For the umpteenth time this year, they assembled under the ivory glow of Philadelphia City Hall, cardboard signs and megaphones in hand. The air was crisper than when they began the crusade for George Floyd 116 days prior, but the unrelenting chant from the crowd in September was familiar.
“Say her name, Breonna Taylor.”
“Is my brother next?” one woman’s sign read. “This isn’t change,” declared another. “This system has got to go down!” a demonstrator yelled to the crowd.
For activists like Christopher Bowman, protesting is only the beginning.
“The final step is just community advancement,” said Bowman, a Philadelphia teacher who was teargassed and detained on I-676 in June and inspired to cofound I Will Breathe, an organization fighting racial injustice.
After Philadelphia’s summer of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, activists are moving into a new season. They’re sustaining momentum by expanding their objectives and establishing their own community group model, working in the neighborhoods they want the city to invest in.
Bowman and other activists started hosting community cleanups, charity basketball fund-raisers, school supply drives, and cookouts with the homeless. Some are planning town hall events to get feedback on their vision for the future.
Their goal is to improve conditions for Black Philadelphians in housing, employment, education, and health, seeking solutions for widespread challenges they say put people in the criminal justice system. They hope to build the movement from massive street protests demanding “Black Lives Matter” to one that says “matter is the minimum.”
“Not being killed by police isn’t the minimum,” said activist Samantha Rise. “But actually [it’s] that Black histories and Black futures matter.”
In Philadelphia, protests erupted in late May after a Minneapolis officer knelt on Floyd’s neck and killed him, resulting in what is by some measures the largest protest movement in American history. By August, they demonstrated for Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back in Wisconsin. In September, they rallied for Taylor after a grand jury decided to not recommend charges against any officers in the shooting death of the Black woman from Louisville, Ky.
In return, Philadelphia officials signaled they heard protesters, who demanded to “defund the police,” or reduce the department’s tax-dollar allocation and divert that funding to programs run by grassroots community organizations. In June, the city canceled a proposed $19 million increase to the police budget and removed a statue of Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner and mayor whose law-and-order tactics for many translated to racist and brutal policing.
Lawmakers also established a police reform working group, and City Council approved measures requiring hearings on police contracts and prohibiting choke holds. And last week, officials announced a behavioral health specialist will be embedded alongside 911 dispatchers to redirect residents experiencing mental health crises away from the criminal justice system and toward social services.
But organizers aren’t satisfied, pointing to the $727 million police allocation that makes up about 15% of the city’s budget, a share of funding they believe would be better spent supporting community groups.
And some activists — who have watched brutality persist through years of police reforms like the addition of cultural competency training and body-camera mandates — say they won’t wait for the city’s bureaucracy to serve them.
“Our solutions live within ourselves and not within the system,” said YahNé Ndgo, a core organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly. As she sees it, activists are themselves building programming that’s “making a positive difference in our community.”
“We’re not being antipolice. We’re being antiviolence and pro-health and pro-community,” she said. “And [others] will see that we’re building toward all those things and not seeking to remove something and leave a vacuum, but to replace something that is not healthy for our community.”
Some activists spent the summer calling for police abolition, while others believe policing should remain, but have ideas for reform. Across the city, dozens of groups — new and established — protested, and each had unique priorities.
Social movements without hierarchies have long been criticized for failing to communicate a specific agenda. But Philadelphia protest groups this year came together and laid out their vision in new ways.
For example, a conglomerate of a dozen organizations called the Black Philly Radical Collective has 13 demands for city government. They include: Drop all charges against protesters, remove “symbols of state violence” — including a street sign dedicated to Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s mayor during the MOVE bombing — and institute an “immediate” 20% reduction in the police budget.
The Collective, established after Floyd’s death, wants Philadelphia to remove police from neighborhoods within five years, an aggressive timeline to abolish policing in a city where shootings are at their highest rates in a decade. The activists contend racist brutality is so widespread that policing is beyond reform. With more funding directed toward health care, joblessness, and poverty, they say, crime will trend down.
But law enforcement advocates and a majority of elected officials say abolition is a radical, far-left idea. And while plenty of Philadelphia politicians support Black Lives Matter, most balk at ditching cops entirely, saying constituents want police to respond when they call.
