The day is white and wet as a packed school bus wrestles its way through North Philadelphia’s slick streets. Dozens of volunteers and community activists wearing white T-shirts, which sport the words “Fight For Philly” are packed on the bus, chanting in unison. At the front of the bus, Jasmine Rivera cups her hands over her mouth screaming as loud as she can: “Fired up!” The bus riders scream back: “Can’t take it no more!”
The group has just taken an “Infrastructure Garden Tour” around North Philadelphia, showing off the abandoned buildings of the city, which Rivera says could have been rebuilt with funds passed through the recently scrapped American Jobs Act. “[Republican U.S. Sen.] Pat Toomey voted against the American Jobs Act,” Rivera screams as the bus turns onto Germantown Avenue. “He thinks that really what we need is big corporations getting another tax cut. Has anyone on this bus gotten a job because a corporation got a tax cut?”
“No!” the riders scream back.
Soon, the bus is on its way back to Center City. The Fight for Philly crew has a 4 p.m. rally at Wells Fargo’s 15th and Market branch with Occupy Philly, and afterward they’ll go to Toomey’s office on 17th and JFK.
Less than a year old, the advocacy organization already boasts hundreds of members and volunteers, sometimes-daily action events throughout the city and a heavy presence in the Occupy protests. With organization leaders covering each corner of the city, Fight for Philly’s been picking up some of the slack left behind when the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) went under—literally knocking on doors and asking residents what they want to see done in their neighborhood, then bringing those ideas back to the citywide group for an action event. Fight for Philly often finds a way to exploit federal legislation—most recently, the American Jobs Act—and boil it down to local issues.
And throughout Philly, there are a ton of issues that need national help.
Take infrastructure. A recent study by Transportation for America found nearly 6,000 deficient bridges in Pennsylvania—the most in the country. And of U.S. metro areas with more than two million people, Philadelphia ranks third in deficient bridges.
The American Jobs Act would have provided public funds to begin putting people to work on some of these infrastructure projects. But all Republican members of the Senate and a couple Democrat cohorts blocked it. Toomey was one of those blocking the bill, calling it “Obama’s latest stimulus,” which “contains hundreds of billions of dollars in increased spending and more tax hikes, which won’t create jobs any more than his last stimulus bill did.”
Then, Obama began cutting the bill up into smaller pieces. One of the smaller bills, the infrastructure-centric Rebuild America Jobs Act, was supported and advocated for by Mayor Nutter. The RAJA would have created an estimated 5,037 jobs in Philadelphia, and 450,000 nationwide while propping up a national infrastructure bank for future projects.
That, too, was blocked by a coalition of Republicans and corporate Democrats. So, Fight for Philly took to Toomey’s office to protest the senator’s apparent war on workers later that week. Members put on a sidewalk stage show, depicting Toomey playing Monopoly with people’s lives—in which there is no “Community Chest,” just handouts for the 1 percent.
Events like this one—which Fight for Philly Communications Director Jessica Burgan refers to as a “Toomey Event,” since the senator is taken on so often—are regularly put together by the Center City staff.
More often, though, the group holds actions in oft-forgotten neighborhoods. On Sept. 30, just days after the original American Jobs Act failed, West Philly resident Tiana Smith and Fight for Philly coordinated an action in her neighborhood at the corner of 55th and Poplar, showing residents and passers-by some projects the AJA might have been able to fund if given the chance.
Protesters set up banners along a fence in front of a lot (that used to be a basketball court) and, across the street, a beaten down building (that used to be a community center.)
Smith has lived in Philadelphia, and on that corner, most of her life. She remembers the basketball court, but says she can’t recall the community center ever being in good shape—even though the Philadelphia Board of Revision of Taxes website still lists the exterior of the property as “average.”
“They can do something else than just having [the park and building] sit here,” Smith said at the time. “Even if they just put some benches in here, it’s like, don’t just have it sit there looking like that.”
Foot soldiers like Richard Dickens of West Philly says he uses his own experiences to get residents thinking about the common problems they’re experiencing.
His own son, for instance, goes to Mastery Charter School and is yet to receive a textbook. “[My son] just brings home photocopies from the books now,” Dickens says. “I just say, ‘When was the last time your kid brought home a textbook?’” he says. “And we go from there.”
“It seems like in West Philly, the huge issue is vacant lots,” says Burgan. “But if you go to the Northeast or North Philly, the number one thing there is school and education and after-school programs.”
Different chapters, therefore, hold rallies for different issues, based upon neighborhood. West Philly, North Philly, Northeast Philly and Southwest Philly all have their own chapters.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4