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. “When the Phillies won the World Series, right where we standing, white kids were running up and down, turning over cars, tearing down street lamps, but you didn’t hear a press conference come from Michael Nutter like this specific attack being waged against African youth,” shouted Olugbala, who’s running under his birth name, Wali Rahman.
“That’s right!” someone in the crowd of about 60 protesters circled around Olugbala—split evenly between blacks and whites—yelled out.
Some applauded. Others hoisted brightly colored signs: “African Youth Are NOT Criminals!”; “White People Demand An End To The Jim Crow Curfew”; “Phila Police Are The Flash Mob.”
Characterizing the recent youth-mob violence that’s led to the curfew as noble resistance to “the violence of poverty,” Olugbala gestured toward City Hall, and then at the dozen or so bicycle cops lined up across the street, reinforced by more officers in police cruisers and vans stationed along the block. “They know these youth have the capability and potential to get organized and overturn this rotten, filthy system,” he said. “We defend these youth. They’re not a flash mob.”
The protest—which got under way half an hour before the 9 p.m. curfew was set to be enforced, and included members of Uhuru, the Philadelphia Coalition of the Heart and others—was part of the Black is Back Coalition’s “International Day of Action Against the Wars on Africa and African People.”
Demonstrators unfurled a banner with images of Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and District Attorney Seth Williams behind bars with the word “Guilty!” stamped across each of their faces, and “The real Flashmob is in City Hall!” written underneath.
“You have here what we call ‘the Uncle Tom trio,’” said Olugbala.
One after another, protesters grabbed the bullhorn to shout their grievances.
“They can spend $56,000 to pay overtime to the pigs [to enforce the curfew] ... but they can’t give a damn dime to our schools, but they gonna arrest our children?” one woman hollered. “Hell no, Michael Nutter, your ass gotta go and this curfew needs to go.”
Harris Daniels, Northeast regional representative of the African Peoples’ Solidarity Committee, implored other white people to join the cause. “We’re taking a stand with this march, not only against the curfew policy but also against a system that criminalizes and locks up African youth and tells us that we’re supposed to be afraid of an 11-year-old,” said Daniels. “We reject that notion. They can’t just count on us to go along with the program because they don’t care about us, either.”
As protesters spoke, ringed by news cameras, passers-by stopped to see what was going on. Gregory Lee, 28, holding a bag of leftovers from Johnny Rockets as he walked toward his South Philly apartment, had mixed feelings about the curfew.
“I don’t condone the violence, [kids] shouldn’t be runnin’ up and beating up on random people,” said Lee. “But people gettin’ shot and killed every day out here,” he continued. “They worryin’ about people gettin’ rolled on? Somebody gets sucker punched walking home from work and this is what happens. Forget Center City … go across Washington Avenue and worry about all them other neighborhoods where real shit happens.”
A little past 9 p.m., Olugbala and his fellow demonstrators began swiftly marching east along South Street, chanting slogans.
“We need schools, not the curfew!”
“Fight for teen jobs, not the flash mobs!”
“Who run South Street? Not the police!”
Bicycle cops rode alongside, occasionally barking at protesters to stay on the sidewalk. A police captain and two sergeants, radios in hand, walked even with the group on the opposite sidewalk. Reactions from shoppers, people smoking outside bars and restaurants, and others along the atypically sedate South Street was varied. Near 10th Street, one couple set down their bags to cheer on the throng. “They want to protect their civil liberties to walk down the street without getting harassed by the police,” said the woman. Others stared and laughed, snapped photos, or shook their heads. Near the corner of Eighth and South, two neighbors—a man and a woman, both 44—stood against the bars of their gated courtyard and watched the procession go by. The man took a flier from a female protester bringing up the rear. “Oh, it’s the People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement—these guys are left of left,” he said to his neighbor. “I want the curfew indefinitely,” said the woman. “It has been a hard past three years where we felt like prisoners in our own homes. Swarms of kids, some of them literally pulling old people out of cabs and beating the bejeezus out of them.” Since the curfew took effect, she said, “It’s night and day here. It’s phenomenal. We have our neighborhood back.”
At Fourth and South, the chanting protesters crossed the street and headed back to their starting point with police still slowly bicycling along. Back at Broad and South, Olugbala reiterated his demand for an immediate end to the curfew and rallied his supporters to keep up the fight. Across the street, a police captain smiled and glanced around the block. “No problems at all,” he said, shaking hands with fellow cops. “It was very peaceful.” Afterward, his voice hoarse from chanting, Olugbala told PW he was happy with the turnout, and glad to see whites marching together with blacks in solidarity against the curfew. “It’s of the utmost importance because part of Michael Nutter’s strategy was to isolate the black community by racializing the issue of crime, by saying this is a question of certain black youth who are a so-called ‘disgrace to their race,’ as opposed to Michael Nutter himself taking responsibility for the failure of his own policies,” he said. Olugbala reiterated that the recent youth mob violence has “everything to do with the violent attacks of poverty and budget cuts, and police repression like stop-and-frisk.”
“I plan to become the mayor,” he added, “and do away with the police containment of our community and usher in a new period where economic development—led by the community itself—can be the way to resolve so-called violence in the city of Philadelphia.”
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. 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.”