PHOTO: The intersection of Broad and Erie streets in North Philadelphia/ Sam P.K.Collins
“The elections are a distraction. I’m personally not into it because I don’t know these people. I invest my time and energy into people who love and know me,” Hakeem Hawkins, owner of Black and Nobel Bookstore in North Philadelphia told AllEyesOnDC in response to an inquiry about the Democratic National Convention (DNC) taking place a couple miles south from where he spent most of the day selling cold bottles of water to passersby.
“I don’t want to invest my time if these politicians won’t come into my community,” he added, alluding to the conspicuous divide between convention goers ripping and running throughout downtown Philly and the natives who experience the hardships of daily life at the intersection of Broad and Erie streets and other enclaves in this historic American city.
Through Black and Nobel, Hawkins has fed his fellow Philadelphians knowledge and provided a platform for Hip-Hop artists and conscious scholars, including Dr. Umar Johnson, for the last 15 years, a feat that has made him a neighborhood star of sorts. During a visit to the bookstore, located an earshot away from Temple University, one could watch Phil Valentine lectures on a big screen television, order a shipment of books for incarcerated loved ones, and glean a cornucopia of books, pamphlets, and DVDs. This historic meeting place has also served as a de-facto drug detox center and meeting place for those wanting to turn around their tumultuous lives.
For Hawkins, directly tending to the community in this manner proves sufficient enough in making a change.
So much so, he said he had no plans to participate in convention activities beyond moving his water operation near the Pennsylvania Convention and Wells Fargo centers and catching a DJ Khaled performance. Anything else would be feeding into political theatrics he says does nothing but boost the egos of its actors.
“I don’t spend time following a person. I’m an entrepreneur,” Hawkins, sporting a white cap peppered with green marijuana leaf imprints and a neon yellow tank top, said while sitting under a tent strategically placed next to the entranceway to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s metro rail system. “Once you do that, it’s fuck the system and I’m pretty sure the politicians who are entrepreneurs do their business stuff first. They’re all full of shit. With the little they do, they want to be rewarded,” he added.
Hawkins’ viewpoint, though divergent and somewhat controversial to those who belong to the Democratic Party, are based in fact, particularly when it comes to police-community relationships.
Under the leadership of the Democratic Party, Black people in Philadelphia haven’t fared well. After all, this is the city where the MOVE bombing, the 1985 incident that killed nearly a dozen Black people and set ablaze blocks of a middle-class community, happened at the urging of then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode, a Democrat, and the city’s police chief. More recently, the Philadelphia Police Department, with the support of a powerful union, has been cited for using controversial “Stop and Frisk” tactics against Black residents.
Other signs of systemic inequality, including disparities in healthcare access, quality education, and income, count as parts of a legacy of racial tension that goes back to American Independence, characterized by Black Philadelphians’ struggle to create their communities peacefully. Majority-Black cities and communities across the country have encountered eerily similar situations, brought on by a combination of white flight, the shuttering of factory jobs, the flow of drugs, and overzealous drug laws that punish those do what they feel they have to do to overcome these conditions.
“We don’t have friends in politics. They give us nothing for our votes and support,” Brother June, an employee at Black & Nobel and journalism student at Temple, told AllEyesOnDC. June, a returning citizen who found a love for reading while incarcerated, said his experiences in the criminal justice system showed him how attorneys, judges, and politicians prey on the ignorant.
“Anytime we start to think critically, they call us conspiracy theorists. Hillary Clinton’s husband signed the unjust laws that incarcerated Black men for a long time. She used the word ‘super predators’ and supported the law to further perpetuate slavery,” June added. These days, he wants to get North Philly residents engaged in local politics, mainly through his upstart City Talk Newspaper. Plans also include the launch of his own political party, a testament to the anti-establishment views that perpetuate underserved U.S. communities.
Political Favors at the Expense of the People
After the overtly hate-filled Klan meeting that was last week’s Republican National Convention, many politically active melanated people converged on the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia earlier this week eager to boost the morale of voters weary from months of Democratic Party infighting and frightened by the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency.
