In 2001, the then-23-year-old Olugbala attended InPDUM’s national conference in St. Petersburg and listened to Yeshitela speak. “That changed my life,” he says. “It gave me a way to understand every issue facing the black community in a much more holistic way.”
During a visit to Philadelphia last week, Yeshitela, 70, recalled the young Olugbala being committed to Uhuru from jump. “For a long time we’ve seen young black people stray from meaningful progressive political activism, but Diop was different,” says Yeshitela. “He was obviously passionate, deeply concerned about workers and African people. I was very impressed by him.”
With newfound belonging and purpose, Olugbala soon quit his union job to become a full-time organizer for InPDUM, which sent him to different cities to establish Uhuru chapters. Back in Brooklyn for a spell—where he was doing InPDUM work and rapping under the moniker “Africa’s Trigga”—Olugbala made news in the spring of 2004 when he led a protest against the police killing of unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury on the roof of the Louis Armstrong projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Stansbury, by all accounts a good kid who was taking a shortcut home across the roof of the projects, allegedly surprised a patrolman who shot him once in the chest. Though an NYPD investigation found “no justification” for the shooting, a grand jury ruled the incident an accident.
Bullhorn in hand, Olugbala led a contingent of outraged residents to the nearby 79th police precinct, where they demanded an end to rooftop patrols and that the city rename the stretch of street going past the projects “Timothy Stansbury Avenue.” The city acquiesced on both counts. “That was really significant, seeing that when you struggle sometimes you can win,” says Olugbala.
In 2007, InPDUM sent Olugbala to Philadelphia—a city, according to Yeshitela, that’s teeming with oppressed minorities and “has been scarred in its recent history by an atrocity committed against black people with the bombing of the MOVE house and the incineration of an entire community.”
Olugbala immediately got to work building up a chapter on Lancaster Avenue and leading small protests against the policies of Mayor Street, then Nutter. “Part of what I learned early on as an [InPDUM] organizer is the need to always agitate around issues,” says Olugbala.
Agitate he did. In December 2008, Olugbala barged into Nutter’s town-hall meeting at Ben Franklin High School to deliver a subpoena for an InPDUM tribunal charging Nutter and city officials with “crimes of genocide against the African community.” Nutter didn’t show up for the proceedings, where he was ulimately “convicted.” Two months later, Olugbala showed up to another town-hall meeting to hand Nutter the guilty verdict, which included demands for immediate reparations to black and Latino communities. He was thrown out by a civil affairs officer. The following month, Olugbala and other InPDUM members attended a City Council meeting where the mayor was unveiling his budget. Olugbala unfurled a sign that read “Throw Nutter in the Gutter” and he and others began shouting at the mayor. Olugbala says the same officer that tossed him from the town-hall meeting grabbed his sign and put him in a choke hold. A scuffle broke out, and Olugbala and another Uhuru member were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. Following a trial in August 2010, Olugbala was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ probation.
“I’m a political target of Nutter, [Police Commissioner Charles] Ramsey, and [District Attorney] Seth Williams,” Olugbala says of the conviction. “It reinforced my understanding that Philadelphia is being run by a triad of criminals.”
Also in late 2008, after leading a candlelight vigil to protest the shooting death of 14-year-old Shareef Jones in Frankford by a retired police officer who was working as a pizza delivery man—the PPD said Jones was trying to rob the ex-cop when the shooting occurred—Olugbala met Alberta “Nanny” Twyman, grandmother of Daniel Giddings, the 27-year-old paroled convict who gunned down Sgt. Patrick McDonald after a traffic stop before being killed by another officer.
Twyman denies that her grandson killed McDonald. “People told me it was other people with guns who got on a bus,” she says. “[Officers] told him seven days before they killed him that they were gonna kill him,” says the 68-year-old. “Nutter tried to make my grandson into a monster.”
Olugbala sympathized with Twyman, and made public statements doubting whether Giddings actually shot McDonald and suggesting that if he did, it was justified.
“Diop got a lot of death threats for that,” says Harris Daniels, 31, a longtime member of the African People’s Solidarity Committee (a group comprised of white Uhuru allies like himself) and press secretary for the Olugbala campaign. “But we’re not going to stop standing up for the black community, regardless of how unpopular that might be.”
“I stand by everything I said [about Giddings],” says Olugbala.
Olugbala and Twyman developed such a bond that Olugbala has been living at her Germantown house for the past three years. “He’s a strong, hardworking young man,” Twyman says proudly. “He stays up late at night. I can hear the pitter-patter back and forth upstairs all night long.”
But aside from the polarizing nature of his politics, life in Philly hasn’t exactly been easy for Olugbala. He says he hasn’t received “one penny” from the Uhuru movement for his decade of work. “It’s not as if I’m on some salary for being a grassroots organizer,” he says. “I knew that going in. They don’t really have the resources to provide me with a stipend.”
Instead, he’s relied on the generosity of others, as well as a monthly welfare check and food stamps. He says it’s enough to survive.
“I get welfare, I get food stamps, I have four children and they’re taken care of,” says Olugbala. “I keep it real. People want to know that you’ve experienced the same struggle they do.”
“I live this,” he says. “That’s why I have an interest in the realization of my program, not only for myself but my family and my neighbors and my people. Michael Nutter does not live this. He doesn’t understand.”
On a recent Monday night, Olugbala, Daniels and about eight supporters were packed into a tiny Africana shop on Lehigh Avenue in North Philly for a campaign strategy session. Everyone listened as independent political consultant Earl O’Neal—up from D.C. for the meeting—delivered a PowerPoint presentation demonstrating, he explained, just how vulnerable Nutter really is.
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.