In Port Richmond, a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, the houses all have doorbells. Go a few blocks south, to the gentrifying neighborhood of Fishtown, and you’ll hardly find any. Many of the freshly slapped together, space-ship-like condos that have blanketed the neighborhood aren’t even built with them in the first place; or they’re behind massive gates, with buzzers that connect to the residents’ cell phones. You might reach them, in other words, but they might not be home. In Port Richmond, however, neighbors park lawn chairs on the sidewalk or sit on stoops and talk to each other for hours, when the weather’s nice.
Today, the weather isn’t nice. It’s 12 degrees with the wind chill on this mid-March Saturday morning, and I keep switching my clipboard from one hand to another so each gloved hand can take a turn regaining circulation in my pocket. Nobody answers at the first few doors I knock, and I don’t blame them for not wanting to let the cold in. Even if someone answers, I wonder if I’ll be able to persuade anyone here to vote for Larry Krasner, the most progressive candidate for district attorney that Philadelphia—perhaps any major city—has ever seen.
Before May 16, when he won the Democratic primary for district attorney in a landslide, Krasner was seen as a long shot. He had worked as a public defender and civil rights attorney for decades, and sought the office of the city’s chief prosecutor because he wanted to end mass incarceration. He highlighted his having defended activists from Occupy and Black Lives Matter. He pointed to having sued the police seventy-five times. His entire campaign ran counter to the history of prisons and prosecution in Philadelphia—the most incarcerated major city in America. Just a decade before, DA Lynn Abraham had been called the “deadliest DA” by the New York Times Magazine. “Tough-on-crime” had a deep foundation in the city; trying to overturn it by tilting head-on, as Krasner did, seemed quixotic at the very least.
To win the election, Krasner needed a “ground game,” and he needed to win white working class votes—including the pro-police constituency that would vote for anyone but him. This is what took me to the doors in Port Richmond, canvassing with an organization called Reclaim Philadelphia. Like the rest of Philly, this ward, the 25th, predominantly votes Democrat, and has for generations. But the vote has been shading from blue to violet. Even though Clinton won this ward (in both the primary and the general election), 28 percent voted for Trump; the citywide average was 15 percent.
These numbers are partly due to the fact that organizers have all but given up on the area. No left groups had ventured this far into the Northeast to organize in a long time. The Sanders campaign largely left the area untouched. The 2012 Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala mobilized a diverse coalition in nearby Kensington—a mixed black, white, Arab, and Puerto Rican neighborhood—through the Poor People’s Human Rights Campaign. She also ran a write-in campaign in the March 2017 special election for Pennsylvania House District 197, which includes a patch of the Northeast. That, and Democrat Joe Hohenstein’s fall 2016 attempt to oust Republican incumbent John Taylor in the 177th PA Legislative District, is the farthest the left has extended toward this area in recent memory. Knocking on doors, I think of Clinton’s neglect of Michigan and Wisconsin, despite the urging of those on the ground there, resulting in her losing those states to Sanders and then Trump. I think of the Democratic Party’s neglect of my hometown of York, Pennsylvania. Yorkers still remember Clinton’s last visit—in 2008. She skipped York this time, and lost the state, the first time the Democrats lost Pennsylvania since 1988. The acknowledgment is obvious enough: our party has nothing to offer you, and you have nothing to offer our party.
I stand in the wind tunnel of a block of brick row houses decorated in that working-man-at-the-end-of-empire style, replete with faded, olive-green awnings and the stainless-steel window frames for which the neighborhood is known, my papers whipping around as I find the next address. The weather-beaten, wood door is covered in several military stickers and one for the NRA. I steel myself and knock.
The man who answers is white, as expected, but thinner than I had imagined. He clutches a robe against the wind. “Yes? How can I help you?” His voice is hoarse with the first words of the day and his longish, salt-and-pepper hair is untamed. Even though I’ve clearly woken him up, he’s not slamming the door in my face.
I tell myself not to sound like I’m selling Girl Scout cookies, but it happens anyway. “Hi, my name is Vanessa and I’m a volunteer with a grassroots organization talking to people about the district attorney race—well, first, where are my manners? How are you doing?”
“I’m fine, but you look freezing,” he says, eyeing my gas station knit hat, hood, and gloves. I eye his bare feet and apologize for letting a draft get in. At first, I think he looks surprised to see me, but there is an unchanging, mildly stunned look in his eyes that seems to be ready for anything, at any time. “Well, would you like to come in?” he asks uncertainly, as though he’s not quite sure what the etiquette for such an interaction would prescribe.
