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Ever since the killing of George Floyd in May set off a wave or protests against police violence across the U.S., there have been grumblings that messages attached to those demonstrations would either derail Democrats hopes for Election Day, fire up President Donald Trump’s base, or both.
In reality, pretty much every city in the U.S. that hosted protests—and, yes, riots—went for President-elect Joe Biden, as did many suburbs, despite concerns by anti-Trump and progressive organizers that they wouldn’t be able to mobilize white, middle-class voters turned off by the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements. It appears that, if anything, the protests helped Democrats in 2020 rather than hurt them, due to a galvanization of Black, urban voters.
As exit polls and voter data are crunched, one of the major narratives coming out of this election is that Black voters helped propel Biden to victory, especially in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh, where Black voter turnout was critical. Much of the turnout among Biden voters in general was influenced by concerns about police and racism. According to The Associated Press VoteCast survey, 68% of Biden voters said these were serious issues, 63% said that the criminal justice system needed a complete overhaul or major changes, and 53% said that protests against police violence were an important factor for this election.
Police violence protests led to a “heightened awareness and increase in people across the country wanting to be engaged,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “We began to push that it was important for people to move from protest to power at the ballot box and then we saw a large turnout. I don’t think we can provide empirical evidence, but I can say there has been hype energy ever since George Floyd and we saw a lot of that leading up to Election Day, in the early vote, and on Election Day.”
The NAACP saw a huge influx of donations and financial support after the George Floyd protests, said Johnson. That was also true for many other Black-led organizations, particularly in Pittsburgh, where Biden needed a strong showing from Black voters to help counter the densely red suburbs and collar counties of western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh-based organization 1Hood, a Black youth activist network that has been doing social justice work since 2006, experienced a surge in funding this summer from philanthropic and corporate donors due to their work organizing protests against police violence. According to its co-founder Jasiri X, grants from companies such as American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and Starbucks Corp. this year helped 1Hood meet its goal of unseating Trump.
“It was that organizing around police violence that actually led us to be able to mobilize folks to the polls,” says X. “We took that energy and those resources that we got and for the first time we were able to hire people, and to recruit digital canvassers, and put money into things like voting festivals because we had access to those resources.”
Organizing in Pennsylvania
1Hood made its biggest splashes over the last few years by helping orchestrate several protests in Pittsburgh against police violence, dating back to 2018 when apolice officer killed Black teenager Antwon Rose Jr. The youth activists were also behind the protests this summer sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and also heavy in the mix for protests for Romir Talley, a Black man killed by police in neighboring Wilkinsburg.
However, 1Hood’s first official foray into voter mobilization work came in 2019, when under a new 501c4 branch called 1Hood Power, they began working to register and stir up Black voters around defeating District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., the local chief prosecutor targeted among many things for failing to hold police accountable. Zappala won, but the group’s work, part of a coalition of many other progressive political organizations, definitely slowed the district attorney’s roll: In 2015, Zappala, who’s been D.A. since 1998, received 175,292 votes in an uncontested race; last year, he only won 154,015 votes against his opponent Lisa Middleman’s 115,404 votes.
This year, 1Hood was part of a larger conglomerate called PA Black Votes Matter, which conducted voter registration drives, held voter education town halls, debate parties, and block parties around satellite early voting sites, and gave voters rides to the polls on Election Day. All of this played a critical role in elevating Black voter turnout this year, and much of that, as activists told Bloomberg CityLab, was fueled by frustration from police brutality and the president’s defense of it—not to mention the draconian ways that police treated protesters inPittsburghand beyond.
For Terri Minor-Spencer, founder and president of the nonprofit advocacy organization West End P.O.W.E.R. (WEP), police shenanigans not only invigorated Black political participation throughout Pittsburgh, but also white participation in her organization’s efforts. After the Floyd protests in Pittsburgh, suddenly she was training white activists on how to do safe-distance door-knocking and canvassing, while some white-led organizations chipped in in other ways like making and donating “Black Lives Matter” yard signs. WEP volunteers Black and white knocked on nearly 3,500 doors, often engaging their targets in conversations around what to do about the police.
“No one got upset, people were extremely engaged,” said Minor-Spencer. “People were like, ‘Wait a minute, let me get my son down here because I don’t think he’s registered.’”
