From Protest to Power, Black Lives Matter Movement Wins at the Ballot Box
Presidential delegates weren’t the only thing at stake on Tuesday as primary ballots were counted in five states.
The Black Lives Matter movement has claimed its biggest political victories to date, unseating the top prosecutors in both Chicago and Cleveland, where many voters took their frustrations with policing to the ballot box. In Chicago, Anita Alvarez, the embattled Cook County prosecutor who took a year to file charges against a police officer who shot 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald 16 times, faced a defeat at 2–1 margins. In Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty lost after facing criticism for failing to indict two officers in the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Many had questioned whether an amorphous movement like Black Lives Matter, which comprises multiple factions and is spread all over the country, could wield power at the polls without endorsing a particular candidate. While voter turnout was slightly lower than expected for Cleveland's rainy Election Day, officials in Chicago were calling the early voting numbers in their city huge, with 60,000 more votes being cast than in 2008.
"Let this be a warning to prosecutors across the country. In the era of the dash cam and the camera phone, everything comes to light," Van Jones told TakePart.
The activist and CNN commentator who cofounded "cut50," an initiative working to reduce the prison population in half over the next 10 years, was particularly pleased with Alvarez's defeat. "I am very glad that a crooked, cowardly, and corrupt district attorney paid a price for trying to cover up a blatant murder by a police officer," Jones said.
Tuesday’s wins are being seen as proof that black activism is helping shape American politics this election season, said Dream Hampton, a writer and longtime activist who works with several groups and campaigns, including "Free America," a campaign founded by singer John Legend to work to reform the criminal justice system.
RELATED: #BLM Speaks—How I Became an Activist
“It should remind all of us about how leader-full this movement is. In the mainstream media there have been attempts to narrow this down to one or two people, but this is a leader-full, dispersive movement, and this is the fruits of their labor,” Hampton told TakePart.
Though the movement’s founders have been adamant about not endorsing candidates, some of its most well-known figures have chosen to engage directly with the political process. DeRay McKesson, an activist who came to national prominence during the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, recently announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s mayoral race. The mothers of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner have sided with Hillary Clinton. New York Daily News writer and activist Shaun King has been an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders.
Mariame Kaba worked to defeat Alvarez through a series of direct actions. The founder of Project Nia, an organization that promotes community-based justice, organized large-scale protests, while groups like Assata's Daughters hung #ByeAnita banners throughout the city.
“Local organizers have demonstrated the power to move people and therefore to successfully impact elections,” Kaba says. But she cautions against minimizing the years-long, ongoing work of many different groups. “I do think that it's important not to subsume all black organizing under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter. There is a network called Black Lives Matter, and there is a broader movement for Black Liberation that encompasses many different organizations that predate the creation of the network.”
In that sense, the no-vote of these activists has proved as powerful as an endorsement. As seen in this election's call to remove prosecutors and protesters demonstrating to say no, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump cannot bring his campaign to Chicago without facing considerable opposition.
McKesson acknowledges that his transition from outspoken anti–police violence advocate to mayoral candidate has drawn critics who accuse him of selling out, but he argues it’s necessary to have a multipronged approach to change.
“This work requires we press from the outside and also change from the inside. It’s not an either/or,” McKesson told TakePart. “I don’t buy this idea [of transitioning from] protest to politics because protest is political.”
Alvarez’s failed bid at a third term as Chicago’s top prosecutor is a prime example of the inside-outside strategy McKesson believes is necessary to achieve reform. While incumbents are traditionally hard to beat, many of Chicago’s residents and elected officials called for Alvarez’s ouster after it took her a year to charge the officer who shot 17-year-old McDonald 16 times, despite dash-cam video of the incident. McGinty met a similar fate in Ohio after refusing to indict two police officers in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Rice, who was fired on seconds after police arrived on the scene.
Kim Foxx, the former assistant state’s attorney who trounced Alvarez, vowed to put an end to the "the tough-on-crime boogeyman approach" that disproportionately incarcerates Chicago’s black and brown youths. In Ohio, Mike O'Malley, who beat McGinty, promised to return to a “community-based prosecution model” and change the way officer-involved shootings are investigated and prosecuted.
During her victory speech, Foxx promised to “turn the page” and begin instituting changes at Cook County’s prosecutor’s office.
"The work is just beginning, and our struggles here are very real,” she said Tuesday night in Chicago. “The need to rebuild a broken criminal justice system here in Cook County is not work that should be taken lightly.”
Tuesday night's wins should also put elected officials across the nation on notice.
“Over the last few years, we’ve watched the development of a powerful grassroots movement in response to prosecutors who have failed to hold police and vigilantes accountable when they have killed black people,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “As great as the victory of unseating Anita Alvarez is for the people of Chicago, we are just getting started. Alvarez is only one of the worst of the worst, and we will continue to hold bad prosecutors accountable.”