Should I go in? As a woman, I have to be careful. I glance at the stickers on his door, think about the things a person learns in the military. But he is thin, with a stooped posture that seems resigned. I know I could get away, if I needed to. His frame and aspect reminds me of my father’s when he was older. Harmless. And this man, let’s call him Bill, has eyes that are not stunned-dead—they’re stunned-watchful. I thank him and come inside. He motions me over to a worn couch, where I immediately knock over a box of cigarette wrappers. As I pick them off the floor and put them back, apologizing, he waves a hand at me, repeatedly telling me to leave them, that he’ll pick them up later.
It’s warm in here, next to a space heater, and I thank him again for letting me get out of the cold. I ask if he has heard of any of the candidates for district attorney. “A little,” he says, but he’s still doing his research. His house is dim, but I can see some newspapers among piles of papers and mail.
“The primary isn’t for two months,” I reassure him, “so most people are still researching.”
“Boy, that guy Seth Williams sure was a disappointment,” he says. (Williams, the soon-to-be-ousted DA, has been indicted on charges related to corruption and bribery.)
“Yeah, really,” I say, and leave it at that. Don’t go negative about anyone, even Seth Williams, warns a voice from the canvass host training. If people start thinking about him, they may feel too cynical to vote.
“So, who’s your guy?” He doesn’t say it like, Cut to the chase. He sounds curious and is still looking at me like a bird that has accidentally flown into his house.
“Larry Krasner. Have you heard of him?”
He shakes his head and says no, his words dissolving into a coughing fit.
I launch into the spiel I prepared earlier, during the training led by the former field director of Sanders’s campaign in Philadelphia. Unlike this comrade from Berkeley, I don’t say “mass incarceration” or mention Krasner’s defense of Occupy and Black Lives Matter protesters. I tell him that right now, if a kid is selling weed in his grandparents’ house and they don’t know, the city can take their house through a policy called civil asset forfeiture. Krasner will end this practice if elected, I say.
He agrees that it’s not a fair policy, so I continue. “He wants to stop locking people up for petty drug offenses, to give substance users another chance. How does that sound?”
“Well, I don’t know if I agree with that,” he says, a little apologetically. I silently chide myself, realizing I should have asked him about his concerns with the criminal justice system, instead of offering my own. He notes that crime is a serious issue in the area, and jail gets people off the street for a while, forcing them to get some clean time. He says, gesturing out, that there are drug dealers posted on the corner at the end of his block every morning.
I argue that sending people to jail doesn’t teach them any new skills except how to pull off different scams. The minute substance users get out, they often go back out and get high as soon as possible. I saw that when volunteering at the needle exchange nearby, I tell him. He tells me that he would like to think that would help, but he has a relative who is in recovery, who went through several stints in rehab before it stuck. And even then, Bill is on pins and needles every time his relative doesn’t return a message.
I say that I know what he’s talking about—that I was addicted to heroin my senior year of high school. Back then, in the ’90s, there was, of course, no Obamacare, and I tell him how I hitchhiked to Florida with some friends to get away from my drug connections and get clean. Even with Obamacare, for as long as the program lasts under the Trump Administration, only one in four heroin users in Philly is able to get the treatment they seek, according to a statistic from Prevention Point Philadelphia, a harm reduction clinic for substance users. I mention that it costs the city $42,000 to lock one person up for a year, money that could pay for two stints in rehab. Two chances.
I also mention that as an educator (an adjunct professor), I would love to see that money go to the underfunded public school system; that forty-two grand could pay for an entry-level teacher to be hired, or a hell of a lot of textbooks, in a city where classrooms are overcrowded and the textbooks are sometimes decades old; that we should talk about giving kids a first chance before we even start talking about giving them a second chance. I talk a lot more than I was instructed to in the training.
These arguments gain some traction. Still, he wonders what will happen if it doesn’t work and the streets are flooded with substance abusers committing crimes.
“Well, we’ve tried tough on crime. Philly has been doing the tough-on-crime approach since Rizzo”—Frank Rizzo, the 1970s Philadelphia mayor who pioneered the politics of racial resentment before Giuliani and Trump—“and probably even before that, and it hasn’t worked.”
“Yeah,” he says, and makes a gesture that seems to say: fuck it—it’s worth a try.
We talk about addiction for a while. I realize that somehow, in this familiar space, twenty or thirty minutes must have passed and I should probably go. I ask him if what we’ve talked about sounds good and if he will pledge to vote for Krasner. He signs.
I make my way to the door, thanking him and letting him know someone will call closer to the election to remind him that it’s coming up. We say it was nice to meet one another and shake hands. I want to say more but don’t know what I’d say. I just know conversations like this don’t happen every day. I hope I talk with him again sometime.
As I walk to the next house, an excited tingle in my chest tells me that this is going to go a lot better than I had thought. Could be a fluke, another voice counters. But the next person signs, too: an elderly, white man who invites me into his rooming house to warm up while he signs; the ink in my pen seems to have frozen. He likes the idea of the city having that $42,000-per-prisoner used for something more constructive than putting people in jail.
