Philadelphia: The Gentrification of Progressive Politics

Image by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez.

Past revolutionaries understood that the world and the conditions which have produced it must be closely studied in order to furnish clarity that can make transformative possibilities real. Looking at the changes unfolding in America, many intuitively sense we are living during an unpredictable, shifting hour in world history. The question we must deal with is then: how do we interpret society’s changing realities in order to illuminate new possibilities of uplift of the world’s people?

Toward this question, it is valuable to begin by anchoring an understanding of the collapse of the West and specifically America, the declining imperial superpower which is today cracking under its own contradictions. Freed from the ideological shackles of assumptions of western imperial rule, one is then able to develop possibilities of new political realignments and new moral principles.

In 2020 the crisis of America was captured by three historic phenomena: the Covid-19 pandemic, presidential election and widespread national protest. The interaction of these forces represented shifting political alignments and must be understood in order to “save the soul of America” as the Civil Rights Movement strove to do. These complex dynamics must be understood by any genuine progressive who seeks to change society. They can be uniquely understood in Philadelphia, the country’s poorest big city which is 42% black, and a fertile ground of political struggle and conflict.

Here Walter Wallace, a 27-year old black man, was fatally shot by police in October 2020. His shooting led to a surge in riots and protests and resurfaced contradictions of a city sharply divided across race and class lines. Philadelphia is one of the most acutely gentrifying American cities, where black residents are the majority of those evicted and a quarter of the city’s people who live in poverty. Meanwhile, the city’s center increasingly nurtures a ruling class culture, captured by a blooming financial technology start-up scene, the unabated propagation of cosmopolitan hubs such as hip coffee houses, and the sustained influx of trendy professionals drawn to an “up-and-coming” scene.

Pandemic and New Progressivism 

The ideological divide between the working class and ruling elite continues to widen as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The pandemic threw the economy into recession and at least 20 million Americans into unemployment; in April 2020 the federal government reported a record 14.9% unemployment rate while others estimated a true rate of 32.4%. In America, over 10 million people are still unemployed and over 600,000 deaths have been sustained from the pandemic. How do we deal with this reality?

A panicked, shallow reckoning has arisen in Philadelphia and nationally in the form of “new progressivism,” an organized political force made up of young, university-educated people, which is ideologically misguided and antithetical to actual progressive change. The practice of “new progressivism”, which manifests through electoral politics, leftist activism, charity and identity politics, attempts to handle issues of poverty and racism without an understanding of the worldview of the people. Ignorant of the spirit and traditions of working people, new progressivism’s primary contradiction is the assumption that ordinary people are insignificant to and incapable of progressively remaking society.

The ideology of false progressivism preys on the confusion of young, mostly well-intentioned people who are unprepared to critically examine reality. False progressivism obscures the real issues of humanity, war, and poverty; buries the genuine threads for revolutionary change in our times; and ultimately aligns with the consensus of the ruling elite.

Poverty at the Root of Gun Violence

A new burst of policy and leadership marking this false progressivism began in the contentious 2019 West Philadelphia Third District election, when longtime Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell lost her seat to newcomer Jamie Gauthier. Since 1992 when Jannie Blackwell originally took office, the Third District has gentrified drastically. The demographic shift from the neighborhood’s established black presence of homeowners to an increase in young, educated wealthy renters contributed significantly in bringing Gauthier to office. Gauthier appealed to the neighborhood’s base of gentrifiers by campaigning under the message of representing black and working class interests: misleadingly, the gentrifier’s understanding of as opposed to the community’s understanding of its own interests.

The genuine intention of Gauthier’s leadership is to undermine the city’s black community and to push Philadelphia toward a pseudo-liberal agenda which conforms to the consensus of the ruling elite. Since her election, Gauthier has aligned squarely with the city’s broad base of self-proclaimed progressives who abstract the symptoms of people’s issues away from the ideological conditions which have created them. In 2020, City Council approved Jamie Gauthier’s resolution to address rising gun violence through a patchwork of responses including business interventions, academic research and philanthropic charity. Her strategy is “leveraging the resources of Philadelphia’s dynamic private sector, nonprofit community, academic institutions, and healthcare organizations.” Tellingly, none of these represent community institutions such as churches, unions, and schools which have historically organized and strengthened the strivings of working people.

Gauthier’s approach does not address the root causes of gun violence, which are found in the desperate conditions people face in a society that prioritizes the extraction of wealth abroad by imperial rule, a society that would sooner spend on warfare than on the needs of its own people.

Defund the Police versus The Call for Peace

One of the enduring slogans of the false progressives has been to “Defund the Police,” which they justify by pointing to the over-funding of police departments in the context of widespread poverty. Calls for police reform by the black liberation movement were rooted in the needs of the community, and called for community control of the police instead of abolition. Additionally, they connected police brutality to imperialist wars. The abolition agenda fails to grasp the relationship between police and the black community in Philadelphia, whose complexity was captured by Walter Wallace Sr.’s calls to the community in October after his son was murdered by a policeman. The killing was one of several which caught national attention in 2020, igniting action as a part of national Black Lives Matter protests.

