THE BLOG

Philadelphia Congregations Lead in the Struggle for Social Justice

05/18/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

The recent events in Baltimore -- including the killing of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the protests and unrest that followed -- point to the need for community-based movement building. Baltimore, like many other cities in America, is hurting, and black people in particular are feeling the pain.

Meanwhile, a little over 100 miles to the north, Philadelphia -- the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection -- is offering a model for communities of faith to seek justice and transform the place in which they live. POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Power and Rebuild) is a grassroots interfaith coalition of congregations across the city. Part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they are dedicated to bringing people together around social justice issues such as jobs with a living wage, fair funding and democratic, local control of the public schools and an end to police practices such as "stop and frisk."

POWER is an example of the type of coalition building that cities need.

Philadelphia has a long history as an incubator for social justice activism, from the abolition of slavery to the Black Power movement. Moreover, with its high unemployment and poverty, low wages, and high incarceration rate, the city could become another Baltimore. After New York and Chicago, Philadelphia has the third highest number of missing black men in America (36,000) due to the incarceration of black men, high mortality, gun violence and other factors. Baltimore is in sixth place with 19,000 missing black men.

Moreover, while Baltimore has been in the spotlight these days over cases of police brutality, most recently the Freddie Gray case, Philly has its own police problem. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice found "serious deficiencies" with police use of force, including With 394 police shootings since 2007 -- 15 percent involving unarmed suspects -- Philadelphia surpasses New York, a city five times its size. Yet, despite a drop in crime, shootings involving officers have climbed.

The report also faulted the police for failing to properly train officers in defusing tensions and handling violent situations, and seeking non-lethal means of resolving conflict. Further, identifying the public mistrust of the police, the Department of Justice recommends community oversight over law enforcement, an independent reviews of police shootings, and more consistent reviews by police when such incidents occur.

In December, Philadelphia had its own controversial killing of an unarmed black man. Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was shot in the back of the head by police after being stopped for driving with his headlights off. The officers were not charged for wrongdoing, and Tanya Brown-Dickerson, the mother of the victim seeks justice through a wrongful death lawsuit.

"For far too long, police departments around the country have been, sort of, you know, you can't touch them. We need the police. And we have created a system where the police officers are above the law," said Bishop Dwayne Royster, Executive Director of POWER. "And we can no longer allow them to do that. They have to operate within the law, just as much as we expect every other citizen to operate within the law."

Bishop Royster said he was concerned about the report on the Philadelphia Police Department. He told PBS News Hour that lethal force always appeared to be the "best choice" for law enforcement, as opposed to finding other ways to work with those in the community who commit crime.

No stranger to police brutality, Philly has been marred by years of police corruption and racial violence. May 13 marked the 30th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, when the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the home of MOVE, a black power group. Eleven people, including five children, were killed, and an entire block of 61 homes was destroyed by fire. Yet, police abuse is merely the tip of the iceberg of a system of racial oppression, of economic exploitation and deprivation in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The seeming intractability of these problems requires community mobilization in order to overcome them, and transform society in the process.

"POWER is composed of people of faith committed to the work of bringing about justice here and now, in our city and our region. By strengthening and mobilizing our networks of relationships, POWER seeks to exercise power in the public arena so that the needs and priorities of all Philadelphians are reflected in the systems and policies that shape our city," said Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom, a multiracial, progressive congregation in Philadelphia and an active member of POWER.

"As people of faith, we must exercise our power to help lead this transformation. Side by side with fighting for a living wage and full fair funding for our schools, the issue of ending stop and frisk police tactics as well as racial injustice towards people of color, Black Americans in particular- especially through mass incarceration, is a campaign we have taken on," Rabbi Zevit added. "As a Jewish congregation, dealing with racism and injustice is something we know well from our Torah and tradition, as well as our history and must be involved with ending in our current reality."

As Martin Luther King urged, "we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered." Dr. King knew these evils are interrelated. Today, relying upon their religious traditions, congregations are fighting these triple evils, seeking justice and transforming their community.