You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Philadelphian Left Holds the Line

After decades of voter suppression, organizing efforts pay off.

Mark Peterson/Redux/for The New Republic
Demonstrators outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on November 5

On Friday morning, after a full night spent counting and tabulating mail-in ballots, votes from Philadelphia may have delivered the final blow kicking President Trump out of the White House. Thursday, Trump attempted preemptively to cast doubt on the result. “They’re trying to steal an election, they’re trying to rig an election,” the deflated president told a White House briefing room, calling Detroit and Philadelphia “two of the most corrupt political places.”

For the last week, Philadelphia has been a hub of nationwide election-defense work rallying behind a simple message: Count All the Votes. Regular protests of hundreds of union members, community organizing groups, and socialists—including outside the Philadelphia Convention Center, where votes are still being tallied—have channeled the manic energy that’s flowed out of Tuesday’s election into traditional marches and marathon dance parties alike. People in mailbox costumes dancing to Mary J. Blige, puppet displays, and protesting Elmos have presented themselves as a populist answer to a week of attempted coups from the White House and the wannabe brownshirt supporters who have surrounded vote counters in top battleground states to chant either “Stop the count!” or “Count the votes!” depending on whether Trump is ahead. Early this morning, local news in Philadelphia received reports of a Hummer that had driven up from Virginia in an alleged plot to attack the Convention Center. Were it not for rolling demonstrations this week, it’s possible that scenes in Pennsylvania could have been far uglier—and the election results less certain.

The left-led demonstrations to protect both the election and a decidedly centrist candidate build on decades of Philadelphia organizing—much of it responding, in turn, to Republican policies suppressing Black voters. Just weeks ago, racial justice and community groups came together to support protests against the police killing of Walter Wallace, led by Wallace’s family and community in West Philadelphia. The demonstrations around the presidential election follow on the heels of recent electoral successes for left-wing elected officials, both in Philadelphia and across the state, involving massive canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts to elect underdog candidates. A year ago, organizer Kendra Brooks became the first Working Families candidate elected to the city council, where she joined councilwoman Helen Gym, who has deep roots in Philly organizing spaces. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner—elected in 2017—was familiar to the activists he defended when they were arrested during Occupy demonstrations. Nikil Saval and Rick Krajewski were each elected to the state legislature, where they’ll join fellow democratic socialists Summer Lee, Elizabeth Fiedler, and Sara Innamorato, who were all reelected to second terms on Tuesday.

“Groups in Philadelphia have been embarking on projects around relationship and movement building for many, many years now, and it feels like this moment is really a testament to how much work people have done in terms of seeing each other’s struggles as connected,” said Arielle Klagsbrun, who coordinates the Philadelphia Action Council, which has served as the organizational hub for this week’s activities. “The system that murdered Walter Wallace two weeks ago is the same system that is looking to disenfranchise Black and Brown voters across Pennsylvania.”

The efforts in Philadelphia connect to similar ones across the state and nation on various fronts. Movements helmed largely by Black women in several battleground states—including Stacey Abrams and the New Georgia Project—have worked to rebuff right-wing voter suppression efforts for years and protect mail-in and in-person votes that proved decisive in Biden’s likely victory.

Looking to ensure all those votes would be counted in the long lead-up to Election Day, local organizers and a statewide coalition, Pennsylvania Stands Up, have been in touch with a number of national election defense outfits comprised of the Working Families Party; the Sunrise Movement; the National Domestic Workers Alliance; and national unions, including SEIU as well as Indivisible, among many other groups that have been providing support to protests around the country. On Wednesday, one such outlet called Protect the Results—a massive coalition of 165 organizations—announced it would “not be activating the entire national mobilization network” for demonstrations that had been planned in advance but remained “ready to activate if necessary.”

Organizers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere decided not to heed the stand-down suggestion. “There was communication, but Pennsylvania groups are not taking direction from the national groups,” said Becca Rast, Bernie Sanders’s former national field director who helped to organize count-the-vote actions in her hometown of Lancaster. Other groups, including the Sunrise Movement and We the People, in Michigan, among others, moved ahead with protests, too. Many were eager not to repeat what had happened with the calamitous Florida recount in 2000, when Al Gore’s campaign discouraged protests while the so-called Brooks Brothers rioters and the national GOP moved aggressively to claim the disputed election.

This time around, “there’s just a lot more of a mixed message from the right, and they don’t have consistency in what they’re asking for, which undermines the whole thing,” Rast told me. “Progressives are clear: Count every vote, and we want to see it happen as quickly as possible.” Months of saber-rattling from Trump also led many local officials to expect a fight.

“We’re under no belief that Trump is going to just concede easily,” Klagsbrun said when we spoke Thursday afternoon. “That would be anathema to what we’ve seen. Whether the vote results get announced for Pennsylvania today, tomorrow, or Saturday, we’re going to continue to mobilize.”

She also reiterated a sentiment voiced by several of the groups engaged in defending the election results: that the ties strengthened and built to count the votes will be used to hold a Biden administration to account. “We’re ready to pressure the hell out of Biden,” Rast said. “A lot has changed since Obama was elected in 2008 and folks weren’t ready to be on the offense. People aren’t going to take a big sigh and stop turning out.”

Garrett Blad, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement—the youth climate advocacy group whose members mobilized for election-defense efforts in Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina, and Michigan—echoed that. “Sunrise is committed to strengthening and making sure that the progressive block is making demands and using their numbers to actually transform legislation in the House. This is not a moment to pass incremental change, no matter what the Senate looks like,” he told me, addressing concerns aired midweek that, even with a Biden win, Senate results would preclude ambitious climate legislation.

In the past few days, some Democrats have blamed the left wing of the party for down-ticket losses. That doesn’t seem to have stopped members of that wing from taking to the streets to defend Joe Biden’s chances. It’s a fight these organizers connect back to their local battles and core principles. “Our movement is broader than just fighting Trump. It’s based on real policy around bringing racial and economic justice to our city,” Klagsbrun said of Philadelphia. “It’s not going to go away just because we defeated a fascist.”