The arts, the vote, and Philadelphia (you’re welcome, America)

The post-election country loves Philly for its fight—but what about our cultural scene?

5 minute read
Say it, but make it beautiful: Philadelphians rallied to protect their election. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Say it, but make it beautiful: Philadelphians rallied to protect their election. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

“Welcome to the best block party in America,” declared Philly activist Samantha Rise. They held the mic on Friday morning during the two-day Count Every Vote rally at 12th and Arch, outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where election workers counted the ballots that helped tip the presidency to Joe Biden.

Facing south on 12th Street, with the Convention Center and a giant white banner reading “THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN” as a backdrop, Rise addressed a crowd that far outnumbered the handful of pro-Trump protestors clumped on the other side of the intersection, demanding a halt to the vote tally.

So they do like us?

Over the past week, as Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballots slowly but surely chomped the earlier totals that favored the president and GOP pundits called for angry Republicans to descend on Philly as an election war zone, national media outlets echoed a well-worn catechism for Philly’s fists-up brand.

No one likes us, we don’t care! This is the city of greased poles, impervious to insults, where a Super Bowl reveler ate manure, HitchBOT met its doom, a popular museum is full of fetuses in jars, and Eagles fans pelted Santa with snowballs. Signs emblazoned with the helmeted, googly-eyed fur-bomb that is “the only orange man Philly respects” invited all comers to “Fuck around and find out” as people in cities thousands of miles away began trading Gritty memes.

But this shorthand for the pugnacious enigma that is Philly, tweeted into internet legend, doesn’t capture the spirit I felt on Thursday and Friday when I masked up to attend the rally outside the Convention Center. And maybe it helps to compare the MAGA crowd to the Count Every Vote party to understand why.

Beauty born here

The president’s supporters had plenty of big blue-and-red “Trump 2020” flags so everyone could wave the same mass-produced thing. Others held poster-board signs with scrawls of marker saying things like “Democracy dies in Philly.”

We’re not used to all this attention. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
We’re not used to all this attention. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of Arch Street, the Count Every Vote crowd was alive with custom-printed cloth banners swinging from bamboo poles. They had slogans like “Count every vote” and “Black votes matter” and “Surrender to democracy.”

The crowd was full of musicians playing to the pounding beats of the DJs set up right outside Reading Terminal Market (including a horn player who, according to folks on the scene, drowned out a MAGA protestor shouting slurs). The rally-goers danced for hours, including a jubilant Electric Slide with a constantly rotating improvised ensemble, banners swooping like birds over the surging crowd.

Viral clips of Philadelphians dancing their way to the polls found worthy successors in post-Election Day videos that showed off Philly’s flair for costuming and craft. Blue USPS boxes and even a miniature cardboard City Hall and White House grooved their way through the crowds thanks to the team at local nonprofit SpiralQ, which also gave us a hand-crafted gold-trimmed bald eagle with a wingspan so wide it covered multiple lanes of Broad Street. And Philly’s Positive Movement Drill Team kept the drums going alongside the moves of their beloved Philly Elmo.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that our artistic heart explodes in all kinds of weird ways when joy overtakes us. One of the most iconic photos of the great Super Bowl riot of 2018 shows ecstatic fans miming Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam while hanging from street fixtures. We’re the City of Murals, the birthplace of Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, Mario Lanza, Thomas Eakins, Will Smith, Kevin Bacon, Robert Venturi, Ursula Rucker, and more world-famous artists of every stripe born or embraced here than we can name.

What the arts can do

As a unifying and uplifting force, the arts were a natural outlet for get-out-the-vote efforts here, including West Philly organizers who rallied all kinds of performers to entertain the people in long lines to cast ballots. And in Love Park, Mural Arts mounted To the Polls, a powerful display from local artists urging Philadelphians to exercise their voting rights (curator Conrad Benner also turned his considerable social-media platform to educating Philadelphians on the election).

We’re not used to all this attention. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
We’re not used to all this attention. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

If (as President-Elect Biden has been saying) the outcome of last week’s election relied on a broad new American coalition for empathy and justice, the arts should shine, dare we say it, more than ever in these unprecedented times. If the arts let us understand and join others’ struggles, inspire us to vote when we otherwise wouldn’t, and even help keep us in line to cast our ballots, 2020 was a terrible year to try to defund the arts—especially in Philadelphia, whose voters clinched a historic national decision and then celebrated it with costumes, crafts, music, memes, and dancing that resonated across the world.

You are not disposable

Appreciating the arts will always be a way of appreciating each other: exchanging pieces of ourselves in ways that crack open narratives to change the world—a way to say I see you and I hear you to people you’ll never even meet. As the Inquirer noted this week, in the face of nationwide warnings about violence and civil unrest following the election, Philadelphia came together (outside, wearing masks) and danced.

At the Count Every Vote rally, Samantha Rise asked everyone to look at the person beside them and say, “You are not disposable to me.” And we did, locking eyes over our facemasks and promising that these strangers we’re dancing with matter to us, today and always.

“Victory looks like choosing each other again and again and again and again,” Rise said. That feels like the opposite of a city that lives to kick up a fight, but it’s all true just the same, especially if Philly can hang onto its gutsy, artsy heart.

Image description: A photo of a rally in downtown Philadelphia showing the street packed with people from curb to curb. Many cloth banners that say “Count every vote” hover over the crowd.

Image description: A photo of a rally outside Reading Terminal Market focuses on a long blue-and-white cloth banner that says “All eyes on PA” and “The whole world is watching.” It has artful illustrations of open eyes, and the letters “PA” appear inside a silhouette of the state.

Image description: A photo of a post-election rally site on Broad Street. The cathedral-like Masonic Temple is in the background, and the head of a giant bald eagle figure is in the foreground. The head is almost as long as a whole person and has white cloth feathers and a gold-painted beak.

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