There have been some roadblocks. Last month, a Philadelphia judge ruled that the name Wali Rahman must appear on the ballot, not Diop Olugbala, since Olugbala never legally changed his name. Olugbala appealed the decision, arguing that voters on the streets know him as Diop via his activism as president of the Philly chapter of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (InPDUM). But it didn’t work. The campaign scrambled to change its literature to read “Wali ‘Diop’ Rahman,” while Olugbala blasted the decision in a hastily assembled news conference in front of City Hall, flanked by two supporters with duct tape bearing the words “Free” and “Speech” over their mouths.
And earlier this month, Fox29 barred Olugbala from participating in the Oct. 7 televised mayoral debate between Nutter and Brown (taped on Oct. 4). A few days before the taping, Olugbala and a half-dozen supporters went to the station’s Market Street studios to protest and unsuccessfully deliver a letter demanding inclusion.
In the bigger picture, though, the odds of Olugbala actually taking Nutter down appear slim. He’s unknown to much of the electorate. He’s never held elected office before; he’s never even run for anything. His campaign has virtually no money. He won’t tone down his fiery message, or play the glad-handing game expected of most campaigning politicians.
Still, Olugbala likes his chances. To him, Nutter’s a vulnerable mayor with failed policies and an angry constituency—a Pew public-opinion poll issued earlier this year found, for example, that 47 percent of the city’s black population disapprove of the mayor’s job performance, compared with 42 percent who approve. Olugbala sees a mayor who barely seems to be campaigning. He thinks Nutter assumes re-election is a mere formality.
“It’s arrogant,” says Olugbala. “The people of Philadelphia want a change. They hate Nutter, and they don’t know Karen Brown from a can of paint.”
Olugbala insists the people on the street know who he is, though, and that they take him seriously. “I can win this [election],” says Olugbala. “Don’t get it twisted. This is not symbolic. There’s a lot of people out there who support me.”
Tall, athletic and self-assured, he’s certainly a compelling presence. Though prone to the occasional grin, Olugbala mostly comes across solemn, contemplative and highly focused. When he gets on a roll, his resonant voice takes on the cadence and inflection of a practiced orator. It’s Malcolm X-like, although he says he’s his own man and that he’s trying to put policies before personality.
“I want to win the people not by dressing or talking a certain way or shooting a jump shot, as Obama has done, or as Michael Nutter has attempted to do by rapping ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in certain nightclubs,” says Olugbala. “It’s not about me; I want the working people to recognize that their interests are in my program.”
He’s confident they will.
“I would not run if I didn’t think I had a legitimate chance at becoming mayor of Philadelphia,” Olugbala says.
As determined as he is to lead the city, Olugbala’s lived here only since 2007. But he insists he understands the dynamics of Philadelphia, and says his whole life has led him to this moment.
Born in Brooklyn, Olugbala lived a nomadic childhood. His father was in the Army and the family moved from state to state and base to base before finally settling down in El Paso, Texas. Numerous forces shaped his politics and worldview: His parents, both one-time members of the Nation of Islam, taught him about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers; so did the lyrics of rap groups Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions.
Watching news of the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philly, which infuriated Olugbala’s parents, and the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. riots had a major impact, too.
“Black youth, no matter where we were in the country, could identify with what we saw in Rodney King—the hostile relationship the system has with us,” he says.
The family was living a fairly comfortable, middle-class existence. But when Olugbala was in his mid-teens, his father was arrested and jailed for theft—Olugbala insists he was innocent—and dishonorably discharged from the Army. When he got out of jail a few months later, he split, plunging Olugbala, his mother and two sisters into a life of poverty. Realizing his family’s struggle to obtain social services, as well as the same hardships going on in the local Mexican community, Olugbala says he “really started to understand what it means to be a black or Latino man in society. The ... problems in the black community come from a separation from resources.”
A good student before the family upheaval, Olugbala says he developed a rebel streak and struggled to finish high school. “When you’re stressing about how you’re gonna eat, school doesn’t seem that important,” he says. He considered following some of his friends into the Army, but at his mother’s urging he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin under an affirmative action program. A couple years prior, four white students who had been denied admission to the University of Texas law school sued the college for reverse discrimination. In 1996, Olugbala’s freshman year, a federal judge ruled in the students’ favor, banning the school from using race as a factor in admissions.
Incensed, Olugbala joined the campus Anti-Racist Organizing Committee and participated in marches and demonstrations—at one point joining in an occupation of the Tower administration building for a few days—but to no avail (the decision was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003).
“That was more or less my introduction to activism,” Olugbala says while sitting at a table outside Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods in West Philly. “It was a real teaching moment for me. It told me that the government works in the interest of the white community at the expense of the black community.”
After graduating with a degree in linguistics (and African-American Studies), Olugbala moved back to Brooklyn and got a job as a union organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Workers (U.N.I.T.E.). “Reading about socialism and Marxism, I wanted to contribute to putting power in the hands of working people,” he says. For two years, he traveled around the country organizing union shops. And then he came in contact with the Uhuru movement, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Uhuru effectively launched in 1972 when black radical activist Omali Yeshitela founded the African People’s Socialist Party. Over the past four decades, Uhuru has denounced capitalism, white imperialism, widespread police brutality against the black community, and the exploitation of black workers. They’ve railed against “neo-colonialist” leaders like Barack Obama and, yes, Michael Nutter, who they accuse of confusing people of color into voting for them when they actually serve white interests. They’ve demanded slavery reparations and the right to community controlled schools and social services in the name of black self-determination. They’ve called for the immediate release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And they’ve made headlines around the country for leading demonstrations against police shootings of black men by white cops, calling the incidents “murders” or “assassinations.” To their followers, the cause is nothing but righteous. To their critics, they’re little more than a hate group. “That’s how [critics] try to pigeonhole you when your views challenge the status quo and the interests of those in power,” says Olugbala.
Bullhorn in hand, 34-year-old Diop Olugbala—the tall, thin, resolute leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement and, as of Aug. 11, independent mayoral candidate—made it clear it wasn’t just happenstance that the corner of Broad and South streets was the gathering point last Saturday night for a protest against the city’s recently instituted youth curfew in Center City.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4