The crowd formed by the dozens on a sultry summer night. Banners were unfolded, posters were lifted into the air, and bullhorns were passed around as familiar cries rang out.
Whose lives matter?
Black lives matter!
No justice! No peace! No racist police!
The protesters, young and old, black and white, fanned out on an improvised march through North Philadelphia, trailed by police officers on bikes and in patrol cars. Their ranks swelled as they marched, and the chants grew more passionate, more profane, as the hours slipped by.
But a problem arose when the marchers reached Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue: There was no agreed-upon plan about what would come next. Should they go north or south? Left or right? Who got to make the call?
They splintered in opposite directions.
That was July 2016 in Philadelphia, amid several consecutive days of large, emotionally charged protests following the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the murders of five police officers during a protest in Dallas.
The size and intensity of those marches are in contrast to the smaller demonstrations that have unfolded this summer after Philadelphia Police Officer Ryan Pownall shot and killed 30-year-old David Jones on June 8 as he ran away after being stopped for riding a dirt bike on Whitaker Avenue near Hunting Park Avenue.
Where have many of the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement gone? There’s nothing simple about the movement or the way it operates in Philadelphia. There’s no central office with a formal hierarchy and no telling how it will evolve from here.
Most of the headlines since Jones’ death have been generated by Asa Khalif, Isaac Gardner, Christopher Norris, and a handful of other activists who have shouted down city politicians at public forums and protested outside Pownall’s house in the Northeast. Their tactics have been both praised and criticized — and have stirred behind-the-scenes disagreements about who, exactly, speaks for Black Lives Matter.
Their roles will likely become the topic of even more debate in the weeks and months ahead. Pownall, who was fired last week by Police Commissioner Richard Ross, will at some point learn if the state Attorney General’s Office will charge him with Jones’ murder. And later this month, a bitter fight over the Police Department’s policy of naming officers who shoot civilians will be heard by a Common Pleas Court judge, who could put a halt to the policy.
Even as the crowds dwindle, the stakes — for the movement and for its most recognizable faces — continue to be raised.
What’s in a name?
For better or worse, Khalif is often depicted as the face of Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia. It’s an unofficial designation.
Khalif first started popping up on the news media’s radar after his cousin Brandon Tate-Brown was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Northeast Philadelphia in 2014. Tall and thin with dark-rimmed glasses, Khalif proved to be one of the most consistent participants and outspoken voices at marches that were held in Tate-Brown’s memory, and that, in turn, made him a voice that reporters regularly sought out for quotes on anything related to race and policing.
But this is where things sometimes get confused. Khalif has described himself as the head of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, which is wholly separate from Black Lives Matter Philadelphia. There doesn’t appear to be any overlap between the groups; when Khalif led the protest outside of Pownall’s house, a member of Black Lives Matter Philadelphia took to Twitter to make it clear that group wasn’t involved.
We did not participate in that protest in any way that individual acted alone https://t.co/GiP7c4t8Iy
— BLM Philly (@BLMPhilly) September 3, 2017
“People know the difference between us, and I’ll leave it at that,” Khalif said during a recent interview. “I’m not worried about what they’re doing. I’m just making sure we’re there for people who need us.”
He knows that some activists gripe about his high profile. “It’s not about me,” he said. “This is about people who feel passionate enough to want change and justice. We put aside our egos and our personalities.”
Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania has about 75 members, said Khalif. It’s unclear how many people belong to the Philadelphia chapter; no one from the organization responded to requests for comment.
The protests might be smaller than they were a year ago, but that doesn’t faze Khalif or Norris, who have been front and center for all of the demonstrations in the wake of Jones’ shooting by Pownall. They usually are joined by Gardner — who took to activism after Jones’ death — and a handful of others, including Greg Brinkley, a former corrections officer. They argue plenty of others are working for the movement behind-the-scenes.
“The movement hasn’t diminished, in my opinion,” said Norris, who describes himself as a journalist and activist. “The work is always done by a few people. People have to adjust their expectations. Black Lives Matter is not always going to be mobs of people marching through a city. Sometimes it’s two people interrupting City Council in the spirit of revolution.”
There are other groups that fight for causes that don’t garner as much media attention as police protests. Shani Akilah, a co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Collective, said her organization fights for workers’ rights and against overlooked racism in the Gayborhood. “Ninety percent of organizing work isn’t dramatic,” she said. “It’s meetings and conference calls and developing strategy.”
The lack of a defined structure for Black Lives Matter puzzles politicians and other power brokers who try to build bridges with activists, but it’s also a defining characteristic of the movement.
“People think you need a title, a hierarchy, and you need all these rules,” said DeRay Mckesson, the activist and blogger who co-founded Campaign Zero, a national police reform campaign. “That limits people. We just came outside” and started protesting.
But the shared approach to leadership raises another interesting question: Who gets the credit — or the blame — for the movement’s successes and failures?
A debate over tactics
The video footage is jumpy, but the audio is crystal clear.
“You racist pigs have always gotten away [with] murdering black and brown people, but we’re here to say black lives matter, and we don’t give a f— how y’all feel about it! We want justice for black people. We want you pig racist cracker cops to be held accountable when you murder black and brown people. We say f— the police!”
This video of Khalif, recorded outside Pownall’s house on Aug. 24, is posted on his Facebook page. It marked a turning point in the protests over Jones’ death. Demonstrators had shouted at former Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Kenney, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and Councilman Bobby Henon at various public events throughout the summer without facing much backlash.
But standing in front of Pownall’s house — and cursing at his neighbors, who eagerly cursed right back — was a move that quickly mushroomed into a firestorm of controversy. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, derided the protesters as “rabid animals,” a phrase that was viewed by many as racially inflammatory.
Kenney offered light criticism, saying the protest “did nothing to move [reform] efforts forward.” Others complained on social media that the protest was going to cost the movement supporters, not attract new ones.
Ross, who defended the city’s policy of publicly identifying cops within 72 hours after they’ve been involved a shooting, said he was “shocked. To my estimation, they crossed a line.” The FOP, which has long opposed the policy, sprang to action, filing a lawsuit to block the release of officers’ names altogether; a Common Pleas Court judge will hear arguments on the matter on Sept. 29. Until then, the union can file an emergency petition to prevent officers from being identified.
Losing the policy would be a step back for a department that for years resisted many reform efforts. “We live in a different time and a different era,” Ross said. “The need for transparency is now more than ever, but a few things have transpired that might put that in jeopardy.”
Norris scoffed at the suggestion that the protest could singlehandedly cause the naming policy to be blocked. He noted that State Rep. Martina White has twice introduced bills to further delay the release of police officers’ names.
“I wouldn’t have gone to Pownall’s house. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to condemn them for doing it,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church.
Tyler said he sometimes gets calls from members of “respectable” organizations to ask why he sometimes invites Khalif onto his WURD radio show. “When people call me to criticize Asa, they will quickly get from me this question: ‘What are you doing about this?’”
Bishop Dwayne D. Royster, political director of the Washington-based People Improving Communities Through Organizing, said that with few others taking to the streets regularly, Khalif and his fellow activists fill an important role. “If it wasn’t for the work of Asa, then the issue of David Jones’ shooting probably would have died down, just like the story of Brandon Tate-Brown would have been forgotten.”
Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, noted the difference between his organization and Black Lives Matter: “An organization has an address, an office you can go to. A slogan is just that. It can be picked up by anyone.”