Increasing Black turnout among Black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh suburbs was also integral to helping these organizations fulfill their goal of defeating Trump, and in some of these places, police violence and accountability were already front-and-center issues. It was in thesuburban municipality of East Pittsburgh where Antwon Rose Jr. was killed by police officer Michael Rosfeld. He was acquitted, but lawsuits filed against the police department—along with a steady barrage of pressure from activists and residents—proved too heavy to sustain the force, and so it was disbanded in 2019.
Fawn Walker-Montgomery, co-founder and executive director of Take Action Mon Valley (TAMV), was present for many of the East Pittsburgh town halls and meetings and pushed for the police department’s dismantling. That work, along with the Covid-19 pandemic this year, helped set the stage for her organization’s voter participation successes in Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Valley suburbs this election season, she said. Besides the Trump defeat, Pittsburgh voters also approved a ballot referendumto strengthen the powers of the Citizen Police Review Board, an oversight committee tasked with investigating police violations against civilians.
“Because of Covid more people were at home and had more time to see what was going on, and unfortunately at the time there was George Floyd and a lot of videos,” of police killings of Black people, said Walker-Montgomery. “People were going through hard times, so I think it just hit people different. It led to a paradigm shift in America, which led to the protests, which led to the voter engagement work.”
Defund the Police
Another wildcard for this year’s election was the elevation of the “defund/abolish the police” battle cry, which for many protesters also formed their flagship policy demand. It ended up spooking many Democrat elected officials, especially those running close races — Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina has criticized this particular “sloganeering,” arguing that it is impractical, while Representative Conor Lamb, who represents parts of Pittsburgh and its outer suburbs, told the New York Times that the language likely cost the Democratic Party some House seats. Lamb, a former U.S. Attorney, won his race last week against former Army Ranger Sean Parnell.
But the activists Citylab spoke with said that the “defund/abolish the police” language had the opposite effect, especially by capturing many first-time and infrequent Black voters. The banner may have even had a positive effect on voter recruitment in some of Pittsburgh’s whiter suburbs, where there were several anti-police violence protests over the summer, and where both Biden and Trump needed to net voters to win. For Walker-Montgomery, the discussion around defunding or abolishing police departments was imperative to connecting with voters.
“Some of the white people in our communities didn’t like the word ‘defund,’ so they would say, ‘Why can’t you say reallocate?’” said Walker-Montgomery. “Our response was if you really want to address white supremacy then you have to get at the premise of it, which is keeping white people comfortable. We say defund because that’s what we mean.”
The same went for Minor-Spencer, who balked at the idea that she and her volunteers may have to water down their approach in order to appease those sensitive to the issue.
“What you are saying to me is my language is making you uncomfortable and you want me to rearrange what I have to say when all you have to do is ask, ‘What does that mean?’” said Minor-Spencer. “The Pittsburgh police budget was $100 million in 2018 and then went up to$114 million in 2020. So let’s talk about that extra $14 million and putting it into mental health services, or social services in schools. These are the things that we need while what you want is comfort.”
The political advocacy network Order of the Phoenix, which did a lot ofvoter engagement work in Pittsburgh’s predominantly white suburbs, did experience an uptick in volunteers of the summer months of protests, said Marie Norman, one of its leaders, but she couldn’t determine if that was from police demonstrations. In fact, the language around “defund/abolish” police actually made some of her volunteers nervous. However, she said she thought the protests “probably did get more people registered to vote, and that was good.”
Perhaps the crowning achievement was when the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to put out a statement against police violence and place Antwon Rose Jr.’s name on their helmets this season—no small matter given the Steelers’usual course ofavoiding political issues and their silence around Rose’s killing when it happened in 2018. Some of the Steelers players showed up for voter registration and early balloting events organized by PA Black Votes Matter and 1Hood. The professional athletes got involved due to an intervention from mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, the NFL, and Rose’s mother Michelle Kinney, who herself became anadvocate for police reform as a result of her son being killed.
“Once people began to not only protest, but take over the streets, take over these public safety buildings, these police departments, I don’t think we understood how powerful our vote was,” said Kinney. The protests “inspired a whole bunch of people to get involved in this election because we understood that the laws needed to change and that the people that we had in positions weren’t willing to make those changes. We finally came to the understanding that until these laws that allow these police officers to take these lives with no penalty — no accountability, nothing — were changed, we would be stuck.”
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