With so many protests, which reform demands will be heard?

Sixx King, an activist and filmmaker, led a peaceful protest through Center City, Philadelphia Thursday afternoon. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sixx King, an activist and filmmaker, led a peaceful protest through Center City, Philadelphia Thursday afternoon. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to add more context. Also links to certain social media posts were removed because they made allegations beyond what was reported in this story.

Updated: Sunday, 6/14/20, 4:16 p.m.

Ask any organizer who’s coordinated a protest lately and they’ll tell you, putting together a successful and safe demonstration requires more than a social media post giving people a time and place to meet.

Although the protests that have taken place in Philadelphia over the past two weeks have been put together quickly, organizers with Philly REAL Justice, Black Lives Matter, and The Black Alliance for Peace, among others, have been working overtime to figure out the logistics.

At the first day of protests, organizers made sure there were legal observers present, medical support, and masks and gloves for those marching.

That’s not including the years of work organizers have put in to develop solid policy proposals, explained Devren Washington with Black Lives Matter Philly.

“A lot of people see the action, but they don’t see the sleepless nights, the long hours, the study, the meetings — the meetings,” he said, laughing. “The hours that we spend deliberating and making painstaking decisions, understanding that, like from our perspective, we’re trying to do the best and what is best for the community.”

The movement calling for an end to police brutality, however,  is not a monolith and protests across the country have inspired a new generation of activists.

Last Thursday, the issue of who gets to lead protests demanding changes in Philly policing came to a boil after Sixx King, a Philly filmmaker and long time activist, led a demonstration of thousands from the Art Museum to the Liberty Bell. King had a list of reforms that are seen as much too lenient by a group of organizations working with BLM Philly.

When Washington and other organizers saw King leading a demonstration, and they didn’t recognize him from the local organizing landscape, they said they had questions about who King was and his messaging. 

Among other demands, King called for the psychological evaluation of officers every six months, for misconduct settlements to come out of police pension funds, a forensic review of officers’ social media, and a public database listing police misconduct.

Meanwhile, the Black Philly Radical Collective, a group of 12 organizations including Black Lives Matter Philly and Philly for Real Justice, want to go much further.

The collective wants to prevent increases to the upcoming police budget, nearly $23 million in funds. All private police forces, including university and transit police, should be disbanded, they say. There are additional calls to replace the Police Advisory Commission with a Community Control Board that can hire and fire officers (King is calling for an outside agency to investigate police, too). The list goes on.

Ultimately, King wants reforms for the existing department quickly, the coalition is looking to defund and abolish the current system.

Activists like Washington worry the differences could muddle the demands the collective has spent years hammering out, or worse.

“It ends up giving people in city council — it gives the mayor — an out from the actual solutions that would immediately fix, or almost immediately fix, problems that we are seeing,” Washington explained.

Still, King argues there should be room for different voices and different demands to come through. Instead, King has been the subject of scrutiny for not reaching out to Black Lives Matter organizers — something other organic marches have not done either. 

“I don’t have to be a part of a group in order to voice my concerns or to be active,” said King. “And I don’t have to check in with a collective. I don’t have to check in with anyone because this is not the Boy Scouts.”

The most dangerous thing King has been accused of, is working with police. The unfounded claim has spun out of control partly because of a video clip where King is asking police to let his protesters go through police barricades. 

In addition to the list of demands the collective laid out, it has been the stance of Black Philly Radical Collective not to coordinate protest routes with police during marches. 

“We’re not going to ask the same people that murder us, ‘Hey, is it ok if we protest you murdering us here and now?’” said Deandra Jefferson with Philly for Real Justice. “That just doesn’t make any sense, to ask for permission from the people who are the problem.”

King holds a similar stance of not working with police and worries the video of him asking police to let protesters through is being misconstrued.

“Me dealing with all of this stuff takes away from the work that needs to be done, that’s the bigger thing” said King.

King said he doesn’t have “any police contacts whatsoever,” he was simply asking officers to let protesters through, but he has faced death threats and harassment  in the past week because of those unsubstantiated accusations.

In one video obtained by WHYY, King is marching around City Hall and a young woman yells at King and later tells the crowd, “This man is working with the feds, he’s against us.”

The entire time King says, “I love you, my sister.”

Pointing to his work as a documentary filmmaker and radio host, King rejects accusations that he’s taken an interest in the current wave of activism sweeping the nation to gain notoriety.

Growing up in Florida, King fought alongside his mother to bring attention to the disproportionate rates at which Black men were being sent to the electric chair. At the age of five, it sparked a lifetime in fighting for social justice.

Even before King directed a 2012 documentary of mothers who lost their children to gun violence, he said he has spent time mentoring youth and fighting to change parole and probation requirements with the Reform Alliance.

Cruzie Cruz, a local actor and one of the new activists looking to change policing, said he and some friends were the ones who asked King to help them organize a march and to take them “under his wing.”

“We knew about his past history with activism, such as Meek, and other things of that nature,” said Cruz. “[We wanted] to be able to sort of educate ourselves on what’s the proper steps after a march when  the protest is all over and to really get things accomplished.”

That includes pushing for reform with city leaders, said Cruz. This week he and King met with Councilmember at-Large Allan Domb to discuss their demands.

For King, his involvement boils down to offering people direction.

“They needed a seasoned person to come in and help direct them because they didn’t want to get gassed by the police anymore,” he said.

But this isn’t the first time King has been the subject of controversy. He once wore an original Ku Klux Klan robe to argue the point that Black-on-Black crime has killed more people than the white supremacist group. King stands firm saying he was making a point on violence.

“That was before Black Lives Matter,” he said. “This was before Trayvon Martin got killed. I was always on the front lines doing the work.”

Still, social media posts regarding Philly demonstrations have called for people to avoid King’s protests, partly taking issue with King organizing independently. King argues no one organization has a monopoly on the movement.

Despite the weather, people still marched through Center City and elsewhere in the city Friday, including Mt. Airy and the Italian Market. Health care workers had a demonstration of their own.

King, Washington and Jefferson know there are several protests happening in Philly any given day and activists don’t want to discourage people from participating.

The crux of the matter, said Jefferson, is people who want to lend support need to do their research and analyze the proposals different groups are putting out.

Jefferson encourages anyone who wants to come out and march to “get their politics in order” and avoid the knee-jerk reaction to “run from march to march” because not all Black people have the same class interests.

“Oprah’s not worried about this,” she explained. “Diddy’s not worried about this. There are certain people who, because of the socioeconomic class that they’re in, even though they’re Black, they don’t have the same motivations. They don’t want to completely overhaul the system because, individually, the system has treated them pretty well.”

At the end of the day, long-time organizers want to protect their work from people who they say might not have the best interests of the community at heart.

Protestors will ultimately have to decide who they want to support. But activists hope they’ll choose carefully.

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