Ask any organizer who’s coordinated a protest this week 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 this week 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 Saturday’s 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.”
So when Washington and others encounter someone who they’ve never seen at a planning meeting holding a demonstration of their own, it can evoke a certain level of frustration, even when the intentions are good. But tension grows worse if there’s suspicion that a person is “hijacking” protests for clout and self-promotion.
On Thursday, the issue of who gets to lead protests demanding changes in Philly policing came to a boil after Sixx King, a Philly filmmaker, led a protest 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.
Among demands Thursday, King called for the psychological evaluation of officers every six months and for misconduct settlements to come out of taxpayer funds.
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 Committee with a Community Control Board that can hire and fire officers. The list goes on.
Ultimately, King wants reforms for the existing department, the coalition is looking to defund and abolish the current system.
Many attendees did not realize the nuanced differences among the protests Thursday and assumed the King’s protest had ties with Black Lives Matter. It didn’t.
Activists like Washington worry the confusion 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.
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.”
Videos of King speaking with police at least at one intersection Thursday raised eyebrows.
King maintains he doesn’t have “any police contacts whatsoever,” he was simply asking officers to let protesters through.
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.”
King said he was five when his mother fought to bring attention to the disproportionate rates at which Black men were being sent to the electric chair. It sparked a lifetime interest in fighting for social justice.
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.
“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 of the young people he claims approached him to lead protests. “They wanted direction.”
Still, social media posts regarding Philly demonstrations have called for people to avoid King’s protests, going as far as calling him a “fraud.” King postponed a planned Friday march to Saturday, citing weather concerns.
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.
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.