On Being/As I Am
Hanae Victoria Mason
The onset of COVID-19 ushered in new ways of being and identifying for all of us: vulnerable, (non)essential, (anti-)vaxxer, immunocompromised, denialist, and more. This marked both a definitive and defining period when each of us had to grapple with and, ultimately, decide how we wanted to show up for ourselves and for others. And then, just months into the pandemic, another defining moment in the form of a national social uprising occurred.
I would like to think that I know myself well. Since I was young, folks have described me as some version of self-aware. Not necessarily so far as to be confident, but comfortable enough in my being. I am Hanae Victoria Mason and who I’ve known myself to be for quite awhile is a Black, queer, neurodiverse femme from the deep south who has called West Philadelphia home for over a decade.
Seemingly overnight, my medical history, my BMI, the proximity in which I lived near others, and relied on public transportation placed me solidly in the category of “high risk.” What did it mean? I internalized it as some sort of omen and steeled myself for survival by keeping myself as safe as possible inside for the foreseeable future as I grew increasingly anxious and agoraphobic.
In May 2017, pre-pandemic and before I became a core organizer for Black Lives Matter Philly, I finished my master’s thesis in which I had written about the sociopolitical conditions that led to the rise of and May 1985 attack on the MOVE organization and how similar circumstances led to the creation of Black Lives Matter and a resurgence of organized Black radicalism.
A portion of the introduction of my thesis is as follows:
Though significant to the narrative, the events of that fateful night in 1985 are not the focus of this paper. To understand the ending, an exploration and analysis of the genesis of MOVE, its relationship with the city of Philadelphia, and its lasting impact and influence is necessary. Invaluable are the lessons that can be gained by examining the conditions that led to MOVE’s creation, the environment that fostered its growth, its appeal to followers, and the fear and contempt with which it was treated by agents and entities of the city and state.
The increasingly contentious and seemingly volatile current American political climate is resulting in more citizens, particularly those from marginalized communities, becoming civically and socially engaged, and sometimes, even radical. Understanding what has happened in the past is an imperative step towards figuring out how this newfound hyper-awareness and engagement could be best channeled. MOVE and its trajectory provide a prolific case for exploration.
Former journalist, MOVE sympathizer, and presumed political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, remarked in a 2015 prison radio broadcast:
Why should we care what happened on May 13th, 1985? Because what happened then is a harbinger of what’s happening now all across America[...] I mean the visceral hatreds and violent contempt once held for MOVE is now visited upon average people, not just radicals and revolutionaries like MOVE.
In May 1985, police officials justified the vicious attacks on MOVE children by saying they, too, were combatants. In Ferguson, Missouri, as police and National Guard confronted citizens, guess how cops described them in their own files. ‘Enemies.’ Enemy combatants, anyone? Then look at 12-year-old Tamir Rice of Cleveland. Boys, men, girls, women—it doesn’t matter.
There is a direct line from then to now. May 13, 1985, led to the eerie robocop present. If it had been justly and widely condemned then, there would be no now, no Ferguson, no South Carolina, no Los Angeles, no Baltimore. The barbaric police bombing of May 13, 1985, and the whitewash of the murders of 11 MOVE men, women and children opened a door that still has not been closed. We are today living with those consequences. (Muhammad, 2015)
In late May 2020, almost exactly three months into the pandemic, three years after submitting these words, and thirty-five years after the MOVE bombing, I, as a representative of BLM Philly, found myself in the first (virtual) convenings of the Black Philly Radical Collective (BPRC) alongside members of the MOVE family as well as other organizers across varying political and institutional affiliations. In response to the very public and blatant display of disregard for Black life playing out through the compounding crises of a public health crisis, economic depression, and state violence, we came together to plan the initial Solidarity for George Floyd march and to draft a list of demands for the defunding and eventual abolition of policing in Philadelphia.
There was a brief moment in time at the beginning of the pandemic when we experienced what life could’ve been like without most of the major functions of modern policing. When we most needed first responders and personnel of varying skill sets and knowledge, it was doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, and many others that made the most immediate and essential impact. But instead of focusing on keeping all of us safe and helping us survive, instead of supplying meals and masks, instead of trainings for CPR or other ways to preserve and save lives, the police were just contributing to the immense and growing sense of grief, confusion, loss, and, ultimately, the body count.
