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Watch Asa Khalif talk about protesting former D.A. Seth Williams

 

Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania’s Asa Khalif speaks with Taylor Allen to discuss his protest at District Attorney Seth Williams’s office in Philadelphia.

 

Cheat Sheet

Here's the low down of this story

  • Recent headlines focusing on overblown controversies such as whether white allies can participate in Black Lives Matter meetings have helped to obscure the fact that there is a fissure among black leadership in Philadelphia.
  • Leading the charge against the establishment are the self-named Four Horsemen:Asa Khalif head of the Black Lives Matter Movement Pennsylvania Chapter, Christopher Norris, journalist and CEO of the news and event company Techbook Online Corporation, retired corrections officer Greg Brinkley and South Jersey social justice activist Walter L. Hudson Sr.
  • In effect, the message from Norris and his fellow Horsemen is intended to wake up the black silent majority.
  • The Four Horsemen represent a new school of leadership that does not seek validation from the halls of power, lacks patience with those who do, and is eager to hold elected officials accountable.

The Four Horsemen

The fissure among African American leadership in Philadelphia seems generational, but, as a group of young activists make clear, it’s not new.

The fissure among African American leadership in Philadelphia seems generational, but, as a group of young activists make clear, it’s not new.

Recent headlines focusing on overblown controversies such as whether white allies can participate in Black Lives Matter meetings have helped to obscure the fact that there is a fissure among black leadership in Philadelphia. On the one hand, there’s the old guard civil rights organizations and establishment black clergy; on the other, there’s an emerging protest movement emanating from millennial social justice activists. Part of the divide between the two is generational to be sure, but there’s also a real disagreement about the role of political activism and the appropriate role of activists to people in power.

Leading the charge against the establishment are the self-named Four Horsemen; the moniker started as a joke between them, but it has since stuck, as their argument against the tried and true ways of protest have picked up steam. I sat down recently with two of them, thirtysomething millennials who are taking a stand as part of the city’s audacious new leadership: Asa Khalif, filmmaker, writer, producer and head of the Black Lives Matter Movement Pennsylvania Chapter, and Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris, journalist and CEO of the news and event company Techbook Online Corporation.

“My generation does not want to be friends with politicians,” says Norris. “These civil rights groups, they started out right 50 years ago, but they traded in their aggression for access and as long as they’re able to get the politician to their rally or stop the violence vigil, they aren’t going to push too hard.”

Together with retired corrections officer Greg Brinkley—the elder of the group—and South Jersey social justice activist Walter L. Hudson Sr.—former Penns Grove school board member and current borough council candidate who is chairman and founder of the National Awareness Alliance—they say that groups such as the Philadelphia Urban League and the Black Clergy don’t actually do anything other than prop up the status quo and thrive on the “nonprofit industrial complex.”

“My generation does not want to be friends with politicians,” says Norris, also a professional drummer and WURD radio host who organized the Trayvon Martin rallies in Philly. “We don’t want to go to the birthday and Christmas parties. These civil rights groups, they started out right 50 years ago, but they traded in their aggression for access and as long as they’re able to get the politician to their rally or stop the violence vigil, they aren’t going to push too hard.”

For his part, Khalif maintains there has always been an open door for the elders who have paved the way, and whose advice he welcomes. “What I can’t tolerate and won’t tolerate are elders who work against the community, such as these pastors from these megachurches in Philadelphia and even these regular churches who are working for the politicians and not the community,” he says. “It is an outrage to tell the congregation to vote for a politician who is not for the community.”

Khalif cites as Exhibit A Seth Williams, the Philadelphia district attorney who was recently indicted by the feds amid allegations of corruption, including fraud, bribery and extortion. In December 2014, Khalif’s cousin, Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was fatally shot by police in the head. He was unarmed. The killing fueled the Black Lives Matter movement in Philadelphia. Williams refused to file criminal charges against the two officers, instead blaming Tate-Brown and repeating the police claim that the young man was reaching for a gun in his car. When Williams was indicted, many establishment black leaders either shrugged or expressed sadness for the DA. Khalif’s was the voice of outrage.

“He harbors the characteristics of someone who was morally bankrupt in the beginning,” Khalif says of Williams. “It’s one thing to be politically corrupt. But he also sold his mother out. It’s another thing when it filters into your own family.”

