A coalition of community groups is targeting City Council members in an attempt to curb gentrification and give residents more say over the sale of city-owned land, but its tactics are turning off some longtime community activists.
The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC) and other groups loudly protested a fundraiser for Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and a City Council meeting last week, leading to a physical altercation at the fundraiser and the arrest of one of the group’s co-founders at the council meeting. Group members said they intend to continue their protests and keep the pressure on City Council members to prevent the city’s booming development market from displacing low-income residents and ending the legislative courtesy known as “councilmanic prerogative.”
While the protests so far seem to have been directed at longtime 3rd District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, group co-founder Abdul-Aliy Muhammad said the group isn’t just going after her.
“We’re not just targeting Jannie. We’re targeting all folks who are causing displacement in Philadelphia,” Muhammad said in an interview with the Tribune earlier this week. “We are targeting politicians who are in bed with developers.”
But some community leaders say the group’s tactics are drowning out its messaging.
“To me, their platform was to disrupt and not really get their message [across],” said Kayzar Abdul-Khabir, a longtime community activist and committee person for the 3rd Ward 5th Division who attended Blackwell’s campaign event last week. “Let us know what your message is because the community wants to hear it.”
Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP and not related to Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, said he was not familiar with the BBWC or the coalition. Nonetheless, he questioned whether the coalition’s approach would bring more attention to their issues or push people away.
He added that when protests turn volatile, it distracts from their core purpose: To influence policy.
“The disruption becomes the story,” Rodney Muhammad said.
Blackwell said she did not know the BBWC or the coalition, has never seen them in her district, and was not aware of their demands. While she is willing sit down and listen to anyone, Blackwell said that comes with a caveat.
“I am not interested in being a part of foolishness,” she said, “only a part of legitimate conversations. … I don’t know anything about this group. They just show up and seem to want to fight.”
Who is the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative?
The BBWC came on the scene in 2016, launched by residents Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, Shani Akilah and Dominique London, but has since grown to nearly 20 members.
The group originally focused on addressing the lack of diversity on the boards of nonprofits that primarily assist Black and Brown residents, and creating equitable work spaces. The BBWC also seeks to eliminate racism in LGBTQ spaces and offers trainings and workshops on topics that include anti-oppression and white supremacy.
Last year, the BBWC launched its anti-displacement campaign “Disappearing Blackness,” which focuses on preventing the displacement of residents — typically low-income, Black and Brown people — due to gentrification primarily in West and Southwest Philadelphia. The group has since partnered with Philadelphia Tenants Union, Act Up Philadelphia, Philly for R.E.A.L. Justice and others on the campaign. The protests last week against Blackwell were part of the campaign.
The coalition has called for the city to set aside 40 percent of city-owned land in each district for residents and community members to determine how best to use it; giving residents priority to purchase city-owned land over developers; and new investments from the city for community-led initiatives fighting displacement.
A prime target for the coalition also is councilmanic prerogative. In this unwritten tradition of City Council, members defer to the 10 district legislators to make land-use decisions in their jurisdictions, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report. The legislative courtesy is typically used during the sale of city-owned property and in zoning matters.
Akilah said councilmanic prerogative reduces accountability, circumvents community input on the sale and development of city-owned land, leads to the displacement of low-income residents and exacerbates gentrification.
“We believe that one person should not have the power to decide the destinies of thousands of Philadelphians,” Akilah said.
Akilah specifically condemned Blackwell’s recent use of councilmanic prerogative to move forward with a possible sale of city-owned land at 4601 Market St. in West Philadelphia, the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. building. The developer, IS3 Team, which includes Iron Stone Real Estate Partners, intends to turn the 13-acre property into a health and community services complex.
At first stalling the legislation to begin the process of transferring the property, Blackwell dropped her opposition after Mayor Jim Kenney gave her assurances that he would work with the councilwoman to resolve issues she had related to a West Philadelphia developer.
Akilah accused Blackwell of ignoring the community’s opposition to the development.
Blackwell refuted Akilah’s accusations, saying she held public meetings about the 4601 Market St. development and residents and the businesses community supported the project.
Blackwell added that councilmanic prerogative was essential for district members.
“That’s my job to be dealing with this project,” she said. “Councilmanic prerogative to them means that district council people have no authority.”
Blackwell added that the coalition did not appear to be serving the community.
“Apparently they’re serving themselves,” said the councilwoman. “I don’t know them, so I don’t know who they claim they serve.”
How is the BBWC trying to effect change?
All 17 members of the City Council are up for election, as well as Mayor Jim Kenney and the sheriff. Long-serving at-large City Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown and William Greenlee are not running for re-election. Dozens of prospective candidates are considering running in the May primary.
The BBWC has not put forward any candidates to run for seats on council nor endorsed any candidates. Akilah did not rule out attempting to hold candidate debates.
The group plans to continue to protest Blackwell and other council members throughout the year, and it has started with Blackwell because many of the group’s members live in her West Philadelphia district, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad said.
Akilah said the coalition uses direct confrontation, including usurping public events, to interrogate elected officials in order to raise awareness about their issues.
“We are not interested in doing what is acceptable within the confines of an oppressive system,” Akilah said. “The point is to shake people’s sensibilities. … Yes, our tactics are different and that is on purpose.”
The coalition took over a re-election campaign event for Blackwell at the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia on Feb. 18. Videos of the confrontation at the event posted on social media show a scene of yelling, shouting, pushing and shoving. Each side says the other started the altercation.
After Blackwell’s campaign event, activists from the coalition, including Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, attempted to bring their demands to City Council.
“This meeting is being disrupted!” Abdul-Aliy Muhammad shouted while walking around the rear of the chambers on Thursday with a handful of other activists. Quickly surrounded by authorities, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad fell to the ground and eventually was carried out of the chambers as another member of the coalition read from a prepared statement.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad was arrested and booked on seven charges, including aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime, resisting arrest, disrupting a meeting, and disorderly conduct, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. A stay-away order imposed on Abdul-Aliy Muhammad also prevents the activist from returning to City Hall.
When asked whether the coalition can make an impact without advocating for candidates to change the makeup of City Council, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad said, “We know we can be [successful] because we have the majority of people being impacted by these issues on our side.”
Abdul-Khabir said he sees the same problems the BBWC does and he agrees with many of its demands, including stemming gentrification. He even encouraged the group to advocate for the issues they want. But he warned that disrespecting community leaders and drowning out others with loud chants will not bring about policy changes or unity.
“Listening goes both ways,” he said. “No one’s issues should be greater than the other. We should all be standing on the same issues and then that unification will allow people to see us for what we’re trying to do.”
Rodney Muhammad encouraged the coalition to continue advocating for change, but said the measure of any community group’s success is determined on Election Day.
“What shakes up people who are in office is votes and potential votes,” Rodney Muhammad said. “Protests? They [council members] can get through that. … But don’t go silent on Election Day.”