Standing next to one of the grand archways that leads to the heart of City Hall, Diop Olugbala presents himself as the face of the masses of Philadelphians he says are being targeted by Mayor Nutter: young, black, mistreated, misunderstood, mischaracterized.
“[Nutter] says we’re all thugs, ‘sperm donors,’ a ‘disgrace to our race,’” Olugbala seethes. The mayor, police and the city’s “ruling elite,” he says, “look at us and simply because of the way we look and dress and talk, they assume we’re criminals. Animals. Inarticulate.”
“But here comes someone who can duke it out with Nutter, and I can defeat all of his ideas,” Olugbala says.
In mid-August, the 34-year-old—flanked by a handful of advisors and supporters—stood outside City Hall and announced his independent candidacy for mayor, taking on Nutter and Republican challenger Karen Brown in a three-way race.
Olugbala says he’s running to stop Nutter’s all-out “war” on the city’s black and Latino populations. An assault that’s been marked, he says, by police brutality and the unfair, disproportionate criminalization of people of color; budget cuts that have decimated programs and services in the most impoverished areas of the city; and the withholding of real economic relief for those neighborhoods in favor of a bloated police “war budget.”
“Michael Nutter’s policies have been far more destructive to black people than [former mayor] Frank Rizzo’s,” says Olugbala. “His regime has stolen resources from us … People want to talk about violence, the so-called ‘flash mobs’? What about the violence of budget cuts? Nutter is responsible for the conditions that give rise to this violence.”
Conditions, Olugbala warns, that make a situation akin to this past summer’s deadly riots in North London a “scientific inevitability” here.
“If the city of Philadelphia goes up in flames, the ashes of this city will be on Michael Nutter’s hands,” he intones.
“I see it as my responsibility as a freedom fighter to step up and challenge Mayor Nutter for leadership of the city,” he continues. “History has shown that whenever we rise up, our demands are met.”
The self-styled revolutionary regards his candidacy not as waging a political campaign so much as leading an uprising of the poor and working-class. He insists he’s not just fighting for people of color, he’s here to pull the city back from the brink of destruction.
“Nutter’s policies are attacking sizable portions of the white community as well,” says Olugbala. “Budget cuts are affecting everyone who wants to go to a rec center, a career training program or a swimming pool.”
As Olugbala speaks, a pair of tattoos on either side of his neck peek out from the collar of his khaki military-style shirt—the kind of ink the mayor believes would prevent young black men from getting a job “cause you look like you’re crazy,” as Nutter said during his infamous speech at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in August.
One tattoo is of a hand clutching a spear, red flames dancing from its tip: The logo of the Uhuru movement, the black liberation crusade to which Olugbala has devoted his life and whose positions inform his current political platform.
The other, in simple script, says “Serve the People”: A loose translation of the African name he adopted when he joined Uhuru a decade ago, leaving his birth name, Wali Rahman, behind.
If he wins on Nov. 8, Olugbala promises to serve the people of Philadelphia with wholesale changes. No stop-and-frisk. No youth curfew. A community control board with the power to fire and hire police. A drastically reduced police force—perhaps by as much as 80 percent—with most of the nearly $1 billion earmarked for police, courts and prisons (roughly one quarter of Philadelphia’s annual budget) reallocated for economic development and social services in poor neighborhoods. Vacant lots turned into urban gardens whereby people would feed themselves and create businesses selling their produce. Funding to charter schools slashed, with that money redirected to strengthening the public school system. Public school curriculum adjusted to provide mainly vocational training. Taxes dramatically increased on corporations and rich people.
Such policies, Olugbala insists, would unite Philly under shared prosperity, not further divide the city along race and class lines. He reasons that his plan will lead to more jobs, less poverty, better education, skilled workers and healthier lifestyles, and therefore less violence and crime (and less need for police or jails). And the haves wouldn’t need to worry about an army of have-nots coming to burn down Center City.
“I’m talking about transforming the entire city,” Olugbala says.
Over the past two months, the Olugbala campaign has focused almost exclusively on areas it believes the message will resonate the most—North Philly, West Philly, Southwest Philly, but also parts of Center City.
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.
PW's Summer Guide 2015