Asa Khalif Is Running for Philadelphia City Council. Is City Council Ready for Him?

In November, Asa Khalif announced his candidacy — and he might just have a shot.

Asa Khalif City Council

The Asa Khalif City Council run was announced in November. Photograph by Agaton Strom.

One November morning a little over a year ago, Asa Khalif and Ikey Raw paid a visit to the Philadelphia office of Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general. Shapiro wasn’t there, but the two men demanded answers about the police killing of David Jones, an African-American who’d been fatally shot by a cop that June.

“We’re not going to tolerate the bullshit,” Khalif railed to staffers and security at Shapiro’s office as Raw made a video that live-streamed on Facebook. “Get whoever the fuck y’all need to get. Why is this investigation taking so long? … You fucking racist pig,” Khalif yelled at a cop down the hallway who seemed to be hiding from Raw’s camera. “You think it’s funny. It’s amazing that you’re over there. Bring your ass out here; say it to our face.”

Khalif was obviously baiting Shapiro’s security, and a few minutes later, he got arrested for defiant trespass and harassment (among other charges), which brought media attention to his protest.

In the past couple of years, Asa Khalif has emerged as perhaps the most visible leader of Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia. He’s been involved in a lot of dustups, some more public than the confrontation at Shapiro’s office: He protested outside the house of Ryan Pownall, the cop who shot Jones; he went to the Starbucks near Rittenhouse Square with a bullhorn to rant about the arrest of two black men who were waiting for an acquaintance; he put a hood over the Frank Rizzo statue at the Municipal Services Building on JFK Boulevard. The point of his protests, Khalif says, is to make people uncomfortable. It is no doubt uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of one of his tirades, but the deeper point, of course, is to make public stands that simply cannot be ignored. It is hard to ignore Asa Khalif.

Khalif was held by police for 16 hours after his arrest in Shapiro’s office. He was scared, he says: “You’re in the presence of your oppressor. People were calling the station, telling them the way I walked in better be the same way I walk out.” Khalif would be sentenced to one year’s probation. And Pownall would end up getting charged with third-degree murder.

In November, Khalif announced a new endeavor: He’s running this year for City Council as an at-large candidate. Khalif makes it clear that this isn’t a stunt. And with a crowded field, he just might have a high-enough profile to have a shot.

Asa Khalif on Council would seem, at first blush, to be a collision of opposites. Council is where middling politicians often land, not in service, but as a career, which is a mind-set that generally does not promote action. Khalif, on the other hand, says he won’t lower his voice if he wins: “Absolutely not. If I’m on Council, I’m going to get arrested more. Because if anyone is fucking with somebody in my district … ”

Never mind that as an at-large Councilman, Khalif wouldn’t actually have a district. The point is, there will be fireworks. And Khalif may be tapping into a moment when the demand to listen simply cannot be denied.

Forty-eight years old, tall and thin, with a long, narrow face, Khalif is quiet by nature and has a look, a resting pose, that seems almost mournful. He lives in Old City — though he says he’s thinking about moving soon to a neighborhood he won’t disclose — with an 11-year-old cat named Lady M and a rescued Chihuahua. He works in the real estate business his stepfather started. (Khalif’s biological father left when he was one, he says, and he reveres Paul, his stepfather, who is white. “And his stepfather dotes on Asa,” says Jay McCalla, Khalif’s campaign manager.)

Khalif’s been an activist since he was 13 years old. It started when an Asian-run store in his North Philly neighborhood was selling loose cigarettes and corn liquor to kids. Khalif organized a protest, complete with a bullhorn from Toys “R” Us; there was no profanity, just a rant on how wrong it was for him to see his teenage friends getting drunk. “What I didn’t anticipate,” Khalif says, “was how the adults stood back, creating a shield for us.” They also listened: That was the end of corn liquor sold to minors. “And that’s when I understood the power of activism.”

He moved on to protest the police in the early ’90s — invoking the city’s curfew, Philly cops were writing up kids sitting on their own stoops. Khalif talks repeatedly about being true to himself, finding his own identity in protest. He says it happened definitively at his mother’s kitchen table when he founded his own organization, Racial Unity, in the late ’90s — the stamp of approval he gave himself to shoot big: “To educate, to give power to all people. A mighty fist, and the fist doesn’t have to be one color.”

Then it got personal. In late 2014, Khalif’s cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown, was shot dead by a cop during a traffic stop. Khalif and others disrupted a town-hall meeting in Northeast Philly to demand answers from then-D.A. Seth Williams. (They got arrested.)

At a vigil for his cousin, Khalif says, the next step became apparent to him: “I need to be in certain spaces. We do the work, politicians get the glory. We cannot be overlooked anymore — we need activists at the table.” A seat on Council, he insists, won’t change him; City Council will simply be a new platform.

Khalif’s tactics have gotten him into some hot water with fellow activists, to the point that two organizations, Philly for REAL Justice and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, put out a public statement about him in April of last year. It charged that Khalif “regularly colludes and cooperates with police, putting comrades and community members in danger”; that “he has been particularly antagonistic towards groups led by Black women and Black LGBTQ folks”; and that he “has threatened and encouraged violence against other local activists on more than one occasion.”

“Asa Khalif is a major problem in the Philadelphia activist community,” the statement said. “While divisions amongst black people doing legitimate liberation work should be quelled, it is not divisive to call out the traitors who are working against us. … The truth is that Asa Khalif is not in the business of black liberation. Asa is in the business of self-promotion.”

