Bishop Dwayne D. Royster’s mother was a politically active woman who, in the early 1970s, organized with the East Mount Airy Neighbors. She campaigned with the group to build a multiracial community, one that Royster described as a place where people from all across Philadelphia, including those of different faiths, nationalities, and races, could live in harmony.
Her efforts with EMAN were a passion for several years and complemented a lifetime’s worth of civic engagement.
“She spent 20 years serving as a poll worker,” Bishop Royster told Generocity. “I remember as children we were stuffing doors for various candidates. We were very civically minded.”
Bishop Royster incorporates those lessons into his pastoral ministry at the Faith United Church of Christ in Washington D.C. Although his calling was spiritual, in practice, his work continues in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, and others. He’s a prophet preaching Black economic power in the image of Philadelphia’s own Leon Sullivan, the longtime pastor of Zion Baptist Church.
Guided by his faith, Bishop Royster follows in his mother’s footsteps. He believes he can change the “damn” world and, as he told us, is sick and tired of people feeling like they already live in hell.
As the executive director of POWER Interfaith, a collection of local clergy, congregations, and secular activists come together to empower Black, brown, low-income, and working-class families, Bishop Royster hears the struggle daily.
A recent survey conducted as part of POWER’s Civic Engagement efforts — a year-long campaign to empower Black and brown voters and bring 100,000 people to the polls this November — bolster the Bishop’s statements. There’s frustration among African Americans and people of color in Philadelphia, and throughout the state, at a political system that’s been unresponsive to their needs.
“The three top issues, coronavirus, racism-discrimination, and then also dealing with the issue of gun violence are front and center every single day,” Bishop Royster said. He acknowledged that conversations with constituents align with the data collected by HIT Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based, African American-focused pollster who conducted the survey.
“[Black communities are] angry about coronavirus,” he said. “I haven’t met a Black person in Philadelphia that doesn’t know somebody personally that died or was severely or continues to be severely impacted by having coronavirus.”
At a press conference in mid-October held virtually by POWER Interfaith, HIT Strategies dove into the data, describing how years of apathy by the political class divided Black voters in Philadelphia. Eight years ago, Black voters came out in droves to support Barack Obama, but the Black vote fell 8% between 2012 and 2016. As Terrance Woodbury of HIT Strategies explained, Black voters are not a monolith.
“There are some distinct differences by gender, differences within Black voters, generational differences within Black voters,” said Woodbury, explaining the data commissioned by POWER Interfaith in detail. “There’s some differences in how younger voters are deciding.”
Looking at the numbers, Woodbury detailed how Black voters overwhelmingly indicated they supported Joe Biden. However, as the data skewed younger, there were growing percentages of undecideds, third-party voters, and those throwing their support behind Donald Trump.
And while survey respondents report high levels of voter participation for this November — almost 95%— other indicators tell a different story. Asked how powerful they felt their vote was in terms of changing their community, only 51% of those surveyed responded with “extremely powerful.” The younger the voter, the less power they felt their vote had.
According to focus groups conducted by HIT Strategies, voter frustration turned quickly to cynicism.
“The people that are in charge do what they want,” one survey respondent told pollsters. “No matter who we vote for, if we do vote, if we don’t vote — whoever is in power is going to do whatever they feel like doing whether it’s for the people or not.”
On stop-and-frisk and the police oversight commission
Several days after POWER Interfaith’s press conference to disseminate the data gleamed on African American voters in the area, the Philadelphia Police Department responded to a call in West Philadelphia where bystanders alleged there was a man with a weapon.
In video footage now widely-circulated throughout social media, two uniform officers can be heard commanding 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., a local African American man with mental health issues, to drop a knife. Wallace circles the street, never coming in close contact with the officers as his mother attempts to diffuse the situation.
Moments later, the Philadelphia police officers open fire, shooting him 10 times. He later died in the hospital.
Wallace’s death was another in a long line of police killings of African American men this past year — the best known being that of George Floyd in Minnesota. Beginning this summer, demonstrators of all races took to the streets across the country. They risked their lives due to both heightened tensions and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to stand up and say “No More!”
