HIV Activist Jumps Into the Philadelphia City Council Race

Senior Editor
Joe Piette

Philadelphia-based HIV activist and writer (including as a contributor to TheBody) Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad probably made their biggest headlines in 2017, when they went on an HIV medications strike to protest the CEO of the LGBTQ health nonprofit Mazzoni Center, who eventually stepped down along with two other senior staff. Subsequently, Muhammad helped found the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, which has been organizing around race and economic justice issues in Philadelphia. And after stepping aside from their role as campaign manager for Sherrie Cohen in March, Muhammad announced they would be running as a write-in candidate for an at-large Philadelphia City Council seat.

If Muhammad gets enough votes in the city's May 21 primary, they will be on the November ballot. I interviewed Muhammad about their work and the issues they're concerned about for the future of Philadelphia.

Kenyon Farrow: What led you to make this decision?

Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad: I'm one of the co-founders of the Black and Brown Workers Co-Op. And last summer, around June, we launched a platform called Disappearing Blackness Is Displacement Politics, to highlight the rapid gentrification occurring in Philadelphia, especially in West Philly and Southwest Philly. And talking about strategies to disrupt displacement, like cooperative housing or different kinds of protections that you can get or designations you can get for land to be community-controlled. And the main issue of this election is gentrification and something called councilmanic prerogative, [which] is basically Philadelphia City Council -- there's about 17 council people, and 10 district council people -- and the district council people basically have free reign to determine the use and sale of public land [in their districts]. And there was a process a few years ago where they were supposed to be transparent about that, and put properties into something called the Land Bank, so that everyone would have access to it, not just developers. But for the most part, they've been circumventing that Land Bank and basically giving property at a discounted rate to friends and people who donate to their campaigns.

On top of that, you have sheriff sales or civil forfeiture of property -- you know, it's been debated about, if it's ethical to basically take someone's property. Say their grandson was selling a nickel-bag of weed or whatever on the property. And so there's a lot of civil forfeiture happening in Philly. And another councilperson called for a moratorium on sheriff sales, and then the sheriff decided that he wasn't going to stop. You can see how this is impacting the most marginalized Philadelphians, because the councilperson, Curtis Jones, basically pointed out that it was mostly impacting black and brown people in the city. So we've been kind of organizing around this issue for over a year. And it's now the largest issue during this municipal election.

And then I was asked to work on a campaign of a candidate named Sherrie Cohen, who's since dropped out of the race. And because that person dropped out, I decided that I would run a write-in campaign.

KF: So what would you say are some of the other critical issues happening in Philadelphia that prompted you to run or are part of your campaign?

AAM: Mayor [Jim] Kenney promised that he would end stop-and-frisk [policing] when he first ran. And what I am focused on, and what BBWC and other movements in Philly are focused on, is how do we minimize racialized policing? Because the idea of ending something that is quote-unquote constitutional, in terms of search and seizure, is a big leap. And a lot of people talk about how that won't ever happen. But we know that there is widespread discrimination in the ways that stops happen. There was a report about this in Philadelphia, about police stops in the Rittenhouse area of the city, which is an affluent neighborhood. And overwhelmingly, the stops were of black people.

And then you have a situation where they just decided the school board. And just to tell you a little bit about that, because Philadelphia schools were in crisis some years ago, the state basically intervened -- Pa. intervened, and took over the school board. And they dissolved it, actually. And they made something called the School Reform Commission. That commission had mostly, I think, representation from the majority party in the [Pennsylvania state] capital, which is Republicans. And then like an appointed person from Philadelphia. It was uneven, too -- it was like, not that much representation from Philly.

Then the mayor kind of went to bat with the state to get the school board under his purview again. But the problem with that is that this is an appointed school board. And we activists and other folks are calling for an elected school board, because the school board just passed this policy of putting more metal detectors in schools. And we have a problem in Philly, where public school youth are basically surveilled disproportionately, the black and brown youth in this city, by cops when they leave school. There are basically some areas of the city where -- like, let's say it's in Center City, which is considered downtown. There are a lot of charter schools. And you know, when the schools let out around three o'clock, you can see about 20 bike cops, right? Following a group of black and brown youth, basically making sure they get on the train or the trolley or the bus to get out of the center of the city, and they basically follow them around and police them. And so that is an issue. There's really toxic schools in Philly. There's a lot of asbestos in schools, and in some schools there's lead. And schools don't have air conditioning.

