Reclaim Philadelphia is a grassroots, democratic organization that aims to build power for people across the city. In a political world flooded with corporate money, it is dedicated to amplifying the voices of Philadelphians. We oppose the rule of moneyed and special interests that deform our institutions and deface our government. Through issue-based and electoral campaigns, policy research, and direct action, Reclaim Philadelphia is working to organize the progressive majority in the city.
What does it mean to “reclaim Philadelphia”? It implies that something has been lost and needs to be retaken. And for us this is exactly the case: the people, organized, would take back the commons from the elites who privatize and ruin it. A more humane, more welcoming city, and a more inclusive, more democratic politics, would be the goal.
People might counter that Philadelphia has never been better. On one account, after all, the city is going through a boom time. Boosters trumpet the city’s revitalization; they point to the cranes wheeling over low-slung blocks; a new Comcast tower rising to stand in tall, glassy fraternity with its predecessor; the increasing numbers of professionals clamoring for tables at a local “Top Chef”-winner’s restaurant.
But step away from the skyscraper-shadowed beer gardens of Center City, take the trolleys out from the “innovation” districts of the universities, and look at the buckling rowhouses, the grassy, trash-filled lots cropping up between them like so many missing teeth. Here there are no cranes, only bulldozers; no jobs to be worked, only crumbling stoops to wait out the days. In many places, now, there aren’t even schools to attend. One person’s renaissance is another’s dark age. One Philadelphia is being fabricated and exalted, so that another can be cast down and forgotten.
“Reformers” reaping profits from an increasingly privatized education system, leading to greater neglect of children and teachers alike; a political caste working fist-in-glove with callous developers; a taxation system that punishes the poor and spares the rich; breathtaking levels of racial and economic segregation not seen since the days of Jim Crow; a police force marked by swaggering impunity; a working-class that sees one future after another foreclosed and boarded up: These are lived realities for the people of Philadelphia, but recognizable as realities in cities all over the country.
What has been happening for generations is the offensive by one class against another, the consolidation by the wealthy of a near-unassailable form of power, and the promulgation of their policies and views as the only truth, with no alternative. The neoliberal offensive of the last 40-odd years has made it easier for elites to keep more and more wealth, as more and more barriers to profit-making and to regulation fall. This same pattern, most visible in the world of finance, repeats itself across industries: the price of life-saving drugs goes up along with health insurance; prison systems are privatized, along with universities and K-12 education. The roots of generations of cultural life, tying people to places, are torn up, block by block, as people are displaced and expelled. The rich placidly grow richer; the commons are despoiled and the poor cast into deeper poverty.
Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, however, cracks in the overhanging consensus have at last begun to show, and a clearer sky through them. In 2011, beginning on Wall Street, the occupation of public squares throughout the country in favor of real financial reform and an end to economic inequality triggered a widespread recognition that society is starkly divided into the one percent, and the powerless ninety-nine. After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the #BlackLivesMatter movement (now the Movement for Black Lives) gave a much-needed and belated shock to the system of white America, who, if still only too gradually and warily, have come to realize how the immense history of racial oppression weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Long dormant, the streets of Philadelphia and cities everywhere have woken into life: marches, protests, occupations, civil disobedience are once again the order of the day. Behind these lie mountains of independent thinking and research into problems of pressing concern; careful strategic thinking is being translated into to political action.
To “reclaim” Philadelphia, then, would be to dismantle the walls that separate the successful few from the impoverished many, on whose backs alone that success has been achieved. Call the system what you will: neoliberalism, white supremacy, patriarchy—it all sticks, it is all intertwined. It exceeds the bounds of our city and encircles the globe. But we start where we live, and where we live a clearing has opened up, and a movement is on its feet.
Founded in June 2016 in the aftermath of the Bernie Sanders campaign, Reclaim Philadelphia is committed to the idea that this state of affairs is not inevitable. In a city—a country—tending towards ever greater inequality in wealth and power, we seek policies and candidates, and we develop strategies and tactics, to redistribute that wealth to the poor, to enfranchise the dispossessed, and to invest in the commons. We believe that grassroots organizing can bring people together, and that—together, with members in every neighborhood in the city—we can unsettle the complacencies of the powerful.
We reject racism and discrimination on the basis of gender and sex, and we seek to stop these evils at their root. We insist that a viable economic future cannot be built through choking children with smog and despoiling the planet; that a warming globe is a grim threat to everyone everywhere, the poor most of all. We categorically reject the notion that police are entitled to menace entire swathes of the city with racial terror and to shoot unarmed black men and women in the streets.
We believe that, in the richest country the world has ever known, poverty and hunger should be unknown; that the exploitation of one class by another must be extinguished; that de facto white supremacy is a horror to be stamped out and abjured; that politics cannot remain and must never be the secure, easy provenance of an insouciant, vicious elite.
To resurrect some still-resonant words: another world is possible. Through organization, educational efforts, political power, and action, Reclaim Philadelphia intends to help build it.
Below are issues we care deeply about—though the list is by no means exhaustive:
We operate on the principle that a city council, a state legislature, and a federal government, must represent the interests of poor and working people, not developers and bankers. One of Reclaim Philadelphia’s primary goals is to foster and support candidates who stand for the 99 percent of Americans, free from the influence of wealthy donors, unafraid of taking progressive stances.
Protecting Workers’ Rights:
We believe that no one should work and live in poverty. The right to fair wages, to protection from wage theft, will be safeguarded by Reclaim Philadelphia and its members. Reclaim Philadelphia stands in solidarity with unions and with worker centers who seek social justice. It is often said that Philadelphia is a “union” city, but service and lower level white-collar professions, overwhelmingly staffed by women of color, ought to have the ability to organize and form unions without threats from the bosses or corporations or paid-up politicians.
