Biden-Harris are not the Real Winners:
A Feeling in Philadelphia
The historic contours of the 2020 US Presidential election are not something we take lightly. Yet, it is our experience as residents of this historic American city, Philadelphia – one whose history is defined by violence and injustice against its inhabitants and those outside its borders – that local, grassroots efforts and sustained organising are the only path toward an equitable future in this country.
Words by Tausif Noor and Chip Sinton
November 08, 2020
Illustration by Aarman Roy
On the evening of Saturday, 7 November 2020, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walked out to address the crowds that had gathered in front of the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. Dressed in a white pantsuit, she walked out to Mary J. Blige’s 2007 hit, Work That. She began by quoting the late Congressman John Lewis, who wrote before his death that democracy ‘was not a state, but an act.’ She reminded the hopeful, cheering crowds that America’s democracy was not guaranteed. ‘It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it,’ she said. ‘To guard it. To never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice.’
The stress of the previous four days of ballot counting – in a high-stakes presidential election fraught with misinformation from the Republican Party’s cadres, uncertainties over mail-in voting, and worries about communal violence from the white ethno-nationalists of the American far-right (all set against the surging Covid-19 pandemic) – had all but disappeared from her face. With this victory came the joy of relief for not only the Democratic Party she represented, but the millions of people who had voted out the demagoguery of the Trump administration, whose venality, racism, and seemingly endless capacity for cruelty and despotism, marked something of an extended nightmare in the theater of American politics.
Harris thanked her supporters and campaign team, promising as Vice President to act in the mould of her campaign mate, President-elect Joe Biden, whose tenure under Barack Obama functioned as a lightning rod for his 2020 campaign, and a nostalgic reminder of simpler times of relative decency and gentility, marked by the requisite noblesse obliged from halls of power. Harris also made special note to thank her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and the generations of women – Black, Asian, white, Latina, Native American – whose struggle had enabled a victory that was, by all accounts, historic.
From where we live, some fifty kilometers away in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America’s claims to democracy, the mood was still effervescent. The city’s inhabitants continued to celebrate the victory of the Democratic Party against the Trump administration and its fascist reign of power, breaking out into dance parties on the streets, where many had gathered in front of the Convention Center to demand that the votes be fairly counted in the city where the founding myths of American democracy were drafted.
History is something that tends to saturate this city. It is soaked not only into the cobblestone streets of the creatively-named district of ‘Old City’, where buildings testify to the founding myths of the United States, but also in Philadelphia’s Black inhabitants, who comprise more than forty percent of the city’s population, per the 2010 census, and whose deep-rooted legacy here cannot be disentangled from a history of state violence and police brutality against them. Throughout the 1970s, the Black radical revolutionary group MOVE, founded by John Africa in 1972, led demonstrations in support of Black power, growing in strength and influence through the decade. This period culminated in a 1978 face-off against the Philadelphia Police, backed by then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, which resulted in the arrest and imprisonment – for life – of nine of MOVE’s members. Still threatened by MOVE and its infectious ideals, in May 1985 the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on their communal residence, launched from a helicopter hovering low over the 6600 block of Osage Avenue, in the neighborhood of Cobbs Creek, killing six MOVE members and five of their children. Fires destroyed more than fifty homes and could be seen from every corner of the city. Scars from that damage remain to this day.
This history of Black-led struggle has taken on a sharp refrain in the present moment. On 26 October, Walter Wallace Jr., a twenty-seven year old Black man suffering from an episode of severe mental distress, was fatally shot by armed police officers dispatched to the scene, despite his mother’s pleas to send medical professionals instead. He was killed on the 6100 block of Locust Street – six blocks from the site of the 1985 MOVE bombing. As protests against the violent actions of the attending police officers laters erupted in the city, Philadelphia Police responded with acute, indiscriminate force: kettling, beating and arresting protesters who had gathered outside the 18th Police District to demand justice for Wallace.
The Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) record of state-sanctioned violence had come to national attention in recent months, as protests in support of the Movement for Black Lives mobilised the nation, led by Black Lives Matter and other affiliate groups, following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. On 30 May, PPD officials, under the direction of Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and former Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy, launched canisters of tear gas and fired rubber-coated steel munitions, onto protestors who had occupied the I-676 highway. The set off a terrifying stampede. Nearby, Philadelphia officers clashed with protestors that had gathered in front of the offices of the Municipal Building near City Hall: they beat protestors with clubs, attacked them with pepper spray, and denied those that they arrested medical attention or use of restrooms, leaving them no respite but to soil themselves. That night, they forcefully entered a Black residential neighborhood, using so much tear gas that mothers reported the chemicals choking children in their own beds. The emergency medical responders who rushed in to treat civilian injuries were overwhelmed. Much was promised by local government officials to compensate for this violent action. Yet, so far, little has been done.
In June 2020, recognizing the months-long failure of the city government to respond to the needs of unhoused inhabitants in Philadelphia, community leaders established two housing encampments in the city, near the Philadelphia Museum and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. They demanded that the city establish community land trust to provide housing for its unhoused citizens. With the support of Black-led organising groups and cohorts of newly galvanised protesters, Camp JTD and Camp Teddy gathered donations and supplies to feed and support their residents. They set up tent housing, which they had to defend multiple times against police and members of the Housing Authority, who threatened to evict them.
Last month, after months of protest and negotiations, city officials and encampment members came to an agreement that would provide fifty federally-owned houses in a land trust, and establish permanent affordable housing for the city’s unhoused. It was a welcome victory after the long months of crushing, grinding difficulty. Against the Trump administration’s mangled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its attendant overlapping onslaughts of economic and political uncertainty, the machinations of the November presidential election felt far removed from the brutal reality of the most vulnerable.
We wish to be clear here: the historic contours of the 2020 US Presidential election are not something we take lightly. Yet, it is our experience as residents of this historic American city, Philadelphia – one whose history is defined by violence and injustice against its inhabitants and those outside its borders – that local, grassroots efforts and sustained organising are the only path toward an equitable future in this country. Philadelphia’s record turnout in favor of the Democratic Party carried the Biden-Harris ticket to victory, but it was fuelled, here, by the efforts of local organisers and Black and brown activists. They bore the burden of convincing an overwhelmingly ambivalent and antagonistic municipal government that protecting the lives of the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants was non-negotiable, while also turning out voters for the very same party those cruel functionaries belong to—tall order and a familiar feeling.
In reflecting on this victory, honesty forces us to acknowledge that though the Democratic ticket was led by Biden, it was Kamala Harris who most excited local, national and international observers. Harris’s biography – as the daughter of a Jamaican Marxist and an Indian scientist who both fought for civil rights – certainly captures the imagination. But, her political record as a hardline, self-described “top cop” whose policies as California’s Attorney General included jailing poor citizens for truancy infractions and on minor marijuana charges, despite her own usage, leaves ample room for doubt that the political programme of a Biden-Harris White House will truly provoke progressive change. Add to this the milquetoast promises of the septuagenarian Joseph Biden, and the near-future looks particularly unappetizing. A textbook gerontocrat, Biden’s political record includes helping to draft the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill that criminal justice reformers have denounced for its facilitation of the largest program of mass incarceration in human history, predominantly targeting America’s Black population; Biden himself bragged of hiring 100,000 new cops. Biden was also a vocal proponent of the US invasion of Iraq in 2002, and it stands to show what his plans for reducing America’s imperialist presence will be in practice. To make up for this horrifying track record, the American electorate was instead told to focus on his personal qualities: personal losses he sustained, and small acts of generosity that are commendable only if weighed against the actions of his predecessor instead of the human consequences of his career.