Again, rent control is a huge issue. Over the next few years, Philadelphians will see an exponential increase in rent, because of people moving in rapidly. And because of something called the 10-year tax abatement, a property tax abatement which basically gives somebody a break for 10 years in property taxes if they build a new structure. And a lot of developers are using this to build in Philly, and they'll have 10 years on that development where they don't have to pay property taxes. And we know that property taxes -- that money goes to schools. And so the school system is losing a lot of money in revenue. And then you have toxic schools, and then you have people basically benefiting from displacement in this way. So again, I would push for an end to the 10-year tax abatement. And then that way, that's one of the strategies to fight residential displacement.

KF: What is your take on what's happening with this federal Ending the HIV Epidemic plan? Philadelphia County is one of the 48 counties that is supposed to get an infusion of resources. If you were to become a member of City Council, how would you set up a plan to address the epidemic in Philadelphia?

AAM: Thank you for that question. You know, I'm very critical of nonprofits. And for the most part, that is the body that kind of drives the work in Philly. Then you have the health department, and an office of the health department called AIDS Activities Coordinating Office. And what I noticed in the past two years is that this PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] program, or HIV navigation, people were excited about a few years ago -- when that funding came down to Philly, I remember going to a training about this HIV navigation model to talk about how to get PrEP to communities. And I think the problem that I always have with nonprofits is like this: I don't know if it's cognitive dissonance, but there's this weird thing where they claim that they can't find young black and brown people, on one hand, to provide services to, but then they basically target every event of black and brown young people in the city for testing. So there's this is weird kind of thing where they will claim that they can't find the young people who should be getting tested. But then have this like overabundance of young people testing in the city. And that's often what you hear in the city, is like, "We can't find new positives," or, "We can't find the people who need to get tested."

So I would probably do some kind of evaluation of how the city's office that manages HIV funds is thinking about strategies and also talking to community -- because that's another problem that we have in Philly is that these agencies don't really have a direct connection to the communities. And even the nonprofits don't -- they kind of hire from those communities and basically put the work on frontline staff to do a huge amount of work in terms of thinking about programming, evaluating programs, going out to find people -- they just put so much work on the frontline staff, and they don't actually absorb some of that work themselves.

And then invest in housing, because we know, like if you don't have a place to live, and that's what you see, mostly, in Philly -- we have a huge population of homeless, HIV-positive young people and older people. And they may have hepatitis C as well, or they may have some kind of mental health status that they need support around. Those people are often left in the streets, and there's no real kind of emergency strategy to deal with the housing crisis in Philadelphia. And so I would figure out, how do we invest money into housing, especially for young, vulnerable people, or young people who are poz, or older people who are positive, living on the street?

KF: You're obviously out about your status -- how is this shaping the way you're reaching out to community and the media who aren't or don't necessarily see themselves as part of the HIV community?

AAM: I mean, I'm out about being poz -- I came out as poz publicly in a very public way around the Mazzoni Center demands that frontline workers had a few years ago. So I mean, people know, and that became a national story. So a lot of people in Philly know who I am, and that I am HIV positive.

I think about it like this. I'll give you an example, the last Presidential election, a lot of people decided to not vote, and I understood that and respect folks' decision to do that. And I couldn't not vote, right? Because having a chronic illness, especially HIV and how political HIV is. As someone living with a chronic illness, especially HIV, I see the importance of voting from the standpoint of resources. If I'm not invested in that person, that candidate, I understand that whoever's in that position can really impact my access to medicine and other resources that I need. So I kind of have that lens.

But I think in terms of someone who is out about living with a chronic illness, and someone who lives with HIV and is LGBTQ -- there's no one representing those two identities on City Council, and it's a shock to a lot of people that Philadelphia doesn't really have a representative council like that. The council, as it looks, looks nothing like the city.

So people know about my poz status. I think it is important to have somebody who knows what it means to live with HIV, especially in one of the largest cities in the U.S., but also a city that has about 46% black people. And we know that HIV is impacting black people the most. And so that's an important voice to have on a body that makes decisions for the city. And in terms of interacting with people who I'm talking to, who I want to write me in, I make those connections between HIV and other chronic illnesses. I have a different perspective that's needed. So it's pretty easy for me now to talk about HIV and my own status. So yeah, I don't think that that's an issue.