A poll conducted this summer by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed 14% of Philadelphians — and 6% of Black residents — favor reducing the size of the Police Department.
Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a self-described “activist at heart” who wants the city to decrease police funding in the next budget, said the “defund the police” slogan wasn’t clearly defined initially and was co-opted by opponents.
“It’s far-fetched to tell folks in the neighborhood that we don’t need police,” she said. “It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say ‘let’s invest in social workers and programs at our community centers.’”
The Pew survey still found shifts in attitudes toward police. The share of Philadelphians who say they’re confident police will treat Black and white residents the same declined to 47% from 60% in 2016. And a majority of residents believe the department needs “some reforms.”
Activists acknowledge that abolition seems unrealistic to a public that’s new to it — many organizers are not — and that it takes time for the radical to become mainstream.
Megan Malachi, an organizer with Philly for REAL (Racial, Economic And Legal) Justice, said that when she and others started the group in 2014, “things that we were saying were very shocking, very radical even for other Black people.”
Today, she said, “one of our goals is to bring our demands to each neighborhood and have community meetings, have people join us and get involved, because that’s really the way that we’re going to see these big wins.”
For some Black Lives Matter-affiliated groups, community buy-in comes through fund-raising to support majority-Black neighborhoods, like pouring cash into mutual aid networks that connect people in need with neighbors who can help.
There was Philadelphia’s Bread & Roses Community Fund, a grant-making organization that drew half a million dollars in donations during the protests and distributed it to 50 Black-led or Black-centered organizations in its network, from bail funds to urban gardeners.
And Black Lives Matter Philly has backed vigils for gun-violence victims and is cohosting a Black Panther-themed trick-or-treat event in West Philly.
In the city’s Kensington section, the Party for Socialism and Liberation runs the Philadelphia Liberation Center, which, pre-pandemic, provided neighbors food, fitness classes, and after-school programs. Since the party gained prominence this summer hosting protests, there are more volunteers to support its community efforts, which have shifted to outdoor events like speak-outs, cookouts, and cleanups.
“Do your best to think about: ‘What can I do in my neighborhood?’ ” said Kayla Watkins, 24, a Temple student who has protested in Center City and helped facilitate cleanups at Malcolm X Park in her West Philadelphia neighborhood. “ ‘What can I do in my community? What are the needs of the people around me that I believe I can meet?’ And then I want you to question why has the government not provided that.”
Perhaps the most visible examples of Philadelphia activists taking services into their own hands are the homeless encampments that were tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the city’s disapproval, organizers said the protest encampments were established in June to provide safety and community to people fed up with the shelter system while organizers demanded the city provide occupants permanent housing. The encampments agreed to voluntarily disband this month after the city eventually said it would transfer dozens of vacant properties into a land trust established by the encampment residents.
The model of focusing racial justice on economic disparities has historical precedent, like in the 1960s, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, said Mary Frances Berry, a professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
She said movements sparked by police brutality have long become about circumstances that lead to interactions with police, like joblessness, homelessness, and community disinvestment.
“A lot of these people who have been killed [by police] are in situations where they’re vulnerable because of their poverty, so those disparities become part of the protest beyond the shooting,” Berry said, “because the context within which they are there to get killed has to do with the precariousness of their lives.”
Late one steamy morning in June, as smoke from burning sage settled on Independence Mall after a libation ceremony — an African spiritual ritual and the Black Philly Radical Collective’s acknowledgment of the “ancestors and freedom fighters” who came before them — Philly for REAL Justice organizer Malachi stepped forward to address the small crowd gathered on the lawn.
“These demands speak to the history that we as Black Philadelphians have experienced,” she said. A lifelong city resident, Malachi, now 39, was 4 when police dropped a bomb on the MOVE house in West Philadelphia, killing 11 people. “Those of us older millennials, we have grown up in the shadow of that type of state violence.”
Younger millennials and Gen-Z, she later said, “are seeing so much more austerity than even people like me who were born in the early ’80s. And so, they are actually experiencing so much more economic issues, global issues in terms of war and the increasing abuse of capitalism.”
