Philly activist Asa Khalif announces run for City Council

There’s a new wind blowing across politics, both in Philadelphia and the nation. Call it the Trump effect, or just decades of people being fed up with how things are run, but turn-out is high and activist candidates are suddenly getting elected left and right. Enter Philadelphia native Asa Khalif, a self-described activist since the age of 13, who after years protesting in the streets of Philadelphia, announced on Tuesday a planned 2019 run for City Council.

“I don’t have to put on a suit and tie and brush myself off and go kiss some babies in the neighborhoods that I’ve turned my back on. I’ve never left those neighborhoods,” Khalif said. “If you are holding spaces that you are not utilizing, then you are not working in the best interests of your community.”

All 17 seats on Council will be up for re-election next year, and Khalif plans to run as a Democrat for one of the five Democratic at-large seats.

Khalif described his platform as made up of “the issues that the politicians in this city would want potential voters to forget. … When you say Black Lives Matter, you’ve got to deal with the physical and the social issues as well.” 

In July 2017, then-deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy listens to activist Asa Khalif and other Black Lives Matter supporters after they entered then-Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis’ office to call for an update on the David Jones shooting. (Charles Mostoller)

Job training for youths, public health, and bringing balance to the economic incentives and tax breaks that large corporations benefit from are all part of the platform. Another priority would be policing issues – boosting training and accountability while ending practices like stop-and-frisk.

Born Earl Asa Pittman, Khalif goes by his middle name, and adopted the last name of a man he described as a mentor, little-known Harlem activist Khalif Johnson.

Khalif has associated with numerous activist organizations over the years, and early on founded his own group, Racial Unity USA, but in Philly is typically lumped in with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Khalif at the controversial protest outside Philly cop Ryan Pownall’s home in Bustleton protesting the shooting of David Jones. Pownall was later fired and is currently facing murder charges. (Hayden Mitman)

The cause is a personal one: his cousin Brandon Tate-Brown was fatally shot by Philly cops after a scuffle following a traffic stop in December 2014, as he moved toward his vehicle, which police said contained an illegal handgun. Khalif calls it murder, but the police involved were cleared of wrongdoing by the department and former DA Seth Williams.

Nonetheless, Khalif said he has a positive relationship with police.

“I have uncles who are police officers, I have aunts who are police officers, best friends who are police officers,” he said. “I can’t be anti-cop. I’m anti-police brutality.”

Khalif brought Joe Boxer briefs to police headquarters in May 2017 to protest reports of police conducting illegal ‘stop-and-fondle’ searches into young black men’s underwear. (Hayden Mitman)

Despite his prominence publicly – a photograph of Khalif with his bullhorn at Starbucks after two black customers were arrested went viral nationally – among local activists, Khalif’s reputation is more mixed. Some of his former comrades have shunned him and call him media-hungry. Khalif has little to say about those accusations, other than that he believes his past speaks for itself: “I honestly wish them well,” he said. 

As far as the process of getting elected, Khalif predicted it will be easy — or if not, he’ll just stick with the activism.

“I’ve always been consistent since Day 1,” Khalif said. “That will resonate with the people. Or they’ll say you need to do some more work in the streets. It’s up to them.” 

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