The Biden-Harris regime augers, at best, a deflated return to “normalcy,” a term tinged with the assurance of a neoliberal order that privileges the wealthy few at the expense of the forgotten and trampled many. To be certain, there are essential, direct actions with far-reaching political effects that will emerge from this regime change: as soon as Biden and Harris swear oaths over a religious text of their choosing in January, they have promised to lift the widely condemned, and racist “Muslim Ban” on travel instituted by the Trump administration in late-2017. The Biden presidency has further sworn to provide a more comprehensive and proactive approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, assuring citizens that his administration will set up a coronavirus task force to facilitate increased testing and distribution of PPE, and the development of a future vaccine against the virus. The US will also rejoin the Paris Accords, a baseline demand from the groups of increasingly influential, internationalist, and overwhelmingly young, climate change activists.
Biden, who nearly turned down the Vice Presidential position under the Obama ticket, having set his sights on the Secretary of State position that ultimately went to Hillary Clinton, is open about his excitement to take the reins of U.S. foreign policy and, further, holds India in special regard. Four years of Biden may finally net India a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a long-term goal supported by the new President. Here, Harris could exercise her new-found influence for good. Harris’s connection to India extends beyond the invocation of her as chithi – she has spoken out in support of Kashmiri human rights, and observers are keen to see whether she will leverage this concern for the region to obtain either an official rebuke of the calamities of the last year, or even to force Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reverse certain policies in exchange for the permanent seat.
As with all stories, palace intrigue plays into what history will flatten in the realpolitik. Harris is not the only South Asian up for a promotion – Jersey City publicist Amit Jani is set to receive a plum position in the Biden-Harris administration as a reward for his service. A domestic liberal who opposes Trump, Jani is also the son of a BJP powerbroker and himself an unapologetic Modi supporter. Yet, despite controversy, those political activities did not hamper his rise in the Biden organisation.
These geopolitical concerns form a frightful tightrope slung between representational gains and a sharp edge of power. The Punjabi-American philosopher Falguni Sheth, a rare scholar who has crossed the theory-praxis barrier to serve as Immigrant Rights Commissioner in San Francisco, is among a group of theorists that has long warned of a strain of American politics incubating in plain sight – dubbed “Multi-Racial White Supremacist Patriarchy” by some, shortened to the winking acronym MRWaSP by Dr. Robin James – serves as a useful heuristic in evaluating the claims made by the latest batch of Democratic politicians.
James gets straight to the point: the threat of MRWaSP is neoliberalism innovating in the imperial core, to create conditions where, ‘inclusion further reinforces both the supremacy of the hyper elites and the precarity of the most unruly groups’, adding intermittent leaders of diverse racial and gender identifications to otherwise unchanged systems. This Ivory Tower observation echoes the conditions on the ground in Philadelphia, where influential coalitions like the Black Radical Collective chant and clarify, when appropriate, that ‘not all skinfolk are kinfolk’, a warning against the appearance of change without any actual redistribution of class power, oftentimes for the purpose of strengthening racial hierarchy by neutering dissent. At this crucial juncture in American and global politics, it is critical to remind ourselves of the limits of pure representation. The good that Harris does must be judged by her actions, rather than her ancestry, and her progressive politics must be judged by their impacts, not their rhetoric.
If grassroots politics bears the promise of effective change, the political savviness of Nikil Saval, recently elected to Philadelphia’s State Senate, offers a rejoinder to the trap of nationalist politics. Saval’s parents moved to the US from Karnataka, providing for their children by running a pizza restaurant. In the wreckage of the 2008 financial crash, they were forced to leave their children in America and migrate back; the family thus separated by economic forces both inhuman, and unnoticing, of the tragedies in its wake. Saval’s brother supported him in college, taking on debt to help Saval co-found and shape the literary publication n+1. He landed in Philadelphia, where he quickly threw himself into the unionisation struggles of UNITE HERE!
