(Photo by Flickr user C P, used under a Creative Commons license)
Single issue activism often eventually fizzles out. It’s less a matter of endurance and more a testament to realistic goal-setting.
The Occupy movement, for example, arguably lost steam due to a lack of leadership, direction and achievable goals — though perhaps its splinter was effective. The Arab Spring that inspired it, on the other hand, had considerable impact on the governments that movement wanted to reform — but wrestle with a coherent narrative.
They are icons of this generation of resistance. Yet neither formed into a single, on-going movement for more than a few years at most. Perhaps that’s the point? Local organizers seem to be taking on a similar question.
Brought together by an array of direct action efforts opposing incoming President Donald Trump (some compare to anti-Obama Tea Partiers), the 20 community organizations that make up the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney say they have no intention of fading away any time soon. The coalition has successfully pushed all seven Democratic candidates in the open race for district attorney left toward progressive criminal justice reforms such as ending cash bail and bolstering Philadelphia’s Sanctuary City status.
A crowded Democratic primary field for District Attorney will be weaned on May 16, after embattled incumbent Seth Williams dropped out (might he resign?). In November a new DA will be crowned.
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The coalition’s membership is incredibly diverse, ranging from institutions (ACLU-PA, Project HOME) to grassroots organizations led by returning citizens (The Center for Returning Citizens, X-Offenders for Community Empowerment) to organizations advocating for Philadelphia’s immigrant population (Juntos, New Sanctuary Movement) to faith organizations such as POWER Interfaith and beyond.
Many of the groups and stakeholders leading the coalition are and have been on the front lines of criminal justice reform and have a personal stake in creating lasting change. That’s intentional.
“We’ve known for years that the provision of policing in our neighborhoods is biased against Black, Brown, immigrant, poor communities and we’ve all been overwhelmed and energized by how this political moment has permitted us to grow our numbers and work together in ways that haven’t been possible before,” said Media Mobilizing Project organizer Hannah Sassaman. “Tactically, it made a lot of sense for us to partner with groups like the ACLU and [racial justice organization] Color of Change, the organizations representing the people most marginalized in our economic system and our system of criminal justice, to take the most urgent struggles in Philadelphia and put them right into the ballot box in this primary.”
“Urgency” sums up the spirit of the coalition. There are a handful of changes that can be made to the DA’s office immediately that will save lives. Immigrant lives, especially. Nationally greater scrutiny is being paid to between local ‘sanctuary movements,’ in which cities and counties, like Philadelphia, deflect coordination with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in an array of different ways.
“We have had families whose loved ones were transferred to ICE right after they posted bail,” wrote New Sanctuary organizer Sheila Quintana in an email. “We need the new DA to take a stand against ICE presence in the [Center for Criminal Justice], as well as in Parole and Probation offices. We need a new DA who in all their practices and beyond will stand for justice not convictions and work toward ending the criminalizing of immigrant, poor and communities of color.”
Grassroots organization Decarcerate PA took the lead on bringing stakeholders who were all working on these issues independent of one another to the same table, said activist and Frontline Dads founder Reuben Jones. The fight for justice, he said, is far from over once a new district attorney is elected.
“The coalition will continue to operate around criminal justice issues, continue to function and coalesce around issues related to criminal justice,” Jones said. “This will be an ongoing process that will take time.”
The relationships formed around a shared interest in these issues, said Reverend Nicolas O’Rourke of POWER, are what will keep the coalition intact after the race, in the coalition’s current packaging or otherwise. O’Rourke and POWER, like their secular colleagues, believe in a restorative criminal justice system as opposed to a punitive one.
“We’ve made it almost criminal to be poor,” said O’Rourke. “If we are people of faith, do we allow this to sit by, that folks made in God’s image are being treated as criminals, as if they’re less than human, as if they have less rights than the rest of us?”
The coalition will host all seven Democratic candidates for a two-hour town hall tomorrow night at Arch Street United Methodist Church, co-led by the ACLU and Color of Change. Both organizations have been engaged in prosecutor organizing before and after the election of Trump, Sassaman pointed out.
And while the national Resistance might feel as if it’s tapering out and living largely on social media, the local organizations that have convened around it in Philadelphia are very much real and very much focused on results.
“While all candidates are chasing each other to the left at forums citywide,” she said, “Impacted people will be asking concrete, solid questions meant to permit everyday people in the poorest big city in America to compare their concrete policy plans on issues of mass incarceration in Philly.”
And after votes are tallied? Organizers said they will be holding the newly-elected DA accountable based on the promises made during the race. If there’s a fizzle here, hopefully it will be because goals were met.-30-
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