Asa Khalif: The Face of a Movement

As a leader of Black Lives Matter in Pennsylvania, Khalif has come under fire from both his critics on the right and his fellow activists on the left. What’s it like to be a lightning rod? An intimate conversation about race, police, Seth Williams, and life in the eye of a storm.

Left: Asa Khalif, photographed by Adam Jones. Right: Khalif protesting during the Mummers Day Parade on January 1, 2016 (Associated Press).

Philadelphia activist Asa Khalif is no stranger to controversy, but even he was unprepared for the slings and arrows of Breitbart.

As the Philly face generally associated with the national Black Lives Matter movement, Khalif had become accustomed to the kind of media scrutiny that comes when you, say, put a Klan hood on Philly’s iconic Frank Rizzo statue. Since 2000, as founder of diversity and civil rights watchdog group Racial Unity USA, Khalif has crossed swords with everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to Allen Iverson. He doesn’t often talk about how old he is or where he’s from — he says he finds the concepts spiritually limiting­ — but suffice it to say he’s spent most of his life in the Philly region, where he was raised by his black mom and white adoptive father. Recently, Khalif, who works in real estate and is the filmmaker of the short AmeriKKKa Black, has been involved in nearly every hot-button civil rights issue germane to Philly, from stop-and-frisk policing to racism in the Gayborhood.

But when an April article on Breitbart mistakenly identified Khalif in a story about Black Lives Matter Philly, which the far-right news outlet had attacked for its policy of holding some meetings as black-only spaces (WHITE PEOPLE BANNED, shouted the headline), the trolls really came out. To be clear: Khalif is head of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, which is a different entity from Black Lives Matter Philly. It was a meaningless distinction for Breitbart’s readers as they peppered Khalif with invective and death threats. Khalif publicly supported the Philly chapter’s policy and added that his own organization has a similar, unadvertised policy; such policies, it should be noted, have been staples of civil rights groups through the ages. Haters on the right, check. On top of that, Khalif endured criticism from other Black Lives Matter activists who accused him of grandstanding — jumping into the fray when it was their business. Haters on the left, too, check. Khalif never shies from a scrum.

So it had been a long couple of weeks for Khalif — an already thin man who’d just completed a cleanse to rid himself of negative energy — when he stepped into the recording booth at WURD Radio’s studios on Delaware Avenue to talk about the District Attorney’s Office, his distaste for police, and the burden and privilege of being the face of a movement with the hosts of Philadelphia magazine’s and WURD Radio’s Pushback podcast, which is where much of this interview took place. (Subscribe to Pushback on iTunes.)

MB: You’ve recently received criticism for being too front-and-center in the media when it comes to civil rights issues in Philadelphia. Other civil rights activists have faced scrutiny for being too popular, whether it was Malcolm X in the past or Baltimore activist DeRay Mckesson today. Is there any comfort in knowing you aren’t alone in facing this struggle? It’s not comforting, to be honest, because you would think that this generation would get it, as black people. Any type of person of color that puts themselves out there, there’s always going to be those crabs in the barrel that have the same complexion as you but really don’t want to see you win. Haters come in all shapes, sizes, colors. But it’s really sad. We’ve got so much anti-blackness, and then we do it to ourselves.

CN: The Breitbart article seemed to conflate your organization with another local Black Lives Matter group. What’s the difference between what you’re doing as Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania and Black Lives Matter Philly? We [BLM Pennsylvania] are individuals in a group who are part of a movement, and then there are those who are part of a network of chapters. Black Lives Matter Philly is part of that official network.

CN: Like having an NAACP chapter? Exactly. There are chapters under the group created by the original three black and queer women who started the hashtag that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Then there are those of us who are in the movement organizing locally, nationally, internationally. You have DeRay Mckesson, [New York Daily News writer] Shaun King, [Tampa activist] Janetta [Johnson], and so on. That’s the movement I consider myself a part of.

CN: You put yourself in a class with those guys? Even before I became a part of the movement, I never liked putting myself as someone who’s a leader. You’ve never heard that come out of my mouth. That’s usually something that the media came up with. I think we all have a leadership role, whether we’re writing about it or we’re in the streets or behind the scenes. We all have a leadership role to play in terms of fighting anti-blackness.

MB: One of the earliest conversations bubbling up about Black Lives Matter — before most people had a conception of what it really was — was about whether this was going to be a “leaderless” movement. You’re considered something of a leader now, so is there an advantage to putting a face to Black Lives Matter? There’s always an advantage if it gets you to the table, where you can actually sit down with your demands to help your community. The whole point of protesting, the whole point of shutting things down, is not just to get your name in the papers. The point is to eventually get to the table to make those changes. You cannot make changes unless you’re at the table. If you’re not at the table, then you’re out in the cold with a sign. The sign gets you into those meetings where you can make fundamental change for your community and have a list of demands that you can articulate and that you can negotiate. That’s why I do it. If you’re looking to be a celebrity under this movement, you’re really in the wrong movement in terms of social justice.