“Policing is really the tip of the spear in terms of the issues of white supremacy, racism, and discrimination that exists in this country,” Bishop Royster said. “We have to radically rethink how we handle policing, put police in their proper place in society, not above society but also keep police accountable to society and its citizens that essentially pay their paychecks.”
With that in mind, POWER Interfaith shifted much of its messaging towards the voter initiatives on the ballot in Philadelphia this November. Notably, the group’s focus is on ballot questions number one and three, ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisk and creating a citizens police oversight commission.
Data shows strong support for both initiatives, with 89% of those surveyed stated they will vote ‘yes’ to end stop-and-frisk practices in Philadelphia, and 91% in favor of a new police oversight commission.
Leading that fight are Elder Melanie DeBouse and Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, co-directors of POWER Live Free. As Rev. Tyler explained at the mid-October press conference, it’s a battle that began in 2014.
“We were challenged by young people,” Rev. Tyler said, recalling a 7,000-person-strong march held in the city following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “They said to us then that how can you stand up for Mike Brown in Ferguson and you have not called the name of Brandon Tate Brown in Philadelphia?”
Tate Brown was a 26-year-old Black man shot in the back of the head by a Philadelphia police officer during a routine traffic stop on Frankford Ave. in the Northeast neighborhood of Mayfair. Many in the activist community ignored Tate Brown’s story, believing the narrative that, in Tyler’s words, he brought it upon himself. But younger organizers fought in his name, shedding light on the fact that the official story of his death was lacking.
Their efforts gave birth to the contemporary fight for police accountability in the city. November 3 will see the culmination of those efforts when the city votes on ballot initiatives one and three.
According to Elder DeBouse, who spoke by telephone at the press conference, organizers have been “laser-focused” on educating both City Council and the general public on the benefits of a police oversight commission. Hoping to replicate other successful programs, POWER Interfaith conferred with municipalities across the nation, including those in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Oakland.
“Our goal is to replicate best practices and offer city council … the opportunity to develop a package that the citizens of Philadelphia could not only live with but thrive by,” Elder DeBouse said.
With that, Elder DeBouse implored everyone to vote, noting that, in her congregation alone, she’s had over 15,000 conversations not only about the importance of voting but how crucial it is to be registered and to make a plan to vote.
She then took a moment to remind those in attendance at the virtual press conference, that voting is a critical way to assert one’s power.
“Say yes on ballot initiative one and ballot initiative three,” Elder DeBouse said. “All elections have local implications and we want to convey to the citizens that your life hangs in the balance.”
On voter engagement and suppression
Pennsylvania is one of 2020’s top battleground states, having been part of a trifecta that fueled Trump’s surprise White House victory four years ago. As such, efforts to tip the scales have played out not in the voting booth but in the courtroom, once again fanning the flames of voter suppression.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf urged the state legislature to enact several improvements to the ballot counting process, arguing that the global COVID-19 pandemic required changes for the safety of all residents. In a statement, the governor asked that the pre-canvassing of ballots begin 21 days before the election. Current law states that the process cannot start until the morning of November 3.
According to Wolf, an increase in mail-in-ballots make such a step necessary. But to date, Republicans in the legislature have balked at the idea. The opposition party in the state proposed limiting the number of early voting drop boxes and lifting the county residency requirement for poll watchers — both asks the Trump campaign has fought for in court — in return for counting ballots early. Wolf threatened to veto any such measures.
More recently, state Republicans went to the Supreme Court — twice — hoping to disqualify ballots received after November 3, even if they were postmarked by election day. So far, they’ve lost both battles.
“People were saying, they’re trying to protect democracy,” said Bishop Royster, referring to arguments against extending deadlines to accept mail-in-ballots. “We think it’s really trying to protect a certain segment of the population making sure their votes count, while other segments of the communities their votes don’t count.”
“We want to make sure that every person’s vote counts and that they’re engaged and we’re going to fight against every form of intimidation,” he said.
To that end, POWER Interfaith is well prepared to ensure that the city holds a free and fair election for BIPOC people this November. To help reach their goal of bringing over 100,000 people to the polls, they have vans at the ready, and to protect voters from COVID-19, they plan to hand out PPE. Moreover, through town halls, virtual town halls, and weekly phone banking efforts, the group works overtime to dispel any myths about voting, mail-in ballots, and the new satellite office system.