By the end of the shift, everyone I have spoken to has signed—seven signatures. One of my volunteers I’ve sent into the neighborhood, a young, single mother who grew up in a white working class area of Northeast Philadelphia and reads as “from the neighborhood,” also has seven signatures.
I host four other canvasses at a park in Port Richmond, which are not well attended. Almost everyone cancels at the last minute. At one canvass, every single person cancels. On weeks I host, I spend four to five hours calling people in the Northeast, to little avail. This is not an area like West Philadelphia, with a concentration of young people already involved in or at least familiar with left activism. The activists who live in suburban neighborhoods get understandably discouraged canvassing in Port Richmond and don’t come back— people here can be guarded around folks from other neighborhoods telling them who to vote for.
I drink copious amounts of coffee before each canvass, each time thinking that this is the time that people will slam doors in my face. But they don’t. On another shift, I meet an elderly woman, “Colleen,” who welcomes me into her home, speaking with me as though I were a “nice girl” from the neighborhood. I have the same dirty blonde hair as most of the Polish and Irish Catholic school alums around here.
She hasn’t had time to research the DA candidates, due to medical issues, but she assures me that she normally does her research well in advance. She wants to know more about Krasner and I give her some of the reasons I support him. When I mention the $42,000 per prisoner per year that could instead be allocated to education and rehab, she demurs.
The neighborhood would be safer with drug addicts off the streets, she says. A young relative of hers was robbed. Colleen says the teenagers who did it were black, says they were probably drug addicts. She drops the n-word, which comes out as sudden, reflexive, and ragged as a sneeze. Even she looks surprised—her mouth is open. The word seems to echo in her lace-curtained home while I stammer, “I don’t like that word. That’s not a nice word.” I can’t imagine yelling at this elderly lady and don’t think it would be effective. Also, she has been talking to me for at least fifteen minutes and hasn’t launched into any dead-eyed diatribes. A conversation still seems possible.
This mild approach seems to have an effect; she looks down and slumps her shoulders, perhaps at having been reproached by a teacher. She quickly repeats what she has said in a plaintive tone but without the racial slur. Then she looks at me to see what I will say.
I start talking because she is listening. I tell her that despite what most people believe, the majority of heroin users in Philadelphia are white. She expresses surprise, and continues to listen. She hasn’t had a reason to drive the six or seven blocks over to Kensington, epicenter of opioid dependency in Philadelphia, in years. She has been retired for more years than she can tally at the moment and has been spending her days within the circumscribed world of the neighborhood. Her eyes focus and unfocus as she compares the middle-class, industrial Kensington of memory to the Kensington I talk about. I mention the kids from this neighborhood who walk a few blocks over and never come back. She nods sadly—she knows this. There have been many. She knew this but she didn’t.
We talk about rehab and I don’t mention my own experiences because I am trading on the currency of nice, white ladyhood. She still thinks these kids would be better off in jail than being given the chance to go to rehab for a few weeks and hoping it works. She mentions again the teenaged boys who committed the robbery, who were sent to a juvenile detention center. She is surprised to hear that the schools in youth detention centers are often failing and that putting juveniles in correctional facilities doesn’t actually reduce recidivism. It’s clear to her that the kids in detention, who, it’s now obvious, could be any of these Irish teenagers hooked on heroin, don’t have much of a chance.
Then we talk about Philly public schools, which have been under attack by pro-privatization conservatives. I mention the large classroom sizes, the dated textbooks, the classes taught by a series of substitutes. Colleen shakes her head and agrees it’s terrible. We talk about poverty in the poorest big city in America. I tell her about students whose only meal each day is the free lunch they get at school. Colleen nods and recalls packing extra lunches for one of her child’s friends at a Catholic school. She admits she doesn’t even want to think about what the kids in public school are dealing with. Paying for Catholic school was a huge financial burden on her family, and she agrees that the public schools would be in better shape with all that prison money. She agrees with me that there will be fewer job opportunities available for people with a conviction on their records.
In a slightly awkward reminiscence, she recalls having been friends with a black man once, who, she said, was really nice and hardworking. Finally, after about two hours of conversation, she comes around to the idea of giving first and even second chances. She has her family members sign. She wishes me luck.
My conversations get easier as I get better at meeting people where they are, politically. I speak with a middle-aged, white woman who is not on my list of Democratic super-voters, who is nevertheless curious about what I’m doing going around her neighborhood with a clipboard. She wants a candidate who will be tough on crime. I can tell from her teeth that the neighborhood has been tough on her. It turns out her rental property, her nest egg, was confiscated by police because her tenants were selling drugs. I tell her about Krasner’s promise to end civil asset forfeiture, which I describe as “police confiscating people’s houses.” She doesn’t sign but says she’s going inside to look him up and that she will think about it. The only thing holding her back is that he’s against the death penalty, which she can see from the flyer I give her.