CN: If you’re not going to accept the term “celebrity” and you’re not going to accept the term “leader,” then how do you see yourself? I see myself as a passionate black man who realizes that there’s a [leadership] gap here in Philadelphia that I see, and I want to fill that gap.

CN: So celebrity is being imposed on you? I believe so, yes.

MB: Recently, not only was your name bandied about in Breitbart, but several local columnists wrote about you at the center of that controversy. What are the downsides to celebrity? When the Breitbart article dropped, my name was mentioned specifically. [Khalif says his attorneys wrote to the outlet, and that he no longer appears in the story]. That’s the only reason why I responded. To us, it was a Black Lives Matter Philly issue, and they were very capable of defending themselves. The only reason I got involved was because my name was being used, and I had to correct that. I had an 80-year-old Polish woman in Massachusetts who is my loving grandmother — for those who don’t know, I’m adopted; my father is Polish-American. [He married Khalif’s biological mother.] I had my grandmother at six o’clock in the morning calling me crying, thinking that somehow I’d changed my way of thinking and she was no longer welcome in my presence. I still get choked up about it, but it angered me that I was having those conversations. In the meantime — mind you, my day hasn’t even started — I’m getting inbox messages from certain individuals attached to certain groups that are saying, “You’re an opportunist.”

MB: You’ve been getting it from both sides? Not just people in the movement, but also on the right? I received a threat today. It’s now being revealed on Twitter that I live in Old City. We had to have people today — two bodyguards — watch out for my mother as she went to work in Center City. This is all a result of a racist, conservative blog, and it really doesn’t help when instead of coming together in solidarity …

Khalif speaking at the Rally for Racial Justice at Thomas Paine Plaza on April 4, 2017. (Associated Press)

CN: Let’s take a step back for a second. When did you become an activist? My first protest was at 26th and Oxford. I was 13 years old. There was a corner store selling loose cigarettes and corn liquor on the side.

MB: Did you say corn liquor? Yes, corn liquor [laughs]. People kept saying, “We’re going to get corn,” and I’m thinking candy corn. People are going in and coming out lolly, and I was like, what is going on? They were selling corn liquor. I felt in my heart that it was not cool. I felt that in other neighborhoods — in fact, I know that in other neighborhoods — they would’ve stopped the situation. Plus, they were rude, and I could feel the anti-blackness, even at a young age. We organized what started out basically as 10 people, then the neighborhood came out, probably 60 or 70 people. The store was eventually shut down. It was bought by a local resident and became a black-owned store.

MB: They weren’t selling to black customers — that was the issue? No, they were selling junk to black customers who were underage. That was a problem. It was causing a problem personally for me. Those who were indulging in it, they were happy to get the corn.

MB: It’s the position of many Black Lives Matter groups and activists not to endorse political candidates. We just had a DA primary, and you campaigned for Larry Krasner. Why? The Black Lives Matter Movement Pennsylvania does not endorse candidates. This was me as an activist individually endorsing Larry because I know Larry personally, and I know he has put himself on the line to do pro bono work for Black Lives Matter activists. Not to mention his long history of supporting activists, from ACT UP to Occupy.

CN: Have you been taking a lot of shit for backing a white candidate? I say the only thing that’s black-and-white with Larry is his record. You can be black and be anti-black. We’ve had two terms of anti-blackness in the District Attorney’s Office. Conversely, you don’t have to be black to be a fighter against anti-blackness.

MB: For everyone who says that BLM doesn’t compromise or that they don’t work with anyone, wasn’t the election proof that you can build coalitions? And that’s what makes us different, talking about the movement and not the network. The movement is Shaun King. When Shaun saw that I was standing with [Krasner], it moved the needle on him getting involved. [King, who is based in Brooklyn, endorsed Krasner.] These are the kind of people who know who I am. You’ve got to put yourself out there. This thing could’ve ended badly for all of us, and it could’ve showed that you don’t really have the influence that you think you have. But I knew, because we’re in those neighborhoods, that our base was hungry for someone like Larry and his platform.

MB: It seems you had a big influence on this race. I know the influence that I have, and I’m really careful with it. People trusted when I brought Larry to the ’hood and to a barbershop during the campaign. It resonated with people, because they know me. I’m not going to bring someone before them that’s going to play them.

MB: Was Krasner’s victory a vindication of going out on a limb to endorse? Absolutely. I’m a visionary. I see things next year that we’re going to be moving on. This movement will die if we don’t keep it moving forward. We can’t be afraid to let it move forward because a few people don’t have that vision. We can’t just keep saying “Black Lives Matter.” We need Black Lives Matter politicians, we need Black Lives Matter judges, we need our own platform. Now we know we have the numbers.