Instead of calling for revenge as the many protestors of Wallace’s death did, Wallace’s father called for peace in the city, “I want people to know I don’t [condone] all this violence and looting. And I don’t want to leave a bad scar on my son and my family with this looting and chaos stuff, with the violence, even with the police department looting stores, burning… I mean, this is where we live, and that’s the only community, resource we have. And if we take all the resources and burn it down, we don’t have anything. So it’s, I want in my son’s name, everybody to stop this, give my son a chance.” When hundreds of young protestors, mostly white transplants, gathered at the site of Wallace’s murder, the people living in the neighborhood wanted them to leave. One of the clearest contradictions of the Black Lives Matter “movement” has been its glaring absence from the ideas and involvement of the black community. Faced with the overwhelmingly white, highly educated composition of the BLM protests, the media has concluded that black people must be more conservative when it comes to race compared to white liberals.

Last year in Philadelphia, hundreds of protests were organized and led by myriad white-thinking anarchist, Trotskyist, democratic socialist, environmentalist and anti-fascist groups in the name of abolishing the police, anti-racist allyship and defeating Trump – which ironically aligned neatly with the consensus of the ruling elilte. They were falsely defined as movements, which cannot be genuine unless they address the central concerns of the people, and thus gain their trust and support. Meanwhile, longtime community members who protested against gun violence made the call for peace.

Protests used for Gentrification 

This surge of protests began in the summer and continued until Biden’s victory occurred when special attention was fixed on Philadelphia as a key battleground city in a swing state for turning the 2020 presidential election in favor of Biden. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the sharp inequality across the city’s color and class line, devastating poorer communities with high rates of unemploymentpovertyhomicides and infections.

Gentrification in particular remains a primary contradiction of these times in Philadelphia. In academics and activism, gentrification is understood as the displacement of a lower-income community in terms of demographic and economic changes. Solutions are proposed including providing affordable housing and supporting black business. These solutions paper over the deepest arms of destabilization of the black community: lack of homeownership, the destruction of black institutions, and ideological confusion.

Though gentrification is often discussed, in activist and academic circles it is usually in the context of providing piecemeal charity rather than a genuine means for self-determination and community uplift. The fixation on the victimhood of the black community, shared by both ruling elites and so-called progressives, betrays a disbelief in the ability of the people to determine their own destinies.

The greatest crime of gentrification has been the ruling class’s systematic ideological decimation of the community’s tradition of revolutionary struggle, which if restored would concretely make what Du Bois calls the ‘dictatorship of labor’: the opportunity of a people for self-determination based on economic security and clear, intelligent leadership. In Philadelphia, achieving such an end would mean restoring home ownership in the black community, providing stable and dignified jobs, and most importantly fighting for clarity about the institutions and ideas that make gentrification possible.

Ideological Struggle to Move Forward 

Those who aspire toward progressive change must look beyond the easy slogans and impulsive, violent action which individually gratifies but ideologically misguides. Such protest culture distracts and obscures the real task of the progressive: how to create conditions which would allow all people to flourish in dignity and possibility.

The current moment of economic depression and joblessness spurred by the pandemic could facilitate the realignment of Philadelphia on truly progressive foundations that would serve the ordinary laborer instead of the cosmopolitan elite. “In such a case, no one could deny the right and inevitableness of democracy. And in the meantime, in bridging the road from ignorance and poverty to intelligence and  an income sufficient for civilization, the real power must be in someone’s hands. Shall this power be a dictatorship for the benefit of the rich, the cultured and the fortunate?” concludes Du Bois in Black Reconstruction.

Although the city has become a hotbed of identity politics and infantile cosmopolitanism, in recent history Philadelphia was a stronghold of broad class and race struggle; its contribution has been a tradition of anti-war, anti-poverty values found in the people’s leaders as Cecil B. Moore, Father Paul Washington and Lucien Blackwell. These leaders fought for jobs for all, homes not bombs, and for the common man to have a voice in shaping the city.

To develop the positive thread toward building a reality of genuine democracy and peace for all people, we must synthesize the progressive history of the black working class with contemporary conditions. This can only be achieved if one is able to carefully and determine the truths of the unfolding realities before us.

Genuine progressives must continue to study the complex and changing interactions of political forces. They must be motivated by the moral principles which were shared and beloved by the people of America’s 20th century black freedom struggle. As contradictions heighten, there is new possibility for the unity of different political forces – ranging from the disillusioned and reviled white worker, to the black worker whose grounding in a genuine tradition causes them to distrust false movements. The task of the revolutionary is to identify and develop the principles on which these new political alignments can be made.

This piece was first published on the Organization for Positive Peace Blog.

Michelle Lyu is a Chinese American woman living in Philadelphia, and organizer with the Saturday Free School for Philosophy & Black Liberation at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.