Another middle-aged, white woman who lives across the street from drug dealers initially says she wants someone tough on crime, but then we start talking about education. She has been a fierce advocate for her daughter’s education, and now her daughter’s college dreams have come true. She knows what $42,000 can do for a school. She signs.
A tattooed, white guy in his forties knows all too well about the failures of the criminal justice system—his teenage son was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was charged for a crime someone else committed. Now he’s in jail, waiting for trial. He doesn’t have bail money. I tell him about Krasner’s promise to end cash bail. He signs in a heartbeat.
I meet a young, white woman at least ten years my junior who was attacked by a homeless substance abuser. He hit her with a rock and she still has stitches and bruises. It happened in broad daylight, and on a main road. She lives right in the heart of the drug market. I tell her that a substance user with a couple shots at treatment is less of a risk than one with maybe one shot if they’re lucky. She agrees and signs. I tell her to be careful as we are saying goodbye, and she reminds me that I need to be careful, too.
In Port Richmond, certain working-class whites seem to say “good side” and “bad side” almost superstitiously, as though they could fend off the increasing income inequality and unstable job market by staying on the “right” side of the neighborhood—by which they mean the white side. But when we talk at length, it becomes clear: everyone knows we’re all on the wrong side of town. White privilege will keep us safe from police violence, but dependency doesn’t discriminate. Although some of the white families are able to afford Catholic school to keep their kids out of the increasingly underfunded public schools, they know families in the affluent suburbs don’t even have to think twice about things like that. There isn’t exactly solidarity among the multiracial working class, but there is a recognition that we’re all getting screwed.
On May 16, the day of the primary, I steel myself to lose. But we don’t lose.
Krasner wins by a landslide at 38 percent of the vote. Joe Khan, a photogenic, weakly progressive challenger seen as Krasner’s stiffest competition, comes in a distant second, at 20 percent.
I can barely sleep. I almost can’t believe it. I wait to find out whether Krasner lost the 25th ward, my ward, but the results don’t come in until two days later. I keep wondering if my neighbors were just being nice in pledging to vote for him but actually voted for Rich Negrin, the candidate endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), when the time came. The results come in: Krasner won the 25th ward with 33 percent. Many organizers are surprised at how well Krasner did in areas that are known to outsiders for pierogies and heroin. In the neighboring and demographically similar 45th ward, where no one canvassed, Negrin won with 26 percent of the vote. Krasner was barely on the map with 17 percent of the vote there.
This trend is citywide. In all of the white, working-class divisions canvassed by Reclaim Philadelphia and its partner organizations, Krasner received 48 percent of the vote on average—28 points higher than the average for white, working-class neighborhoods where we didn’t canvass. Canvassing was more impactful in white, working-class neighborhoods than anywhere else in the city by 6 percent.
Canvassing had a bigger effect than endorsements in this ward. Folks here were more ready to have a conversation with their neighbors than anyone knew. If all it took was a conversation or two to persuade working-class, white moderates not to vote for the FOP-endorsed candidate and instead to choose Krasner, why hasn’t anyone on the left tried to do it in decades?
The simple conclusion, banal as it may sound, is that class matters. But it doesn’t matter in the way that much post-election discussion of the “white working class” implies.
My neighbors in Port Richmond are worried about safety or have been hit by the opioid epidemic, and the conversations I had with them regarding the criminal justice system were transformative because we share those same self-interests. We have similar communication styles. We shop at the same off-price department stores, cut our own bangs and have teeth we ignore until a bigger check comes. And many of us carry trauma, which is a thing that can be read just as easily and quickly as more conventional signs of class.
This isn’t the same as “I scraped by in college,” or, “for a time I lived off a stipend to focus on activism.” We need more people on the left who can connect with others based on the shared experiences that come from surviving on a low income, and suffering from societal low status, over a long period of time. To recruit and retain people from this background, who can build in the lower layers of the working class, we need to work on eliminating any barriers that exclude or alienate them from progressive organizations.
Some structural issues include having a mandatory, set amount of dues that must be paid in order to participate in the decision-making processes of an organization. This becomes especially problematic when the recipients of aid are unable to contribute to the decisions that affect their own communities. Are the beneficiaries of the group’s activism even invited to join? Are meetings being held in a neutral location accessible by public transportation or at a hipster bar where one beer costs an hour’s labor at minimum wage? Childcare, transportation and food are other considerations.
The obverse of this situation is that the white working class can and must be organized. On even what is superficially the toughest possible issue, criminal justice reform, it—we—can be won. We should look to working-class people to build in their own neighborhoods and win elections, just as we did in the 25th Ward.
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