CN: Who are some of your early mentors, and what impact did they have on your life? Sister Sakari Rose, a legendary activist and strong black woman who organized against anti-blackness long before Black Lives Matter came to Philadelphia. Sister C. Delores Tucker. I remember her bringing me into her office and encouraging me, helping me with my first protest. Of course, my dear, dear mentor Jerry Mondesire [the late president of the Philadelphia NAACP]. He brought me to that table at a young age and told me to take notes. I kept my mouth closed and took notes. Then, of course, individuals I never had the pleasure to meet: Malcolm X, Cecil B. Moore, Martin Luther King.

MB: Your mother married a Polish man who’s the only father you’ve known. How did your parents impact your understanding of race? My dad knew that no matter how much money he had, it was not going to protect me from anti-blackness. He knew that he was raising a black son, so we couldn’t pussyfoot around it. We had to deal with it directly. How to handle the police — we had those talks. “You’re going to be driving my car, you’re going to be stopped, what do you do?” “I’m white, I know how white folks think; this is the strategy you use when you’re in the room with white folk.” “I’m going to be a traitor to my race because you’re my son and I love you.” That’s what he said.

CN: Your dad is also one of your biggest fans. He was there when you put the white KKK hood on Frank Rizzo. My dad had marched with me when I couldn’t get two people to come out. My dad was there. People would say, “Who’s that crazy white dude?” And my mother, too. They’ve been my biggest fans. My whole family. I’m so blessed, because we have black, white, Asian in my family. We have people from the LGBTQ community in my family. My uncle [Tyrone Smith, co-founder of Unity Inc.] is a legendary gay rights activist here in Philly. … Sometimes you need that connection with your family. Sometimes you need that Big Mama, and that soul food/love connection.

CN: We can’t go further in this conversation about family and not talk about Brandon Tate-Brown, your cousin who was killed by Philadelphia police officers almost three years ago. From the day after Brandon was killed, you were nonstop protesting. Have you had a chance to grieve? Brandon was murdered December 15, 2014, by two rookie police officers. It took a lot of protests, a lot of arrests, one big dramatic brawl, just to get the names [of the officers]. That’s the thing that’s outrageous about it. Before we even asked for a dismissal or lawsuits or any of that, just to get the names of the police officers, we had to go through all that. It really showed that black lives really don’t matter when it comes to law enforcement, and they really don’t matter when it comes to Philadelphia. I was in the studios, about to tape a segment on stop-and-frisk, when I got the call that Brandon was murdered. And our family found out that he was dead on Channel 6. That’s how disrespectful this rotten system was and how disrespectful the District Attorney’s Office was.

CN: You’ve been protesting against the District Attorney’s Office for at least four years. Are you relishing what’s happening to Seth Williams right now? I’m not happy when anybody, especially somebody black, finds himself in a historic position and fails. [Williams was the first African-American DA in Philly history; this interview was conducted in the runup to his federal trial on corruption charges, at which he eventually pleaded guilty and resigned.] I think we all voted for Seth because we wanted him to succeed and we wanted change. He presented himself as a progressive, but he was actually very anti-black.

CN: Williams, who didn’t run for reelection, doesn’t have nearly the support he used to have, and a lot of that exodus was a result of the Brandon Tate-Brown case. Are you just now recognizing the impact that case had on the city and its leaders? I’m conscious of it, but to embrace it now is to embrace the pain. I’m dealing with the fact that my family was in pain, I’m dealing with the fact that he’s gone. I’m able to exhale at this point, to say, okay, this happened, and what do I do to honor him? I honor him by fighting and keep moving.

MB: It sounds like your grief was hijacked. I didn’t have a chance to grieve, because everyone was grieving on my shoulders and I had to stay strong to keep them moving. Now, it’s a little different. I can finally grieve without having to go behind the scenes to cry.

CN: I think people may pause and say: Asa Khalif cries? Because to a lot of people, you’re just this really angry caricature who says “Fuck the police.” But you do have feelings. I think at Philly Mag’s ThinkFest last year, people saw another side of me. Still the same passion, but not the imagery that they see at protests. We can have a conversation right here without me using the bullhorn. When you’re in a protest, face-to-face with your oppressor, it does bring up a different side, because you’re calling on your ancestors for justice and strength and courage. It’s different. But it’s still fighting anti-blackness, no matter how the volumes are up or down.

MB: Privately, how do you sustain yourself and keep up the energy that you expend in public? It’s my spirituality. I did a fast-and-cleanse last night, at 12 o’clock, to prepare for this space. I’ve said many times that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places. People don’t wake up one morning just hating. There’s something that brought them to that point. There’s a spirit of hate, and it festers and it grows. Racism is a spirit of hate and ignorance. It’ll consume you. When you go home and you’re drained, you don’t want to become like your oppressor. You don’t want to start hating like them. If you wake up in the morning and before you eat your Cheerios you’re saying “Fuck the police,” there’s a problem. You have to say, “Wait a minute, I can’t be this damn angry over some Cheerios.”

Published as “The Face of a Movement” in the July 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.