A politician’s biography and background offers hints into their character, but moreover, their tendencies when push turns to shove, or policy hinges on principle. Where Harris found herself on the side of the police, Saval found himself in handcuffs. Indeed, he campaigned on a record of repeated arrests for and alongside workers whose only hope for a better life was a determined togetherness. He also campaigned against the idea of the singular-saviour, stressing this same togetherness on a citywide scale and carving himself a position of respect and belonging in politics. With more than 119,000 votes, Saval was elected Senator for a district that covers Philadelphia’s tallest skyscrapers, poorest refugee communities, and oldest buildings (maintained, in typical American style, as both tourist parks and homeless shelters). This district is also home to the fortress-like headquarters of Philadelphia’s riotous, militarised police force, which adjoins the most vicious ICE outpost in the entire nation.
Harris, who was selected for VP despite receiving no votes in her party’s primary, presents a strong contrast to Saval. Where she climbed to prominence as a prosecutor, Saval’s ladder turned his co-leadership of a trailblazing anti-carceral committee into a rung. Run alongside his friend Rick Krajewski, one of the first self-identified prison abolitionists ever elected in American politics, Saval’s actions show that while there are many paths, the key to a just political future is shared political goals. The electoral repudiation of Donald Trump, and the historic elevation of Kamala Harris, are inspiring democratic triumphs, but if, as Harris ventriloquized, democracy is an act rather than a state, what would it look like for the State’s representatives to act like it?
The movements in Philadelphia against the authoritarian encroachment of the state, and against the violent, extrajudicial murders of its people, join in a long tradition of resistance that sutures the gaps and fills the needs left open by the administrators of the state. While our struggles are defined by the particular political amalgamations of our geopolitical locales, we feel that in this moment of historic change it is necessary to remind ourselves of our shared histories of resistance, both in terms of longer inroads made by our forebears, and the recent demonstrations across India and the United States against the cruelty of their respective states.
In Philadelphia, volunteers from the South Asian American Digital Archive lead walking tours of Philadelphia’s radical South Asian history, highlighting, for instance, demonstrations against British colonialism at Independence Hall in 1920 by the Ghadar Party, to show that resistance has always been a part of the South Asian diaspora’s legacy. Last December, as PM Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Population Register disenfranchised thousands of Muslim, Tribal and Dalit Indians of their rights to citizenship and political protection, the Philadelphia chapter of the Coalition Against Fascism and Inequality organised demonstrations in support of protests in India, linking our overlapping struggles against the authoritarian state, against the disinformation and lies of state officials. From the student protests in Delhi, and the activism of the women of Pinjra Tod, to the protestors who faced tear gas and rubber bullets in West Philadelphia, we insist that the history of our current moment cannot, and will not, be written by those who seek to divide, but by those who recognise the interconnections between our struggles across national and international borders, along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, caste and class.
We both voted for Biden-Harris, but both also witnessed immense police violence this past summer, even in the week before Biden-Harris’s elevation. Neither candidate could spare a word in support of the anger our city felt witnessing yet another extrajudicial execution and it’s bloody aftermath. Biden went on record to say he ‘totally opposed’ the goals of the street movement; the city delivered him victory anyways. Strangers cheer with each other and, after dark, friends remind themselves a vote is only one tactic, and surely never enough.
In Philadelphia, the ballot is a long, white rectangular blank, fed once you’re behind a threadbare privacy curtain into a plastic device affixed to a touchscreen. In Philadelphia, the results of this election are a circle hard to square, promising but taunting. Where people today danced in the streets, where just days before they had marched, an urban choreography of sloganeering and surprise turns, hoping to dodge kettling and police batons. Now, a personally inspiring, politically protean woman takes office, an accomplishment, certainly, but perhaps also something to fear. We insist that the political mobilisation of our identities not be used for the marginalisation of our rights, and the usurping of our dignity. The rhythm of protest is the rhythm to which all political mobilisation, across borders and causes, must be strung. Following this rhythm, people will return to their houses and, like the tide, return to the streets. The problems in India and the problems in Philadelphia will continue to rhyme – exploitation, alienation, corruption. The solutions – irreducible struggle and indispensable solidarity – will continue to feed this song, which we will sing, with feeling.
Tausif Noor and Chip Sinton are freelance writers based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.