Khalif says he stands by the response he made at the time to the Daily News: “The problems facing black, brown and poor people are greater than one person or group. … I will not participate in these destructive discussions that are counterproductive. Let’s put aside egos and create a choir of voices united in the battle for change.”

Fellow activist Christopher Norris is close to Khalif, and when he’s asked what his friend brings to activism, he doesn’t blink: “Showmanship.” It’s a compliment. “A level of drama has to be created to bring an issue to bear. A level of spectacle. People think activism is cut-and-dried, that you stand in the street, but to really be effective, you have to make people uncomfortable — he really does that well. People don’t change unless they’re uncomfortable.”

Hello, City Council.

Asa Khalif is an extreme guy trying to join a body of compromise. Though he first has to get elected. “In Philly, Black Lives Matter has a 95 percent recognition in African-American households,” Jay McCalla claims, “and 90 percent love it.” Furthermore, McCalla, who was deputy managing director of the city under former mayor John Street, isn’t particularly worried about having money for ads: “What ads try to acquire, Asa already has.” Which is recognition and a following in the neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass thinks Khalif could be a breath of badly needed fresh air. “I appreciate activism on Council,” Bass says. “There need to be people who understand what it’s like on the streets. And a voice not to be compromised — that’s something that on Council would be very, very useful. We haven’t seen anything like that in a long time.”

As for what Khalif would do on Council, the goals are big.

“Poverty is number one on the list,” he says. “Once we fix that, it goes hand in hand with education and housing and so on.” Asked how he would fix poverty, Khalif talks about homelessness: “We need to take empty buildings and schools that are sold for millions and turn them into shelters.”

I ask Khalif how he’d make affordable housing a reality, and he rails against gentrification: “People should not be homeless who lived in those neighborhoods during the crack epidemic, during the height of the drug wars. Big Mama stayed in those homes, because generationally, she knew her offspring needed a place to stay. … Council can find money for everything else, to serve privileged people and wealthy corporations, and you’re telling me there’s not money for people who are pushed out? They have that money; they can take away from the rich and start giving to the poor. Be Robin Hoods if you’re going to be a Councilperson, because that’s what you’re paid to do.”

I play devil’s advocate: If you do away with the tax abatements and force new developers to make affordable housing a significant part of any new building, might they decide to build somewhere else?

“They’re not going anywhere else,” Khalif says. “It’s a hot city. … They’re privileged enough, and rich enough, to pay for it. … I never feel sorry for corporations or their CEOs. They’re making money hand over fist and making it on the backs of poor people.”

Some of this, perhaps most of it, feels more like a plea than a plan, though the question about Khalif’s potential effectiveness on Council is less about him having a program in place going in than about the risk of trying to operate as a lone wolf. I ask Councilman Allan Domb how important collaboration is among his colleagues, and he gives an odd answer: “My impression of Council changed when I came on — I see how much they work, 45 to 50 hours a week, sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day. There’s no downtime, and it’s not as easy as some people think.” Domb goes on in that vein for a couple minutes more, and his point becomes clear: City Council, he’s saying, really isn’t a bunch of careerists sitting back with cushy jobs. We work. John Street, who’d been an activist before he came to Council in 1980 and would get into several physical confrontations there early on, quickly grasped what he had to do to accomplish anything: Understanding the process and the issues is important, he says, but the biggest factor might be personal: “Gaining the respect of your colleagues.”

It isn’t easy, what Asa Khalif does. After a particularly tense demonstration two years ago outside the home of Ryan Pownall over his shooting of David Jones, Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby likened the protesters to “a pack of rabid animals,” singling out Khalif. He regularly gets death threats. For a time, friends acted as bodyguards. “But I got rid of [the protection],” he says. “If I’m living in fear, I’m already dead. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Just make it quick. And quite frankly, I need a rest. So fuck it.”

Four years ago, Khalif released a 23-minute documentary, AmeriKKKa Black, about how African-American men are much more likely than white men to be killed by police. Killings in Ferguson and New York are referenced; then Khalif zeroes in on the shooting death of his cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown. At issue was the police department’s refusal to release its tape of the shooting. “If it exonerates the police, fine,” Khalif tells us, quietly, in the film. “If it shows Brandon was murdered by the police unjustifiably, then that’s fine, too. We just need the truth.” As the camera rolls, he drives to the home of Tate-Brown’s mother and, on her couch, makes the point a second time, calmly: “We are willing to accept whatever the truth is.”

Then the film turns: Khalif gets his face painted with an American flag, and we see him walking silently to the Roundhouse, police headquarters on Race Street, holding a Black Lives Matter sign. He begins chanting “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Then he falls to the sidewalk, still and unmoving. There is dead silence.

It’s a chilling documentary, for the obvious reason of what’s at stake but also because Khalif, in the film’s intense quietude, captures both the pain and the wonder of police violence: How can this be?

“The power is in the question,” he says now, and he means that generally — Khalif’s approach, even as he’s adamant that he’s not changing, is beginning to evolve. If he remains only in attack mode, the focus will be the attack instead of the message. It’s taken him some time to learn that, and as he comes fully into this new idea of running for Council, it’s with a question of his own: “If you’re sincerely working on behalf of people, who can turn a blind eye to that?”

Published as “The Activist” in the February 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.