Against the backdrop of a celebrated statue, West Philadelphians rally against gun violence - and to get out the vote
“We’re demanding to put the guns down. We’re demanding our neighbors vote for change. We’re voting to change white supremacy in the White House, to recognize that Black voices matter.”
Calling for an end to gun violence and police brutality and stressing the importance of voting, residents, community organizers, and politicians marched through West Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, culminating with a rally at 52nd and Locust Streets — in front of a newly installed sculpture by the celebrated artist Kehinde Wiley.
» READ MORE: A nationally touring exhibit brings a Kehinde Wiley sculpture to West Philly
The rally’s organizers, West Philadelphia residents themselves, said it was important to march through their own community calling for change — and for people to register to vote, one day before the final deadline to register to vote in this year’s general election.
They walked through “hot spots” in the neighborhood — where shootings and drug dealing have been particularly pronounced — and called on residents to join them in a walk to the statue, where local musicians performed and speakers told the crowd to vote “like your lives depend on it.”
“We’re demanding to put the guns down. We’re demanding our neighbors vote for change. We’re voting to change white supremacy in the White House, to recognize that Black voices matter,” said Saj Purple Blackwell, of the community advocacy organization Blackwell Culture Alliance. “And we’re not standing by and waiting — we’re creating change in our own neighborhoods.”
Speakers sang and exhorted the crowd against the backdrop of the newly installed statue, part of a traveling installation, depicting a Black man in dreadlocks and trendy modern clothing rearing on a horse. It’s a pose that deliberately counters the imagery in statues of Confederate generals and European military figures.
There were other reasons to rally at 52nd and Locust, in the heart of one of the city’s most historic Black business corridors, but organizers said the statue embodied the spirit of Sunday’s march, too — an empowering image for the neighborhood’s children to look up to.
Rarely have the issues at stake for neighbors in West Philadelphia felt higher, said Serita Lewis, a resident and activist with the City of Dreams Coalition, an advocacy organization that also sponsored Sunday’s event.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected people of color, and Black people, especially, has weighed on residents. Unrest on 52nd Street amid the summer’s national uprising over police brutality was met with indiscriminate teargassing of the neighborhood. And this year has seen a surge in gun violence across the city.
It’s important for residents to know that help is available in the neighborhood, Lewis said, from help with groceries to community engagement programs that can help keep kids busy — an even more difficult prospect amid COVID-19 restrictions.
“We have to show people we’re not going away,” she said. Volunteers gave away 300 boxes of food for neighborhood residents at Sunday’s rally, Blackwell said.
Sister Taleah Taylor, City of Dreams' president, said Sunday’s rally was the latest of several held around West Philadelphia in recent weeks. Gun violence is a pressing concern in the community, she said, but it’s important to encourage residents to speak up about “all issues” affecting them — and to vote.
“Everything right now — because of COVID, the murders — there’s no hope,” she said. “We try to be that balance as we do our block-by-block interventions. We have to speak up on all issues. For too long, the Black and brown communities are not voting, not using our voices the way we should.”
Kelly Chambers, a field organizer with Headcount, the voter registration organization, said that 12 people at the rally had registered to vote and that organizers had handed out 100 fliers about the city’s early voting sites. “More and more people are invested in early voting,” she said. “We’re hoping people make a plan [to vote].”
Thomas Blackwell, Saj Blackwell’s husband, said it was important for the neighborhood to show unity.
“We are fighting a war right now, and unless we are active participants in this war, we will lose,” he said. “I don’t want to lose. I’m tired. Are you tired? Then make sure, on Nov. 3, you vote.”