As the Philly region kicks off a toned-down, socially distanced Fourth of July celebration, for some it’s a chance to take to the streets in a historic American city and protest the systemic racism that’s embedded in the founding of the United States.
At noon, a protest was planned outside of the Municipal Services Building in Center City — the previous location of the controversial Frank Rizzo statue, which was removed one month ago after years of calls for its removal due to the former mayor’s history of bigotry.
The protest — organized by MOVE — is focused on ending “police terror,” and calling for Philly Black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal’s freedom. July 3 marked the 38th anniversary of the first-degree murder conviction of Abu-Jamal, who was found guilty of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in July 1982. Activists have fought to overturn his conviction for decades.
More than 500 people gathered outside the MSB, many chanting in a circle and many more using bicycles to form a protective perimeter and block police access. Crowd attendees were diverse — both racially and in age, with older activists standing shoulder to shoulder with younger ones.
At 11 a.m., a protest called “Fist for the Fallen” — organized by activist group Red Fist Rising — met at 30th Street Station to commemorate Black ancestors who died during enslavement in the Americas, and to confront the continued racial oppression still ongoing today. Attendees wore red and black, as well as painted their fists red or wore red gloves. Demonstrators from this, and other groups, converged at noon, filling in the closed-down street between the MSB and City Hall. As the crowd grew, an 8-year-old with a bullhorn led people through energetic chants.
Organizers with Red Fist Rising spray-painted other protesters’ hands red in preparation of nine minutes of silence with red fists in the air in honor of George Floyd, who died in the hands of police after an officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
Matumb Um Nyobe, an organizer with the African People’s Socialist Party, had a table set up at the protest with literature and information on the prison industrial complex, and how the system disproportionately and unjustly incarcerates Black people in America.
“It’s violence,” Nyobe said. “The United States is a prison for Africans.”
Posters at his table included messages like “Fight for justice for George Floyd” and “Death to colonialism.” Nyobe also pointed out that he doesn’t necessarily fully agree with the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.”
“We don’t say Black Lives Matter, we say Black power matters,” Nyobe said. “If we don’t have Black power, our lives do not matter.”
For Zoe Sturges, what brought her out to protest on the Fourth of July was her elementary school students. Sturges, a teacher at a school in North Philadelphia, held a sign that read: “Cops tried to cuff my kindergartener.”
Sturges said one of her students figured out how to call 911 on the school phone and did it several times. The police, according to Sturges, were not happy.
“So they showed up at the school and wanted to, as a ‘favor’ to us, cuff him in front of his friends, put him in the squad car and drive him around the block,” Sturges said. “We said no.”
It’s not the first time Sturges’ students have had issues with police within their schools. At Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia, Sturges said two of her fourth graders were arrested in math class for getting in a fight in which they pulled a child’s hair.
“Children should never be arrested,” Sturges said. “The fact that kids as young as 10 can be arrested in their classrooms is horrible and it’s been proven that the more interactions you have with police, the more likely you are to end up in prison as an adult.”
“They’re criminalized very early and it’s all part of the school to prison pipeline,” Sturges added.
After weeks of protests in the city, demonstrators have built a playbook of tactics and informal self-organizing. A young man who only wanted to give his name only as “M” because he’s involved in sensitive organizing work, corralled young people to use their bicycles to form barriers between police officers and protesters.
“It keeps the crowd safe, too,” M said. “If cops move in on a crowd that’s peaceful, the bikes can come and stop them in their place, as much as they can.”
M said he was not formally a part of any group staging the demonstration, he had simply taken it on himself to go around asking people with bikes to form lines.
Many of the young people on hand had helmets and goggles in case there was violence, or had phone numbers written on the inside of their arms in case of arrest.
From MSB, hundreds of protesters made their way to City Hall, in front of the Octavius Catto statue, where Mike Africa Jr. — the son of Debbie and Mike Africa — hopped on the mic to deliver a demand to local officials.
“We have seen lives change. We have seen people who call themselves protectors of the community get on their knees,” Africa said. “We are gonna keep them down on their knees. We’ve got to put our foot on their necks until they submit to the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
A small group of counter-protesters were in attendance on Saturday from a group called Key of David Christian Center, holding up posters with misogynistic messages and other incendiary rhetoric. The group of about five people — including one man with a bullhorn — were blocked off by both protesters and police. Speakers from the church group appeared to be trying to provoke a confrontation, shouting racist diatribes and insulting protestors. At times when tension was building, volunteers stepped in to diffuse the situation.
At 2 p.m., a Black Trans Assembly for Abolition began at Front and Chestnut streets. At least 500 protesters are marching from there to the Liberty Bell in support of Black trans people who are victims of violence so often that the city of Philadelphia has called it an “epidemic.”
The march started with 10-year-old Zel Wiley, standing in the bed of a pickup truck and addressing the assembled crowd through a PA system that “We all deserve to not just be tolerated, but celebrated!” Wiley then sang a song they wrote about Black Lives Matter.
The rally and march was made up of mostly white people, who were told to assemble behind the front line of Black trans women, and follow their lead. “White folks, you are not starting chants today,” said march leader Samantha Rise. “You are listening and you are amplifying.”
The march comes a month after the brutally dismembered body of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black trans woman, was discovered in the Schuylkill River. Several marchers held banners displaying the name and portrait of not just Fells but many other trans men and women who have been killed in the last 10 years.
“To be honest, I’m not happy to be here,” Christian Lovehall told the crowd. “I am tired of having to march for Black trans women, Black trans men who have been murdered. This is not a happy July 4th for me. I’m tired of white people coming to these marches, feel good about themselves, go home, and do nothing else.”
Lovehall did not put any faith in police or systems of authority to protect the trans community, as the community has always been self-reliant. He did ask the crowd for money.
“We need justice, we need peace, and we need your money. So pay us!” shouted Lovehall. He then made reference to a GoFundMe campaign the was created in the wake of Fells’ murder.
“It sickens me to know that with a goal of $1000, this community gave $85,000 to a dead woman. What can Rem’mie do with $85,000 now that she’s dead? Nothing!” he said.
The march moved through Old City, pausing at Arch and 7th Streets between the African American Museum Philadelphia and the federal prison across the street. The crowd went silent for a moment to hear inmates inside the prison tapping the frosted glass of their cells.
The three-hour event was peaceful, but angry.
“I don’t want justice. I want liberation,” said co-organizer Liora Libertad. “I don’t give a damn about no white folk here. No, we have to fight, and I will hold my freedom in my hands and defend it with the blade of a knife!”
The march continued, with police presence, to 6th and Chestnut streets, between the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, and eventually dispersed without incident.
WHYY’s Kimberly Paynter and Billy Penn’s Michaela Winberg contributed reporting.
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