All power to the people.
That’s what the Black Panthers used to say in the 1960s, at a time when they were trying to feed and educate their Oakland community while protecting the people from police brutality.
I thought of that slogan earlier this month when more than 100 people joined me in a demonstration at Philadelphia police headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets. It was a demonstration that sought to remove 328 active police officers from street duty after they allegedly penned racist, hateful, and patently offensive Facebook posts that were cataloged by the Plain View Project. It was a demonstration to let the police know that the community can mobilize quickly and act with a single purpose. But more than anything, it was a demonstration to let the people know the kind of power ordinary citizens actually have.
“The protest was necessary to bring attention to the total disrespect of human beings who live and work in this city,” Rochelle Bilal, Guardian Civic League president and Democratic candidate for Philadelphia sheriff, told me. “This should not have happened, coming from an institution whose employees are sworn to protect and serve the very human beings that they say these hateful things about.
"It is very important that we don’t just stop at the protest, that we continue to press forward and have as many conversations with everyone, to get the results we need, not only for the citizens of this great city of ours, and also for the good police officers who are now damaged by the actions of others.”
I agree, and so do others for whom the hateful Facebook posts were the last straw.
The coalition that quickly pulled off the protest consists of several entities, including the activist group POWER, the Philadelphia Student Union, the National Action Network, Mothers in Charge, and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. WURD Radio and Radio One backed the effort, as well. And more organizations are signing on.
Now, as this coalition moves to the next phase by scheduling meetings with Police Commissioner Richard Ross and other city officials, we’ll need more than slogans. We need concrete action.
While we appreciate the Police Department’s putting 10 cops on desk duty as investigations continue, we believe that all 328 who allegedly posted hateful material must be taken off the streets. Their continued presence in our communities endangers the people who were disparaged in those social-media posts.
“We have to hold to account those persons that have broken trust with the community and policy within the [department],” the Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church told me.
But holding these officers to account doesn’t mean we don’t want them to do their jobs, he said.
“I believe in police,” Waller said. “I believe in the necessity of them. We have to know the men and women we give a level of authority have the disposition to handle that power.”
That’s why we need more than a protest born out of the frustration of radio listeners who called into my WURD morning show and asked when we would go beyond complaining and actually do something to address racism.
We need a plan that’s about more than just taking officers off the streets, one that includes concrete steps toward making it both unacceptable and punishable to engage in racism in the Philadelphia Police Department.
The Rev. Mark Tyler, of the group POWER, says that achieving this means looking to history and understanding that it’s about more than any single person. It’s about working together to bring about change.
“Coalition-building is critical to the movement,” Tyler told me. “Historically that’s always been the case in every movement. The March on Washington was probably the most successful public action that black folks have ever had in this country — the Million Man March notwithstanding. The March on Washington led to actual legislative change. But if you ask the folks who organized it, that was all Dr. King. But many of the issues that were held up that day, such as raising the minimum wage to $2 an hour, that was A. Philip Randolph, a union leader who had been organizing since before King was born.”
At this month’s rally, we stood together and demanded meetings with the police commissioner and the mayor, the removal of 328 officers from the street, and a change to the department’s seemingly racist culture.
In addition to setting up meetings with Ross and others, we are looking to public officials to pen resolutions denouncing the hate expressed in those Facebook posts. We are seeking to strengthen accountability for police officers who engage in this kind of behavior. And we have lawyers on standby in case we need to take legal action to force change.
All power to the people. That’s what I saw at the rally. And now that we know just how powerful we are, we can stand up together, and win.