In short succession: Breonna, George, Tony. Around the same time, the details of the vigilante violence that stole Ahmaud’s life were made public. The small glimmer of hope that the catastrophe of this pandemic could actually unite us was shattered by that thin blue line. Remember it was their violence, rage, and recklessness, not that of those who acted in response, that was the catalyst of a global uprising.
The BPRC stepped up to lead a summer of organized protest and direct action in the streets of Philadelphia. Globally, millions of people put their bodies on the line to show up and support. And countless other organizers, activists, and allies who are disabled, immunocompromised, chronically ill, or caretakers had to play our parts primarily from home. Like them, I found ways to show up without having to be physically present in-person: managing and posting social media, drafting and editing press releases and other documents, attending Zoom meetings with elected officials and comrades, coordinating supply distribution and jail support, uplifting mutual aid efforts, etc. That labor and those contributions, often unacknowledged and underappreciated, were just as invaluable to the planning and execution of these and ongoing organizing efforts.
Those first weeks were a potent mix of adrenaline, hope, dutifulness, and pure terror. I’ll never forget how they turned West Philly into a warzone even though the protests were concentrated in Center City. On 52nd Street, just three blocks from my apartment building, my roommate at the time was tear gassed while protecting Hakim’s Books. Another good friend was harmed protecting her neighbors from the tanks and tear gas indiscriminately invading blocks of residents in their homes. Every night followed the booms of illegal fireworks imitating the explosion of bombs, the hum of hovering helicopters surveilling, the sporadic sirens, and then the deep silence. We were all having this same experience except so many of us were inside, isolated, and feeling so alone and unsure.
We organized nonstop for weeks. The days blended together. The burnout was inevitable and impending. Until that point, the idea of self-care had mostly seemed like frivolous and empty platitudes, promises, and practices. But quickly self-care became another tool of not only survival, but also resistance. I finally understood what Audre Lorde meant when she said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I knew all too well that so many of our political heroes, if not outright assassinated, had died too soon from the wear of this work on their health and general wellbeing. I understood it to be both audacious and necessary to start enacting more boundaries, attending online yoga sessions, eating well, and taking regular breaks, naps, and hot baths.
Most days, I would sit on my back stoop reciting Black feminist mantras while sitting out in the sun. Staring at the crumbling brick facade of the building behind mine reminded me how we had to dismantle systems brick by brick. My favorite mantra was another Audre Lorde quote, “ I am who I am doing what I came to do.” It helped remind me that somehow, just by being me, in all my perceived or actual imperfection and even illness, I had first written and then lived my way into this moment in history. And I was who I hoped and knew myself to be, more than enough.
On October 26, 2020, in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philly, the Philadelphia police fatally shot Walter Wallace, Jr. and subsequently reignited the wave of protests that had been waning since the summer. I felt like I could no longer stay inside while this was once again happening blocks away from me. That week, I broke my quarantine and attended my first in-person protests since before the pandemic and the uprising. Double-masked and dressed in all black, I marched among my comrades from Malcolm X Park to the police precinct on 55th and Pine for successive nights. I experienced firsthand how our nonviolent movement was met with military grade strategy and weaponry. How they antagonized and created chaos and upheaval where there had been none. How suddenly everything could change. The tanks, the tear gas, the curfews all came back.
We retreated, but we never left. We are still here. Still organizing, still dismantling, still reimagining how we stay free.
 Mason, H. (2017) Have we MOVEd forward?: What MOVE has to teach us about the present
 Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Originally sentenced to the death penalty, his sentence was later commuted to life in prison without parole. He and his supporters maintain his innocence and believe his trial/appeals and treatment in prison have been unjust. (Amnesty International, 2001)
 In summer 2021, it was disclosed that the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Museum had in its possession the remains of deceased MOVE members from the 1985 bombing. Around the same time, allegations of intracommunal physical and sexual abuse were made my former MOVE members.
Hanae Victoria Mason is a West Philly based, Southern raised Black queer femme creator, community organizer, and facilitator. I work in the intersections of social justice; healing and wellness; and Black arts, culture, and media. My main medium is love, of the people and of self. My work was born out of the necessity to understand and make space for myself and then to extend and hold space for others. I am my greatest work in progress. Some of my other writing can be found on sites like Generocity and Broad St. Review.