In their own voices, organizers of the 2020 Philadelphia protests of George Floyd’s murder tell stories of working for social justice in the new book, How We Stay Free: Notes on a Black Uprising.

Released Feb. 5, it is a collection of essays, poetry, history, photographs, and artwork by those who protested, or supported the demonstrators, during the summer of 2020.

The Paul Robeson House & Museum, owned by the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, produced the anthology. There will be a virtual discussion of the book on Friday, Feb. 18, from 6-8 p.m.

“We wanted to present the voices of people who were doing the long work of fixing racial injustice and community care in the middle of a pandemic,” said Christopher R. Rogers, program director at Robeson House, and one of the co-editors.

The publisher, Common Notions, described How We Stay Free as “an anthology-in-action for an uprising that remains unfinished.”

George Floyd, 46, was a Black man killed May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis when police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes despite outcries from onlookers.

There were protests across the United States and the globe.

The Philadelphia protests continued in the summer and fall of 2020 to also bring attention to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, the domestic violence murder in Philadelphia on June 8 of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transgender woman, and the police shooting and killing of Walter Wallace Jr. on Oct. 26. Wallace, a father of eight, who was carrying a knife when he walked out of his house. His family said he was suffering a mental health crisis.

The book also includes essays about Philadelphia Housing Action’s protests to demand affordable housing, and the Philadelphia Black Student Alliance, which had a “speak-out” to call attention to the trauma Black students experienced, especially in predominantly white magnet schools.

“We needed to document this movement in first person. We needed to be able to control our narrative and tell our stories [as they actually happened] and not fall victim to romanticism and sensationalism,” said Fajr Muhammad, co-editor. “That was important for us.”

The Robeson House and Asian Arts Initiative are co-sponsoring a virtual discussion about the book. To view the livestream, register at asianartsphilly.ticketleap.com.

The panel will include the editors; two contributors to the book; Jena Harris, co-founder of the West Philly Bunny Hop, a mutual aid network that provides free produce and meals; and Charlyn Griffith, a poet, social scientist, and cultural worker.

They will be joined by Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, Ph.D., professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development, at the City University of NY, and author of the book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (2014)

For more on the book, visit the project website: https://howwestayfree.com

Bridging gaps while also intertwined

Anne Ishii, Asian Arts executive director, said her organization hosted an exhibit last year on mutual-aid movements as Asian Americans dealt with a steep rise in violent hate crime.

She said Black and Asian communities each have a long history of creating mutual-aid programs to support members of their groups “in the absence of protection from the state.” Leaders at Asian Arts read Gordon-Nembhard’s book.

Ishii sees the work being done in West Philadelphia to feed residents and protesters as similar to the Asian community’s efforts.

Ishii said, “The Asian American community has been deeply intertwined with the Black community and we have mutually benefited each other for a long time.”

But more collaborations and conversations are important, she said.

Voices from the book

Jena Harris, who, with Katie Briggs, created the West Philly Bunny Hop food distribution network, wrote about starting to distribute food to her neighbors as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants and caused job losses.

She and Briggs began serving food in the Cedar Park neighborhood and in Malcolm X Park on April 4. Soon they were delivering food to protesters around the city.

“Less than a week after George Floyd’s murder, our immediate neighbors and volunteers living near Malcolm X Park saw police indiscriminately assault children and residents with pepper spray and tear gas,” Harris wrote.

Sheyla Street, a first-year student at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, wrote about her work with the Philadelphia Black Student Alliance to protest racism in the city’s public schools.

Street took part in a June 2020 town hall, or “speak-out,” about the uprisings in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Coalition for Transforming Trauma and Violence.

She was nervous.

“Although I spent hours after school working on Masterman’s diversity committee, testifying and recounting memories of students referring to my people as monkeys and [the N-word], I had never gone on the record about my experience in front of people who were not even involved,” she wrote.

She transferred to Central High starting her sophomore year and graduated from Central in 2021.

And Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad wrote about the June 2020 murder of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in an essay called “Black Trans Lives Matter.” They also described incidents of racism in majority white LGBQT spaces, where Black gay people were kept out of nightclubs by “racialized dress codes.”

Rogers, of the Robeson House, said the protests of 2020 are tied to the legacy of Paul Robeson’s own protests against segregation and lynching in the 20th century.

The book is about honoring today’s change-makers and acknowledging older generations, but there is a new urgency for today’s generation, Rogers said:

“Angela Davis had this amazing quote that while today’s activists stand on the shoulders of giants, at the same time, ‘those who are standing on our shoulders may be able to see new vistas and new horizons.’ "