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Philadelphia to Biden: ‘If every vote counts, why not every life?’

Racial justice activists in this city have a plan – and it includes both Democrats and Republicans.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald Aaron White
7 November 2020
Pastor Carl Day leading a march in central Philadelphia on Thursday night.
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Mary Fitzgerald, CC BY-NC 4.0. Some rights reserved

“We felt the need to call our men out today,” Pastor Carl Day told us as we marched under the street lights in central Philadelphia.

“With so much civil unrest going on, threats of violence, voter intimidation – people are protesting about things that we’re all affected by. But as Black men of the city, we don’t get included in those conversations. So we came out here to say: from today, we’re going to really be in front of this.”

About fifty men and women had joined Day for the hastily arranged march on Thursday night, as the final votes in the US election were still being counted. Among their number were faith and community leaders, educators and citizens from Day’s neighbourhood in North Philadelphia.

They were marching just minutes away from the pulsing, joyous carnival of the ‘Every Vote Counts’ demonstration, which had turned into a street party outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center's final vote count. Confident that President Trump’s game was up, people were dancing, beating drums, releasing balloons and handing out free pizza.

But down the road, the mood was more sombre.

“You’ve got people coming from everywhere to this city trying to make sure that every vote is counted,” Day said. “But I find it disturbing.”

“Counting every vote is certainly important – it’s essential. But at the same time, if you were that compelled to stand up, and come out here to protect the vote, how much more important is it that every life should count?”

‘People in our cities are broken’

Just ten days earlier Philadelphia police had shot and killed a 27-year-old black man, Walter Wallace Junior, sparking protests and violent clashes. It was the latest in a long series of protests over police killings of Black people across the US. Authorities say they are investigating the incident, although there is very little confidence in the process among many of the demonstrators.

“People in our cities are broken,” Day said. “If we’re that passionate about politics, we should be willing to cross states and cities to help each other.”

Walter Wallace Junior’s death and the wider issue of racial justice played a central role at the 'Every Vote Counts' demonstration down the road, as well.

“Even with a President Biden, we’ll need to continue to protest. In this city we want to see a progressive type of politics where everyone is looked out for regardless of your conditions,” one Philadelphia resident, a nurse trainee, told us.

“I would like to see a lot of police overhaul,” his friend added. “Abolition would be my ideal, but reform is a more likely scenario. Police killing has been going on for a long time, and it needs to change. It was never going to with the Trump administration – so it needs to change with the Biden one.”

No mandate for change?

But how much change will a President Biden actually be able, or willing, to deliver?

Many of the key demands of these demonstrators, like universal healthcare, are not even part of the Biden-Harris platform. And while both Biden and Harris have spoken about the need for police reform and tackling the racial wealth gap, the party failed to capture a decisive Senate majority despite the costly bids in states such as South Carolina, Kentucky, Maine and Montana.

And now, unless Georgia can elect two Democrats in the state's run-off election in January, the upper house will remain Republican-controlled – effectively inhibiting the prospect of passing the new administration's stated policy platform.

So, where does the country go from here?

“The rest of the country should take heed,” said Pastor Day, who preached a street sermon of personal responsibility and self-education, as well as of institutional reform and social justice. “They should see how people are willing to come together. We’ve had other folks from various places join us tonight, they’ve celebrated us – and the police weren’t hostile.”

“This is just an example of what you can achieve if you’re willing to do something,” he said, gesturing to the police escort on bicycles, whom he’d liaised with ahead of time. “They’ve been cooperative, respectful, and they’ve followed our lead, asking us where we wanted to go.”

He believes that the city’s police do “understand the tension and climate of the city, and their need to play a big role in trying to ease these tensions and reconcile themselves with the people.”

His emphasis was notably different from the Black Lives Matter protesters we’d met occupying downtown Louisville a week earlier. Whereas many racial justice leaders in that city were unenthusiastic about Biden and sceptical about the possibility of change in the short term, Day underlined the importance of reaching out across divides.

“No matter what party you belong to – whether you’re Democrat or Republican – if you care about the greater good of the country, you can join us," Day said. “Many of us want to heal and understand each other.”

“I don’t think the previous [Trump] administration did a good job of this, but we have everything we need now to change our city. We’re going to build our network and keep this thing going, not only for times like this – but for any type of crisis we may face.”


Follow us on Twitter @maryftz and @aaronwolfwhite and subscribe to the ourVoices podcast to hear more about what we found traveling across key swing states during this election.

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