It’s those young activists, she said, who bring energy and ideas that will help sustain the movement as the number of participants ebbs and news cameras turn away. Some protests were led by high school and college students, many of whom view the world through the lens of intersecting social identities and inequities the pandemic and economic downturn laid bare.
“The young people, like the truly young people, came out,” Malachi said. “You start to lose energy as you get older.”
Malachi has been fighting for racial justice in Philly for years, taking on the mantle of those who protested long before the Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — three young Black organizers outraged when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Since then, the deaths of Black people at the hands of police kept making headlines: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown.
In 2014 in Philadelphia, it was Brandon Tate-Brown, a Black man killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop. Malachi and Philly for REAL Justice campaigned to get the city to release video of the shooting and name the officers involved. City officials released the information six months after the shooting — as part of a lawsuit filed by Tate-Brown’s family — and several months after announcing the officers wouldn’t face charges.
Today, Philadelphia police operate under a directive to name officers who kill or wound someone within three days of an incident.
The fight for racial justice is a prolonged one, Malachi said, and sustaining the energy she saw this summer is key.
“Commitment is the most important thing,” she said. “Being willing to do the work for not just a moment but for, honestly, I found, a lifetime.”
Bowman, 27, said, “It’s about legacy.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we don’t want to be looked at as the generation that dropped the ball.”
While protesting this summer, Rise, an activist, was detained twice by Philadelphia police: once at the Municipal Services Building during a sit-in and again when protesters blocked the Municipal Court entrance to demonstrate against evictions.
Also while protesting this summer, Rise danced down the Parkway in a unicorn costume and made pancakes on a portable stove at the encampment outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters.
Protest, and the fight for Black liberation, Rise, the 32-year-old activist from Southwest Philly said, is all about “radical reimagination” — and it can focus on creating joy, not only eradicating pain and struggle.
For Rise, the intersectionality of their social identities — being Black and gender-expansive — and the complexity of resilience and joy shape how they see the movement. From being a prominent face at the encampments, to participating in marches — for arts funding, housing, the Queer March for Black Lives — and demanding justice from behind the bullhorn for Breonna Taylor, Rise said they see their role in protest as an “amplifier,” both figuratively and literally.
As a program director at Girls Rock Philly — a nonprofit providing music education to girls and young women — Rise joined protests this summer by providing speaker equipment, but often found themself holding a megaphone and leading crowds, too.
“I like to joke that megaphone is my gender,” they said. As a librarian in western Wyoming in 2014, Rise said they led small Black Lives Matter marches through the rural town, but nothing like the demonstrations in Philadelphia. This summer, Rise said, was a turning point.
“We are here and we want to survive, and we want to thrive,” Rise said. “And if that’s the case, we’re never going back.”
To Zoe Sturges, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher who was detained in a viral moment after climbing a police barricade at City Hall to present daisies to a national guardsman, this summer “felt very different,” too.
“It felt like other people, especially people who weren’t necessarily people of color, were finally understanding the severity of the issue,” she said. Protesters' sustained energy, Sturges said, gives her hope.
“Even if [momentum] kind of slows down, I think that people are gonna remember this. I hope that if something like George Floyd happens here — as much as I don’t want it to happen — if there’s some horrible police brutality case where people remember coming out before,” she said. “And I hope that they’ll come out again. Even if we don’t get any reforms, the police know the public is watching.”
And so, on the night the Kentucky grand jury returned its decision in the Breonna Taylor case, tensions ran high as speakers pointed to the “faithful few” who marched months after the George Floyd protests began, calling on the weary and frustrated group to politically organize.
As the march from City Hall rounded onto Broad Street, a sort of frenetic energy took hold: People ran ahead of march leaders, biked through traffic, and scattered throughout the street.
Rise stood precariously on microphone speaker in the middle of Broad Street as other activists held it steady.
“We don’t need to sprint down these streets and leave anyone behind,” Rise cautioned, encouraging protesters to walk slowly together. “This city is prepared to leave us behind.”
Stopping again on Market Street, Rise reminded the group: “We’re not going to turn down, we’re not going to disappear. Our work together doesn’t end in the streets.”
“We were out here all summer. Welcome to the fall, y’all.”