The outrage from the Four Horsemen has had an effect. Before Williams announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, a group of black leaders were ready to support Williams. One of them was Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philly NAACP, who had been critical of the DA’s support for the death penalty and Williams’ coziness with police brass. When Muhammad subsequently joined a press conference calling for Williams’ resignation (that included Rev. Greg Holston of POWER Philadelphia, an interfaith social justice coalition of over 40 congregations) and publicly apologized for endorsing Williams in the first place, it appeared like he was following the lead of the young activists. It was an example of the power of this new generation of social justice warriors, which has thrown down the gauntlet and accused the old guard black leaders, pastors and nonprofits of selling out the interests of black folks.

The Four Horsemen represent a new school of leadership that does not seek validation from the halls of power, lacks patience with those who do, and is eager to hold elected officials accountable. They can learn from the lessons of the past, but don’t necessarily seek the old civil rights template, which they say fails to address the realities of the 21st century.

We have been down this road before. Black leadership never was monolithic, nor was it ever static. Some organizations and their tactics and strategies have fallen out of favor and have been supplanted by others. Some leaders and groups have competed, agreed to disagree or work together for the greater good despite their differences.

For example, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington disagreed on the way to uplift black America. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference clashed with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The NAACP did not support King’s position against the Vietnam War, and the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s adopted a more radical stance than the traditional civil rights organizations.

According to Norris, this tension within black leadership is always a healthy thing. “We’re a more assertive, aggressive generation, and we’re not waiting for the torch to be passed,” he says. “In this city, we’ve been relinquishing our power because we idolize these fucking politicians. We treat them like celebrities and take selfies with them.”

In effect, the message from Norris and his fellow Horsemen is intended to wake up the black silent majority. Over the years, some voices in the African American community have argued there is no further need to protest and march in the streets. The protest movement was over, after all, an historical artifact mentioned in the past tense while old guard organizations from past struggles continued to convene every year for their rubber chicken dinners, patting themselves on the back for victories won decades ago. Those who did the marching in the ‘60s and ‘70s achieved part of what they were marching for: Political power. They did not realize their job was not over.

The Four Horsemen represent a new school of leadership that does not seek validation from the halls of power, lacks patience with those who do, and is eager to hold elected officials accountable. They can learn from the lessons of the past, but don’t necessarily seek the old civil rights template, which they say fails to address the realities of the 21st century.

The ascendancy of the first black president further lulled people to sleep. Many civil rights and black groups may have thought they did not have to exert pressure on Obama, and grew less vigilant. But if pressure groups do not keep their eye on the ball and push for improvements in the system, they cannot expect those in power—even if it’s a black face—to make the necessary changes.

The older folks had not prepared the new generation to fight in a world in which violence against black bodies continues, institutional racism persists and the trauma stemming from slavery and Jim Crow is as palpable as ever. Now comes the age of Trump, the backlash to black power in the White House—or the “whitelash” as Van Jones describes it—as we witness the birth pangs of what Rev. William J. Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina calls the Third Reconstruction.

The older generation let us down, Flood insists, and he points specifically to the black church. While a number of black churches were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, there were many churches that were apolitical. “I grew up in the church and I never heard anyone say justice,” Norris says, explaining why Black Lives Matter hasn’t aligned itself with faith leaders. “I think there is a class of black leaders in Philadelphia who want to maintain the status quo because the status quo maintains their living. They don’t want to be knocked off, because they’ve built a nonprofit-industrial-complex.”

That type of in-your-face rhetoric notwithstanding, Norris and Khalif both hold out olive branches to their elders. Khalif talks about welcoming advice from veterans of the civil rights era, and of standing up for the rights of poor white folks who are social justice allies. “There are ways to work together, but the elders have to say, ‘We’ve done what we can do,’” adds Norris. “They must mentor the young people, then set them free.”

In fact, at times, both activists can sound like middle-of-the-road incrementalists rather than revolutionaries—an indication that, in time, maybe the differences between old school black leaders and the new jacks might not be so wide. When asked, for instance, to advise the new generation of social activists, Norris doesn’t miss a beat.

“There is too much focus on shutting it down,” he says. “You have to have a system, you have to have the police. This generation needs to be more pragmatic.”

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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