Since the 1990s, so-called “free trade” deals have served primarily to enrich corporations and destroy legal protections for workers at home and abroad. They contain provisions that drastically limit the bargaining power of labor and vitiate national environmental laws. Proposals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership—negotiated in secret, even from most elected officials, suspiciously enough—threaten to upend the lives of thousands of Americans and workers throughout the Pacific Rim countries. Reclaim Philadelphia is opposed to, and will work tirelessly to stop, any deal that undermines the dignity of workers and their democratic rights at work.
We insist that no one should live in poverty. Reclaim Philadelphia stands with a large chorus of social justice thinkers who see universal welfare provision as a humane, rational, and just mode of enabling people to stay on their feet in a time of great economic uncertainty and upheaval. We believe that everyone has a right to housing and to universal health care. We seek candidates for elected office who support vigorous initiatives to combat poverty.
Progressive Tax Reform:
We believe that progressive taxation is a way of investing in common goods and raising the quality of life for everyone. Philadelphia’s tax burdens fall lightly on developers in Center City, who enjoy record profits, while schools and neighborhoods are starved. Many universities in the area pay no taxes at all, while benefiting tremendously from public goods. The tax abatements that allow developers to benefit from city services without paying for them must be abolished. Reclaim Philadelphia is committed to building a movement that works for a tax policy that enables rebuilding our commons.
There should be hardly anyone in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania today who is oblivious to the fate of our schools. Viciously underfunded and criminally neglected, the state of the school system stands as a stark rebuke to any local politician who claims to be interested in our children’s future. Reclaim Philadelphia stands with parents and teachers’ unions fighting austerity, and anyone fighting for equal and full funding for our schools. We stand with those, too, calling for the abolition of the School Reform Commission, and a return to local control.
Despite the 1963 Equal Pay Act, Pennsylvania has one of the worst records of any state on equal pay for women and men, something that it is a source of shame to right. Reclaim Philadelphia insists on the establishment of firmer equal pay rules. We further insist on the creation of a society in which women are free from sexual harassment, in public and in the workplace. We support uniform judicial punishment for perpetrators of sexual assault.
Black Lives Matter:
A majority of white Philadelphians express great trust in the police—a view not shared by the large number of black Philadelphians. The name of “Brandon Tate-Brown” stands in for the countless unarmed black men and women killed by police—to say nothing of the thousands of others harassed and stopped-and-frisked, menaced by the encroaching shadow of the prison and its tireless, vicious agents. We oppose all policies that have led to the United States becoming the most incarcerated nation on earth. We believe that the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure, a pretext for a “new Jim Crow” regime that targets black people and people of color. We insist on the decriminalization of narcotics, everywhere. Reclaim Philadelphia supports the Movement for Black Lives, and any organization that seeks to end the corrosive effects of generations of racial oppression.
Against the Forever War:
Since 2001, the US has entered a period in which warmaking is an existential condition and an ever-expanding reality. Drone strikes take place without public debate or argument; bombing campaigns begin without authorization or much in the way of coverage. We fully endorse campaigns that seek to cut defense spending, that limit the spread of nuclear weapons, and that seek an end to the War on Terror, and correlated programs of lawless surveillance and indefinite detention.
Though Philadelphia has made enormous progress with improving and guaranteeing rights for the LGBTQ community, more needs to be done. It was only in 2015 that two gay men were assaulted in broad daylight in Philadelphia. Reclaim Philadelphia stands in solidarity with all organizations promoting and securing the rights of LGBTQ people in the city. We affirm, too, the historic link between LGBTQ rights and fighting against AIDS, and the importance of improving access to education and medicine among poor communities of color, who make up the majority of new HIV-infected people today.
Building Community Wealth:
This country's economy needs more than tinkering; it requires transformation from a system that glorifies accumulation of private profits to one that is grounded in community control of the people's wealth. Such transformation cannot take place overnight, but we support policies that foster and create wealth-building institutions like public banks, cooperatives and land trusts. Instead of tax giveaways that gut social programs in a desperate effort to bribe big businesses to stay in Philadelphia, our City should prioritize investment in homegrown, inherently stable, community-owned and controlled businesses and institutions.
In a time of great fear of immigration, we must affirm and protect Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary for anyone seeking work and refuge. Reclaim Philadelphia will work in concert with organizations helping the city’s large immigrant groups—Hispanic, East- and Southeast Asian, Haitian and West African—to find safety, welfare, and a home in the city. Attacks by rightwing figures such as Sen. Pat Toomey to revoke this status must be resisted by any means necessary.
Pennsylvania has long encouraged hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a means of generating economic growth and a domestic source of energy. In doing so, it has lined the pockets of natural gas developers, not ordinary people, and contributed to the devastating expansion of carbon in the atmosphere—driving climate change that is already rebounding to hurt the most powerless and disenfranchised people of this country and the rest of the world. Local politicians, themselves in the pockets of oil companies, have conceded entire regions of the state to fracking. Meanwhile expanding city refineries leave their marks in the lungs of generations young urban children asphyxiated by asthma. Reclaim Philadelphia seeks an end to all fracking and urban refineries.
To accomplish all this is a tall order. But it can and must be done. We look forward to building a Philadelphia that can be a model to other cities and regions. We envision an equal city, a just city, in whose creation the people share. We imagine a robust public school system no longer riven by segregation; a natural world no longer shadowed by toxic clouds; a workplace free from despotism. We see a city council and legislature responsive to the concerns of ordinary people. More besides—but no less.