So what happens next?
I found myself mulling that question while covering one of the many protests that took place in Philadelphia during the last few weeks amid national carnage: separate police shootings that left black men dead in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, an ambush that left five police officers dead and seven of their colleagues wounded in Dallas, and now an attack that has left three officers dead and three more wounded in Baton Rouge.
Much of the news coverage has focused on the tenor of the marches — the “Fuck the Police!” chants, the palpable tension in some cities, the worry that the fragile interactions between cops and protesters might dissolve into chaos. But the vast majority of the demonstrations have been nonviolent, and viewing the movement strictly through the lens of the protests feels shortsighted. The support for Black Lives Matter stretches across the country, across racial lines. The potential impact of the movement’s broader calls for criminal justice, education and economic reforms could be significant, but how it will take shape is still an open question.
“The challenge for the Black Lives Matter movement is getting the message across that this is broader than police brutality. It’s about equality in the eyes of each other and under the law,” said Omar Woodard, the executive director of the Philadelphia arm of the GreenLight Fund, an organization that pushes for solutions to urban poverty. “It has to evolve into a multi-pronged strategy that’s advancing political power, advancing economic power, and having pipelines in industries and sectors that lack black voices.”
Woodard, who served as the policy director for state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams’s ill-fated mayoral run last year, noted that a recent Pew Research Center poll found 42 percent of white independent voters somewhat support or strongly support the movement. (By comparison, the support or somewhat support tally stood at 64 percent of white Democratic voters and 20 percent of white Republicans.)
“That’s a high number, and that’s the floor. There’s way more potential for that number to go up,” he said. Garnering more momentum could come down to how the movement’s goals are characterized. We’re not that far, Woodard said, from a time when the political winds during a presidential race seemed to heavily favor those who were against same-sex marriage. “Things can change because the perception changes,” he said. “That leads to changes in practice and changes in policy.”
I wondered, not for the first time, if the movement will become more politically active in Philadelphia, either trying to introduce its own candidates, or turning its focus to local political leaders. Calling for greater transparency while marching in front of a police district headquarters can only accomplish so much; rank-and-file cops don’t set the rules. Elected leaders, however, can have a big impact on the criminal justice world.
Case in point: When then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey last year implemented a policy to release the names of cops who had been involved in shootings, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 flexed its muscles. State Rep. Martina White, who was elected with the union’s support, introduced a bill to prevent cops from being identified unless they were involved in a shooting that led to them facing criminal charges.
From White’s legislation to a “Blue Lives Matter” bill that was introduced last week calling for assaults against police in Pennsylvania to be deemed hate crimes, local and state lawmakers are dealing with some issues these activists care about deeply. “That’s the area where people need to go,” said Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission. “I hope to see the energy that’s on the street put into those kinds of efforts, because that’s where things are going to really happen.”
Anderson has worked with the Philadelphia Police Department as it’s implemented policy and training reforms that were recommended last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, following an investigation into an earlier spike in local police shootings. There is still much work to be done, he said, like having the advisory commission work more closely with the Police Board of Inquiry, which is tasked with disciplining cops who get in trouble. But some progress has been made. The protest movement could be helpful to the advisory commission in battles like the one over White’s bill. “It would be nice if we could bring the activist community to the table,” Anderson said. “That was an important reform that was put into place in this city, and if we’re not careful, it will go away.”
Some factions of the movement are already talking about making their presence felt in the political world. “We have to step it up a notch. We have to make sure we have candidates who speak boldly to address the needs of our community,” said Asa Khalif, the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter. Specifically, the organization is looking for a candidate to challenge District Attorney Seth Williams, who intends to run for a third term next year.
Khalif said he’s been meeting with “our white allies, our Asian allies” and others as they plan to band together in solidarity at demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention next week. Beyond that, they’re discussing a list of demands for reforms that they want to see from law enforcement. “We’ll back politicians who are willing to stand up and fight for our issues. That’s how the system works,” he said.
Chris Rabb, the Democratic nominee for state representative in Pennsylvania’s 200th House District, said members of the movement who are considering getting involved with politics on a grassroots level need to do their homework. “You really have to study the system. Before you run, before you endorse a candidate, you need to understand the system where all of these decisions are being made. You need to understand the issues, and how they’re massaged.”
Rabb famously upset an incumbent, Tonyelle Cook-Artis, who had the backing of Democratic heavy hitters like Ed Rendell and Mayor Jim Kenney. He did so, he said, by getting his message out on social media, and making his case to voters in person. “I’d like to see the Black Lives Matter movement continue to engage younger and more disaffected members within Black communities with a focus on connecting the dots between police brutality and public policy, media democracy and electoral reform.”
Jamira Burley keeps a close eye on all of these issues from Washington, D.C. The Philly native works as a manager overseeing gun violence, criminal justice and human rights for Amnesty International. She previously served as the executive director of Philadelphia’s Youth Commission under then-Mayor Michael Nutter.
Ten of her brothers have been incarcerated at different points, and one was shot fatally in the city. She said she lived at “the epicenter” of people who are painted with a broad brush as criminals, or likely to be victims of gun violence or police violence. She sees a need for an evolution in societal perspective, so that everyone understands “we all lose if someone is killed by police, or killed by gun violence. We can’t talk about these things in silos. We have to think creatively about prevention, intervention, re-entry and enforcement.”
These are heavy, complicated topics, and none of them will be sorted out to widespread approval overnight. As Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson recently noted, the Black Lives Matter movement is made up of a variety of different groups with different leaders, without a defined hierarchy. But there’s a chance that all of this — the protests, the anxiety, the discussions — will lead to positive change.
“There’s been a lot of conversation [suggesting] that we haven’t moved very far, but I disagree,” Burley said. “There’s been amazing progress in communities around the the country, where they’re building better police and community relations and preventing gun violence. We need to define what it means to be safe, and what success looks like.”
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