Asa Khalif, a leader of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, got an early morning phone call from his Polish grandmother in Massachusetts on Wednesday.
His grandmother, who is white, was upset about a Breitbart.com report she'd read, about a meeting of Black Lives Matter Philly that will be open only to African Americans. (BLM Philly isn't Khalif's group, but they're part of the same movement.)
Khalif, whose adopted father is white, had to spend a portion of his morning calming down the 80-year-old he affectionately refers to as "Mama." She was afraid that his social activism had changed him for the worse after reading the article that initially had mentioned him.
"I told her I'm still the same grandson who requests Spam sandwiches when he comes to visit," he said.
When I caught up with him Wednesday afternoon outside City Hall, Khalif was still upset that she'd happened across the Breitbart piece about BLM's closed-meeting practice, something he describes as "very common in the movement."
"It's a space particularly for black people to heal, to cry, to vent, to organize, to be empowered, to be uplifted," Khalif said about the black-only gatherings. "We deal with anti-blackness every day, just being black in our work spaces and so on. That's why it's a safe space for us. White allies and other allies who stand with us understand that."
Even though the Breitbart piece made it look like a Philly thing, it's standard practice to admit only African Americans and others from the black diaspora to Black Lives Matter meetings.
Who knew? I certainly didn't. Neither, I'm guessing, did the folks at Breitbart.com, a right-wing website whose posting on the subject is headlined, "WHITE PEOPLE BANNED FROM BLACK LIVES MATTER MEETINGS IN PHILADELPHIA."
BLM Philly isn't the least bit shy about its closed-door policy. Its Facebook page clearly states that the next meeting, on April 15, will be a "black only space."
I find this shocking and appalling, especially considering how many nonblack faces I see participating in Black Lives Matter demonstrations here and nationwide. As a person who grew up seeing images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. protesting arm-in-arm with whites and others during the civil rights movement, the blacks-only policy feels wrong. It's exclusionary. The optics are bad. It feels as if African Americans are self-segregating and doing to whites what has historically been done to us.
Besides, how can the BLM movement be expected to grow and catch on nationally if it limits itself? African Americans represent just 14 percent of the U.S. population, and are virtually invisible in many parts of the country.
BLM Philly organizers point to activist groups such as the Black Panthers and historical thought leaders such as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey for inspiration. One BLM Philly spokesman, Joe Green, 36, told me Wednesday that the meetings are so "we can direct the narrative for ourselves and by ourselves."
Needless to say, news of the BLM policy hit the blogosphere with a giant thud as various right-wing websites ran with it.
Black Lives Matter Philly members wrote on Facebook: "This is not the first time we have received backlash and threats in relation to how we organize. Let us be clear now. We are unapologetically Black and believe having Black only spaces -- where Black people can come together to strategize, organize, heal and fellowship without the threat of violence and co-optation -- is an important part of Black liberation."
Organizer Candace McKinley, 35, of Germantown, pointed out that black-only meetings are "not really a new concept. The outrage about it is new." She said that the group had gotten lots of messages on social media about the practice and that members have been explaining the policy to allies and foes alike.
That would not be me. Nor would I be the one standing in the doorway blocking white folks from coming in. I'm old school.
I admire many of the great black revolutionaries, too, but I know from experience how painful it is to be left out because of external characteristics that are beyond your control. I can't imagine how hurtful it must feel for nonblacks who happen upon a BLM meeting to be turned away because of skin color.
Khalif said his grandmother asked him as much when she said to him, "Am I welcome in your space?"
The question caused the 34-year-old activist to choke up.
"I lost it on the phone," Khalif told me as his voice broke again at the memory. "She is Mama and she is always welcome with us."