COVID-19: How Philadelphia Activists are Adjusting to Accommodate Social Distancing

Activism, in general, is a physical practice requiring public and face-to-face interaction. For some Philadelphia activists, COVID-19 has meant rethinking tactics. With social distancing measures restricting how much can be done in person, activists have had to become more creative, changing their strategies of protest, outreach, and community support.

“The feeling is urgent, but it’s a mix,” said Ant Smith, a West Philadelphia-based activist who works with multiple organizations. “The call to self-isolate is to everybody, so anyone doing any type community work is both fulfilling the need and putting themselves in danger.” 

Smith currently works with three organizations including the Philadelphia chapter of Food Not Bombs, a volunteer-ran movement that addresses food insecurity by making meals from items that would otherwise be thrown out. Prior to the coronavirus, Smith participated in weekly food drop-offs, feeding members of the West Philadelphia community who may not normally have access to food.

Smith said since COVID-19 has become more serious, Food Not Bombs has started restrategizing. Volunteers have changed what they offer to provide supplies that meet a wide range of personal needs. 

“Instead of focusing primarily on food, we focused primarily on sanitary products,” he said, noting an interest in other goods in high demand. “We did serve canned food and gave out things like paper towels, hand sanitizer, soap, dish detergent, general cleaning supplies.”

People feeling economic strain have turned to Food Not Bombs more frequently, Smith said, so they have tried to remain a reliable presence while maintaining social distancing. 

“The last service we did, what we saw was people pulling up to their cars asking us what we got,” he said. “‘Can I get some [cleaning supplies]?’ So the need is heightened.”

Other activists like Kelly Morton, lead organizer at Reclaim Philadelphia, have been utilizing online platforms in order to give their efforts new life. Reclaim Philadelphia is a supporter of the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia, a group of organizations that produced People’s Bail Out, a 12-page public document laying out an agenda for supporting Philadelphians economically, socially, and politically. post-pandemic. 

“We have a lot of idealistic visions in that document, but we are, especially my organization, focused on pragmatism,” Morton said. “So, what we can do now is lobby city council members. We can lobby the mayor. Especially as he’s been hinting at the need for an austerity budget, cutting a lot of services. But we’re in a place where we actually need to be asking more.”

Morton said the work comes at a time when Reclaim has to “reimagine” its work beyond traditional lobbying. In addition to sharing the public document and sending it to city council members and Mayor Jim Kenney, Reclaim, along with other organizations, participates in modified protests meant to comply with social distancing measures. 

Some organizations have pivoted by hosting car actions, or protests where individuals drive in cars or ride bikes to occupy the space they are trying to demonstrate in. Car actions offer an alternative method for demonstrating public sentiment while protecting protestors from coronavirus.

Morton has attended car actions for criminal justice reform, calling for the release of inmates who don’t have enough medical support or the means to adequately social distance. Other protests have addressed economic issues, like a moratorium on rent in the city.

Anh Nguyen, a voter registration and U.S. Census outreach coordinator with VietLEAD, has also participated in car actions. On March 30, she attended an action organized by the Philadelphia chapter of Refuse Fascism, which called for the immediate release of inmates and immigrants in detention. 

A photo taken from inside a car during a car action protest Anh Nguyen participated in, calling for the release of inmates and immigrants held in detention centers. (Credit: Anh Nguyen)

VietLead is an organization dedicated to helping Vietnamese and South Asian communities by offering a range of services, including immigration resource assistance, census outreach, translation services, and food distribution. Attending car actions in lieu of protests is just one of many adjustments Nguyen has had to make during COVID-19. 

“After this whole shutdown, I have to scratch my whole plan and get organized to do a lot of my stuff,” she said.  

Prior to the spread of coronavirus, Nguyen focused mainly on in-person outreach.

Going to places with large gatherings, like community grocery stores and churches, Nguyen would often help people register to vote, fill out census forms, and offer information on civic engagement. Now, she and other VietLEAD members host citizenship and census classes over Zoom and phone calls.

“We have an operation up and running for phone banking and text banking, and incorporating census materials with health and COVID-19 related materials,” she said. “So, we’re calling up community members informing them about news changes and updates, and then telling them the benefits of filling out their census.”

Shifting to mostly online methods has posed challenges. Nguyen said a lack of access to wifi and smart devices among individuals in the Vietnamese and South Asian communities is the largest problem VietLEAD currently has.

“It’s harder,” Nguyen said.  “A lot of the people we work with have limited access to the internet, to even smartphones.” 

In addition to switching programs online, Nguyen said VietLEAD is trying to protect its community from a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes as misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus is fueling racial violence. 

Nguyen has sat in webinars with councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks in which they shared resources on how to deal with hate crimes and profiling, listening to community members who have concerns and giving them the opportunity to report it. 

However, Nguyen said some of the South Asian people VietLEAD works with are skeptical of getting police involved, even when those in the community face harassment and violence.

“Usually people live in very low income communities, and so hyper-policing and things like that are ultimately bad for everyone,” she said. 

An increased police presence in certain neighborhoods during COVID-19 has made some members of the community more wary of officers, Nguyen said.

Smith has also faced this challenge in West Philadelphia. The community Food Not Bombs services is historically black, and many residents are wary of profiling, he said. 

“One thing is police are regularly patrolling now and are doing very similar to what started in Italy, asking you where you’re going, checking your card,” he said. “And a lot of police and community interactions don’t go well. Because relationships aren’t that good, people are stressed about police interaction.” 

Morton said there is an obvious inequity in how police resources are deployed even now.

 “Who’s being policed is still the same,” Morton said when asked about what she has witnessed recently in her activism work.

Nguyen said to help a community during this time, small actions matter a lot right now. Joining social campaigns can be just as important as offering to help those most vulnerable to COVID-19 with tasks that would otherwise be risky for them, such as grocery shopping. 

Pushing government officials to invest in community infrastructure is crucial for sustainable improvements, especially because this crisis has shown how fragile the social safety net actually is, Morton said.

“What people can do most right now is join organizations that are doing this work,” she said.

Individuals should also focus on neighbors and families who are in need right now, offering to get supplies and financially contribute to organizations that provide life-sustaining services, Morton added. 

Because the virus itself has been so disruptive, it is also important for everyone to do their part to stop the spread so that life can safely return to normal, Nguyen said. 

“Honestly, what you can do best at this point is to stay home and make sure you practice social distancing,” Nguyen said. “You’re doing a service that benefits people.”

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