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What's next for the Black Lives Matter movement in Philly?

Local activists want to build on the movement’s energy to affect meaningful change.

Asa Khalif , shown speaking in August at the spot where his cousin Brandon Tate-Brown was shot by police last December, heads the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter.
Asa Khalif , shown speaking in August at the spot where his cousin Brandon Tate-Brown was shot by police last December, heads the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff Photographer, File photo

EIGHTH AND Market was humming with its usual mix of shoppers, transit riders and lost souls on Friday afternoon, as digital ads in the sky bathed the corner below in flashes of color.

Asa Khalif stood on a sidewalk near the intersection, surrounded by a handful of Black Lives Matter protesters, and tried to draw attention to a protest in memory of his cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown.

Ever since Tate-Brown was fatally shot by Philadelphia police during a controversial struggle in Mayfair last December, Khalif and members of the movement have routinely taken to the streets to call for justice and change - in the rain, in the snow, in numbers large and small.

They've shouted down Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey at public events, and also had agreeable, eye-opening one-on-one conversations with cops when they least expected to.

The Black Lives Matter movement has energy, both here and in cities across the country, at a time when there seems to be widespread support for issues at the heart of the movement, like education, economic and criminal-justice reforms.

But its leaders are wrestling with the same questions: What else can they do to effect change, besides organizing protests primarily focused on law enforcement?

Where do they go from here?

Khalif and several other members of Black Lives Matter debated the uncertain future - and the ever-complicated present and past - in the posh confines of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 21.

The center held a panel discussion that night on modern civil-rights issues, a few hours before the nearby Merriam Theater hosted "The Movement Revisited," a performance composed by Grammy-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride that featured his 18-piece band and recitations of quotes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and President Obama.

Christopher Norris, a local journalist and activist moderating the panel, had said a few days before the event that he hoped it could be a turning point of sorts, allowing members of Black Lives Matter to present their message to a decidedly different audience, and in a different way.

A few days after the fact, Norris said the event had gone better than he'd anticipated. "It was a very mature, very fluid discussion," he said.

"There were just as many white people in the audience as black, and just as many old people as young.

"There was a lot of participation, and people defining what civil rights means to them. No one was talking over each other. There were a lot of calls to continue the dialogue."

Norris credited Kimmel Center media-relations director Leslie Patterson-Tyler with bringing the idea of the panel discussion to life.

She pointed out the similarities between the causes for which King and other civil-rights leaders fought decades ago and the issues that have led a new generation to fight today.

"It's a lot of the same issues, from better jobs to an increase in the minimum wage to making sure that you're not policed unfairly," Patterson-Tyler said.

"But a lot of modern-day activists lack that historical perspective. There's a lot they can learn from those who paved the way."

If history can serve as a road map to Black Lives Matter activists, it probably will point them toward the political arena.

"I think the movement realizes we need to be at the table," said Khalif, who heads the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter.

"We have to be prepared, so when it's time to sit at the table, we can make real changes and lobby for causes that affect us.

"I think everyone realizes that you can't just scream, and then when you get attention, not know what the next step is."

Last month, Politico reported that the liberal-leaning Democracy Alliance network of political donors was urging some of its members to donate to Black Lives Matter and groups that support the movement.

Khalif noted that members of the movement in other states had met with Democratic presidential candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Locally, the movement's connection with the political establishment is flimsy at best. Both Khalif and Norris have complained in the past of feeling ignored by black politicians in Philadelphia.

"I think when people say that they don't feel a connection with some elected officials, whether they're black or white, there is good reason why they feel that way," said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church and Patterson-Tyler's husband.

"There's a mood in our country, from the extreme left to the extreme right, that elected officials are just not responsive in the way they should be."

City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., whose father was the city's first African-American mayor, said the public feels disconnected from politicians in general.

But Goode, who has championed economic equality during his nearly 16-year run on City Council, said the Black Lives Matter movement's fluid leadership structure and social-media savvy could make it a powerful force for change.

"Social media is a more powerful tool than we had as young people, and I believe they believe it's more effective than engaging in the political system," he said.

"My advice to them is to do both. They should vote . . . and decide how to engage in politics, if they choose to run."

Every generation, Tyler said, has political movements that begin spontaneously, with great bursts of energy. But not all last.

"You have to figure out how to harness that energy and focus it," he said. "What does victory look like?"

Khalif said the local movement is focused on grooming future leaders and refining its pitch, knowing that any conversation that involves race, civil rights and the law might be contentious.

But its members also will organize a street protest when they deem it necessary - as can be expected with the Dec. 15 anniversary of Tate-Brown's death approaching.

The case is still a powder keg of emotion here. But it also has highlighted the power of persistence.

In the months after Tate-Brown's death, his family called for the names of the officers involved in the shooting to be released, along with video footage and interview transcripts tied to the incident. They also challenged police officials who argued that Tate-Brown was shot reaching into his car for a handgun, after he struggled with two cops who pulled him over.

In the end, the officers were identified, and the video footage - which showed Tate-Brown being shot near the trunk of his car - were released.

"When we're yelling, it's not just for justice for police shootings and police brutality," Khalif said. "We're talking about health care, education, economic health. All of the things that are a part of life."

On Twitter: @dgambacorta