America’s racial reckoning after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 occurred during the presidential election, highlighting a voting block of Black activists looking for engagement. As New Yorkers head to the polls in the city’s primary election, candidates are trying to get the attention of those who want real change.
A Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll last month ranked racial injustice as the fourth most important issue facing the city after COVID-19, affordable housing and crime. Candidates of all colors and levels proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the police” hope that doing so will increase their chances of winning.
Activist groups such as Black Lives Matter represent key voters who are often younger and looking for someone who aligns with their beliefs in social justice and racial equality.
BLM was responsible for registering thousands of new voters in 2020 who marched the streets and eventually marched to the polls. In the first 15 days of June 2020, 1.1 million Americans registered to vote with a sharp increase in the number of people registering as Democrats, according to political data firm TargetSmart.
After the ousting of former Republican President Donald Trump and the election of Democratic President Joe Biden, new voters are being encouraged to keep the momentum going by participating in municipal elections.
According to the African American Research Collaborative, discrimination and racial injustice was the second most important issue for Black voters during the 2020 presidential election. Over 75% of respondents think racism and discrimination against Blacks increased over the last four years. An American University survey labeled young Black Americans as “key 2020 swing voters.”
“Whether in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, or Atlanta, Black voters showed up in huge numbers to turn this country around and remove the racist in the White House,” said BLM Global Network spokesperson Sean Wherley. “What is abundantly clear is Black voters were the factor that tipped the scales in favor of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, especially in Rust Belt battleground states.”
Fast forward seven months later and New York City candidates are trying to get a piece of the action. One recent example is white mayoral candidate and former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who was arrested last month in lower Manhattan during a protest commemorating Floyd’s death. Donovan was wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt at the time.
Fekina Miller, who serves as senior coordinator for the organization Black Votes Matter, says acts like this are “tricky” in attracting Black votes. She said, if elected, candidates should expect to be held accountable.
“Folks who are truly concerned about the community and care about the community are going to always be in the community,” said Miller. “Don’t come to my community just for election time and try to get my vote and then not deliver on the campaign promises that you made. Activists don’t always believe in the system. Getting an activist to engage can sometimes be harder than a person who amplifies what the activists are saying or someone who is organizing activists to take action.”
In an interview with the AmNews, BLM Greater NY (BLMNY) chairperson Hawk Newsome said that when candidates say “Black Lives Matter,” their track record can determine whether or not they mean it. Newsome points out that several mayoral candidates who have said “Black Lives Matter” have been in positions of city government to foster real change but have failed.
BLMNY’s political arm, the Black Lives Caucus (GNYBLC), interviewed 100 candidates throughout the city looking for their support. The caucus ended up endorsing 18 candidates. Newsome said no mayoral candidate has reached out to the Black Lives Matter movement and the group has launched a social media campaign to discourage people from ranking certain candidates.
“People who support our movement believe in working for a cause,” Newsome said. “If we don’t feel like there’s a worthy candidate, we won’t vote. We won’t just support people and there’s no strategic goal for us. Almost everyone we endorsed was involved in activism in one way or another. The best way to engage these voters is by being the closest thing to authentic and you can do that through your past work.”
In April, Mario Rosser, who’s running for Harlem’s District 9 City Council seat, was endorsed by the GNYBLC. He said his vision for District 9 aligns with BLMNY.
“This powerful movement has inspired Black men and women to continue fighting for equality, despite the injustices we experience daily,” Rosser said. “Having the GNYBLC’s endorsement inspires me to push even harder to ensure Harlem’s culturally rich history isn’t erased but celebrated.”
Brooklyn Assemblymember Charles Barron says speaking out against racism is popular and candidates know that doing so can appeal to certain voters. Barron was an activist and remains involved in activism while serving as a politician.
“Most of us in the activist community are pretty intelligent,” he said. “We know when you’re phony and we know that it means nothing to you. This always happens every election when they try to reach out to a block of activists voters. They would have no problem if they would have been involved in the activist community in the first place. Oftentimes, elected officials see activism and electoral politics as two separate things. Technically, they are.”