So far, party elites haven’t disappointed in putting together a show, rallying around Secy. Hillary Clinton and rehashing old political talking points about freedom, America’s promising future, and this country’s position as the “best in the world.” Hearing those messages from my living room on Monday and Tuesday didn’t make me feel too good, especially after considering the people who delivered them.
Just as I had suspected, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) turned out to be a pseudo-revolutionary, throwing his support behind the woman he constantly painted as a Wall Street darling, even after WikiLeaks uncovered the DNC’s attempts to sabotage his campaign. In what many touted as an historic address, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) kept referring to the “forefathers” who drew up the U.S. Constitution, totally neglecting the fact that the white, male group of Founding Fathers more than likely had his ancestors in shackles in 1776.
First Lady Michelle Obama, with as much Black Girl Magic as she could muster, sang Secy. Clinton’s praises, but not before describing an American utopia that in no way, shape, or form matches the conditions blocks away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or much of the U.S. for that matter.
Once again, our elected officials played politics with us, delivering more style than substance and duping their followers, as well as members of the public who believe they have no other choice than Clinton, into thinking that a special group of people will save them from the Hell they said is guaranteed to ensue if Trump wins in November.
By the time I touched down in the city of brotherly love on Wednesday, daytime convention activities had been well under way and Democratic delegates, along with other party members and media folk, gathered in the halls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center to discuss various issues and address the constituencies that make up the Democratic Party.
That morning, the Black Caucus kicked off on the terrace of the Convention Center, providing me an opportunity to hear commentary on Black America’s current state of affairs, particularly that from former Attorney General Eric Holder who would be delivering the keynote address that morning.
Nearly an hour before DNC Black Caucus Chair Virgie Rollins started the program, much of Black America learned that charges for the three remaining Baltimore City police officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death had been dropped. While this didn’t come as a surprise to me, I must admit that I felt sorrowful for State Attorney Marilyn Mosby and other key players, in the government and outside of the establishment, who put in the work necessary to ensure the case would make it this far. Once again, police officers wouldn’t be held accountable for the death of a Black person.
Surely, the speakers in the Black Caucus that morning, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, would at least mention this news and devise methods of reforming a system that allows killer cops to walk the streets freely.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Instead, much of the conversation from Rawlings-Blake, and later Holder, centered on the drawbacks of sitting out this election or voting for a third-party candidate. In what I considered the most ironic moment of the morning, Rawlings-Blake told audience members to “think about the youth [who] don’t want [live in] a country ruled in fear.” Obviously, she forgot the quasi-Martial Law imposed on the young Baltimoreans who took the streets in the aftermath of Gray’s murder last year.
Holder, in my opinion, performed a little better in the delivery of his keynote address. Unlike Rawlings-Blake, he addressed police brutality and weighed in on the Black Lives Matter movement as it exists, calling on its grassroots players to continue building their revolution in non-election years.
“People didn’t want to hear us when we talked about these police departments. The things we’ve been saying can be documented,” Holder said as audience members clapped. “For too long, people showed that Black lives didn’t matter and now we say that Black lives do matter. So don’t you let those brave young activists be marginalized. The Black Lives Matter folk have to not just make this a moment, but a movement. I need to not only see you during the presidential campaign. I need you to do the hard, boring work.”
I don’t know where Holder has been but the young people have been doing the work, even those not rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner. Shortly after leaving the cold, stale Pennsylvania Convention Center, I saw just that at different rallies within a three block radius. By Wednesday, Black Lives Matter and other Black grassroots organizations had already made their mark in that vicinity so it proved difficult finding groups of brothers and sisters.
After circling the block a couple times however, I found someone who had quite a bit to say about organizing as it pertains to awakening Black people and helping us achieve results. “Power is in the people and we can stand up,”Kashif Cole, a 21-year-old Brooklynite and representative of WorldCantWait.net, told AllEyesOnDC as he sat in front of a church.