According to Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, interest in voting for Black men is currently at an all-time low — and for good reason. Many see it has no influence on their lived reality, he said. Part of the problem is the constant focus on the four-year cycle of presidential elections.
Rev. O’Rourke, who serves as the pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ in Oxford Circle, and who made headlines last year as Kendra Brooks’ running mate on the Working Families Party ticket, told the crowd at the press conference that local elections matter — and that they matter for voter engagement too.
“We have elections every six months in this country, and many of those like the quadrennial election are filled with elections and ballot measures that hit particularly close to home and speak to the issues that we care most about,” Rev. O’Rourke said.
“If we only invest in pushing voter engagement every four years during the presidential election, we will cement the idea that voting doesn’t impact our lives and therefore it doesn’t matter,” he added.
POWER Interfaith hopes to keep voters engaged every day right up until the election as well. As Kendra Cochran, the organization’s director of civic engagement, noted, voter engagement is a 365-day job. Organizers can’t wait until the last minute.
As Cochran explained, she’s been in constant contact with local clergy, using data and local feedback to begin conversations within the community. As a result, she’s developed creative ways to raise voter awareness in the Black community and bring more people to the voting booth.
The Black Bikers Votes initiative saw Black motorcyclists from across the region travel together to the polls. In contrast, the Souls to the Polls effort had local clergy gather their parishioners together after Church on Sunday for a trip to the voting booth.
“I feel that a lot of people are still — they’re caught up in feelings and different things, and I understand all of that, but here’s an opportunity to create change, here’s an opportunity to really have your voice heard,” Cochran said.
On November 4 and beyond
A week before the election shows that early voting and mail-in-ballots already account for over 50% of 2016’s total votes. With some lines extending a few city blocks and wait times several hours in some districts, experts predict that a historic number of voters could come to the polls this year.
In Pennsylvania, election officials note that over 3 million people requested mail-in-ballots, with 1.9 million having already been returned at a completion rate of 69%. Democrats have the edge in both categories, with 1.9 million ballots requested to 786,000 for Republicans, and 1.3 million ballots returned versus 426,000 for their GOP counterparts.
Philadelphians have returned 287,000 ballots so far, or 65% of those requested.
But, with all of that, there’s still voting to be done on November 3. And according to Bishop Royster, POWER Interfaith will be very busy come election day.
“We’re going to keep calm,” he told Generocity, describing the group’s plan to be on the street while working with the movement chaplaincy program at various polling sites.
“[We’ll] encourage people struggling because they’ve been waiting in a long line for long time,” he continued. “We’re going to try to provide some water and food at various polling sites around the city to make sure the people have what they need to be able to sustain them while they’re waiting in line to be able to cast their ballots.”
Most importantly, Bishop Royster’s organization will make sure people vote and that Black and brown voices are heard. So strong is his belief in the democratic process that he’d prefer someone go to the ballot box and record a “No Vote,” than not vote at all.
But, in his comments to us, he stresses that the work doesn’t end on November 3.
POWER Interfaith is preparing for a slew of outcomes on election day and preparing state legislators as well. According to the Bishop, the group is working on a clergy letter to send to Gov. Wolf, as well as state representatives letting them know that POWER Interfaith expects every vote to be counted. They’re working with the press, too, to make sure that democracy is protected.
“We are preparing our people right now,” Bishop Royster said. “We’re training people for nonviolent direct action. We want to make a very clear statement that we believe in life, liberty, and democracy — that every vote counts.”
But, even in a free and fair election, campaigning, organizing, and activism never end.
Like his mother before him, Bishop Royster will continue to fight for the voices of Black, brown, low-income, and working-class families long after the last vote is counted. POWER Interfaith is a year-long campaign pushing for the rights of everyone.
“It’s not by accident, Philadelphia’s the poorest big city in this nation,” he said. “If we look at that historically — about redlining, access to quality education, all these things are tied together that actually have deep impact on our ability to access economic opportunity.”
But for now, the Bishop has his eye on the election, hoping to clear one hurdle at a time.
“Remind people to vote,” he told us, keeping the focus on his most pressing concern.