For months there were warnings that if the presidential election dragged on past Election Day, Philadelphia could be the site of mass civil unrest or political violence.
But something very different happened, instead. The city danced.
As the world’s eyes were on the largest city in the most critical swing state, Philadelphians sang and protested and marched and pasted printouts of Gritty in weird places. Videos of people grooving while in line to cast their mail ballot went viral before Election Day, then again when hundreds took part in a dance party for two days outside the Convention Center before results were known, cheering the workers counting ballots and dancing yards from supporters of the president who demanded the count be halted.
It seemed impromptu. It wasn’t entirely.
The undeniable joy before, on, and after Election Day was organic. But a coalition of Philadelphia progressive organizations, many of them Black-led, have for months planned for political tension and unrest, determined to turn down the temperature.
They say they were resolute in cultivating a positive vibe around Election Day, even in a city where the National Guard patrolled and the media zoomed in on the city just a week after police killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, in West Philadelphia. The organizers planned for the likelihood that the election wouldn’t be settled for days.
“We had a plan for each phase of this,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor and organizing director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Working Families Party. “There’s still another phase of this, and we have to deal with a sitting president who will not accept the election results.
“When there’s so much hate and so much resistance to truth and justice,” he said, “joy is itself an act of resistance.”
Working Families Party is a labor-aligned third party — its ascendance in Philadelphia culminated last year in its candidate Kendra Brooks becoming the first third-party city councilmember in modern history. The group handed out those yellow “Count Every Vote” sweatshirts that blanketed Philadelphia last week, and 40,000 black “Vote Today Philly” T-shirts people wore ahead of Election Day.
O’Rourke said the tone in Philadelphia in the days after Election Day was set in the days leading up to it. There were the photos and videos of people dancing while waiting in line, jamming to live music in many cases supplied by Joy to the Polls, a program the Working Families Party launched in Philadelphia and then expanded to swing states nationwide.
Joy to the Polls was part of Working Families Party’s Election Defenders program that trained volunteers in de-escalation tactics they could use if trouble started at a polling place, said Nelini Stamp, Working Families Party’s director of strategy.
It was a hit. Then, the day before Election Day in Detroit, two poll challengers were removed by police from a ballot-processing site, and Stamp and other organizers mobilized again, asking themselves: “How can we drown out if the right wing comes?" she said. "What do we counter them with in a way that is supportive to our broader goals of making sure all the votes are counted?”
In Philadelphia, supporters of President Donald Trump did come, standing outside the Convention Center waving flags and echoing the president’s baseless allegations of substantial and widespread voter fraud. Working Families Party hired a DJ and planned to be at 12th and Arch Streets to give people a space to demand every vote be counted.
They planned to stay for two hours. Instead, the “Count Every Vote” event grew — bands showed up, restaurants passed out free food, and elected officials spoke as hundreds of people danced around them. Some wore Biden-Harris pins, but others chanted to defund the police and demanded a Green New Deal, positions Biden does not support.
It turned into a two-day block party, put together by groups ranging from organized labor to uber-progressive Reclaim Philadelphia to Power Interfaith, a group of faith leaders who held a prayer circle at 12th and Arch on Friday.
And Philadelphians, who are experts at throwing block parties, made this one their own — clapping to Philly Elmo and the drumline, drowning out a man yelling homophobic slurs with a French horn, and bopping around in costumes ranging from Joe Biden to a T-rex.
The local groups had been working together for weeks planning a “mass mobilization” in the event of electoral chaos, launching a pledge titled “nobody comes for Philly," a promise to “not rest until our state counts every vote.”
That continued Saturday, mere hours after Philadelphia delivered the votes needed to push news organizations to declare that Biden had won Pennsylvania, and therefore the presidency. More than 1,500 people gathered on Independence Mall, listening to leaders in faith, labor, and politics still demand that every vote be counted.
During the event, Nikki Grant, cofounder of public interest law center Amistad Law Project, told the crowd that the city made something special out of the attention from the world, which saw “our unshakable joy.”
“Our city knows that we need a change,” said Charles Patton, 26, an airport worker from South Philly who was laid off during the pandemic. “It’s time to stop being reactive to negativity, and start acting toward positivity.”
He’s a member of Unite Here Local 274, the union that represents hospitality workers and had a robust get-out-the-vote operation. Unite Here also had a noticeable presence at the Convention Center, where its members waved signs and wore T-shirts that read: “I’m kicking Trump out.”
The organizations were supported by the same half-dozen politicians who showed up repeatedly, members of the city’s ascendant progressive movement.
Philadelphia State Sen.-elect Nikil Saval was among them, and said the joyful vibe near the Convention Center was something of a “gradual unburdening” for Democrats who saw the presidency get closer by the day, even as Trump worked to undermine the integrity of the election. Saval stressed that mood was deliberate.
“The Working Families Party and all of the associated organizations,” he said, “wanted a party atmosphere in response to the quasi-fascist implications and threats that were quite serious.”
In addition to the Trump campaign filing lawsuits and the president making comments targeting Philadelphia voters, there was verbal tension at 12th and Arch Streets between the opposing political groups.
On Thursday, two Virginia men were arrested outside the Convention Center, near where all those people danced, after police said they drove to Philadelphia armed with an AR-style rifle and 160 rounds of ammunition. On Friday, there was a bomb threat — it was unfounded and there was no announced connection to the Convention Center, but caused an evacuation at the shopping mall three blocks away.
People danced anyway.
“They were dancing through pain,” Stamp said. “They were dancing through the pain of the administration and of still continuing to see Black people get shot and killed, and the pain of a pandemic on the rise everywhere that hit Philadelphia really hard.
"They said ‘Don’t mess with us, because we will come at you with, yes, an uprising, but also joy and hard work.’”