, combining in-person protests with a social-media campaign, online petitions, chalked signs, and a call-in push to demand a budget without layoffs or furloughs.
Hoopes said now the fight is more urgent than ever — but getting through is more challenging. Last year, she said, “there were meetings with individual City Council members, but also we had an in-person rally inside of City Hall and we had a huge petition that we had people sign — on paper — and we delivered that to each office of each City Council member. There was a lot more in-person work that could be done. This year of course there is not that opportunity.”
Still, Hoopes has hope. She points out that, when the pandemic first hit, librarians were still being required to report to work in closed libraries — so they created a petition demanding the city put their safety first and send them home. The petition quickly added thousands of signatures, and the librarians were permitted to go home.
One PA, a group that has been advocating for worker and tenant protections, has almost seamlessly pivoted to virtual town-hall meetings and online recruiting sessions.
“Because people are home and isolated, we’ve seen the response rates skyrocket," said Cecily Harwitt, One PA’s regional organizing director. "We’ve phone banked and texted before COVID-19, but it’s become a much more effective tool.”
Recently, a volunteer was recruited on social media, met with organizers one-on-one online, and ended up speaking at a news conference and a car caravan — proof, to Harwitt, that it’s possible to build a coalition without ever meeting in person. Now, the challenge is sustaining that energy when people are unable to come together. For a City Council hearing Friday on proposed protections for tenants, including rent controls and an extended moratorium on evictions, they organized a virtual watch party, to remind people watching that they’re not alone.
In the case of the Judge Accountability Table, which aims to draw attention to often-overlooked judicial elections, the shutdown came just as it was working to launch a court-watching initiative that it would use to inform its endorsements. Now — after about a week of calling and emailing, trying to figure out how to gain remote access — about 30 court-watchers are logging on in shifts to listen in to the virtual hearings. The results are published online and being collected for statistical reports.
Danielle Phillips, a law student, has been logging on for some of those shifts, a commitment she would not be able to fulfill if court were taking place in person, since she also has two young children at home. It’s been illuminating, she said, to see how frequently judges abide by the requests of the prosecutor (almost every case, she’s found) and to hear the reasons stated for their decisions. On the other hand, body language, tone, and side comments — the subtext of daily courtroom interactions — are all difficult to detect when dialing in remotely.
Still, Nikki Grant, a court-watching organizer, said it feels even more essential to create a sense of accountability in a moment when the courthouse is closed to the public.
“It’s really just been about, are the courts responding to the crisis in a way that the public wants them to," she said. "People shouldn’t die in jail because of a pandemic. We’re hoping that by tracking what judges are doing, it will give them the feeling that the public is watching.”