“Beyond protesting, we can network and reach out to the people. Speak and be with them,” he continued.
Under the hot afternoon sun, we did just that, exchanging information and reasoning about Black unity, anti-capitalism, and grassroots organizing. Since taking my community work to new levels, I’ve reveled in such conversations, as they are the building blocks to movements that can catch fire.
“We have to do our own research and not take what anyone says at face value. We have to get educated and get powerful,” Kashif added. “We need more Black bodies on the ground protesting, not just when someone gets shot. It’s also very necessary to support Black business and take our money out of these corporations. The ultimate goal is revolution. We have to take down the system: no if, ands, or buts.”
That mantra became even clearer that evening after I heard President Barack Obama speak highly of Clinton and later hug her for what made a great photo op. Though I wasn’t in the Wells Fargo Center to capture that moment, a sense of calm overcame me listening to him talk about his political journey and encouraging those who booed to just go out and vote. After a couple seconds, I realized that it was a mix of adolescent nostalgia and the “Obama Effect,” what I like to describe as the president’s hypnotic presence, cadence, wordplay, and story telling that puts people at ease, even as he’s trying to sell us something that won’t do much good.
As a young voter in 2008 and 2012, I fell for this presidential marketing scheme. This time around however, I couldn’t let go of the fact that Obama, even as he praised her credentials, questioned Clinton’s judgment at one point. From the outside looking in, one could assume that their work together in the years since the 2008 Democratic Primary could’ve compelled this change of heart. I have reason to believe differently, understanding that when it comes to party politics, you have to move with the collective, even when that move is in support of someone who pretty much guaranteed her placement as the 2016 party nominee when she agreed to concede to Obama just eight years earlier.
Admittedly, I don’t have concrete proof of this assertion, but when you think outside of the box, you see the system for what it truly represents. Everything after that becomes commonsensical, even if the outside world doesn’t think so. Giving a group of people who have no agency a limited number of choices in who will run this country proves to be nothing more than a tool of control. Albeit, Clinton has decades of experience, but her mastery of party politics saved her more than anything else. The e-mail leak controversy that almost derailed the DNC and the subsequent cover up speaks to that.
Change Outside of the Political Arena
The global Black struggle for self-determination is more spiritual than anything else.
As a people without a common consciousness, we’re susceptible to the influence of outside forces that want our resources in return for nothing. Malcolm X told us this in his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, demanding that we as Black people build up our own institutions and take control of our communities. Without the common unadulterated heritage and backing of sovereign nations that other ethnic groups in this country have, doing that has proven virtually impossible for Black America.
That doesn’t mean that achieving this goal is impossible.
As I learned in my excursion throughout downtown and North Philly, there are people who understand that change initially comes from within. After that happens, they can change their communities, and ultimately the world. I stand with Brother June in saying that Black people, and maybe other oppressed melanated groups for that matter, need a political party that resonates with their values and needs. Obviously, that cannot happen overnight. Hillary Clinton supporters who point out that reality in their cajoling of those who don’t want to vote for her are terribly facetious for believing that we’re ignorant of these facts.
If one needs concrete proof that change is happening locally and outside of the political arena, they need look no further than Dominque White, a young mother of two who underwent a metamorphosis of her own less than a year ago. Even as she dwells on her bad decisions and stints on the streets, she remains persistent in changing her life and helping others, saying that forgiveness and unity are the keys to our salvation as a Black nation.
“Unity is the key but people are very prideful. I had to let my pride go but it took me seven years running in circles to understand that,” White,24, told AllEyesOnDC steps away from Black and Nobel where she and her friends gathered on Wednesday afternoon. “These young people don’t want anything other than what they’ve been shown. It’s the same bullshit like who got shot and who’s late on their rent. If more people could show others how to be successful, we could all be successful. I want to see someone helping the next man, sharing their health and resources. That’s the only way to make a change.”
If only the DNC visitors, especially those of African descent, could take some time out of their trip to visit North Philly and other marginalized parts of this city to learn this lesson.