As protesters marched through Brooklyn past curfew one night in early June, the young man holding the bullhorn at the front of the crowd kept repeating one date: June 23.
It wasn’t the date of George Floyd’s death. It was the date of the New York Democratic primary. “Nothing is going to change if we just protest,” explains Yahshiyah Vines, 19, who was leading the crowd. “All these people out here: use your emotions in the polls, use your emotions in the voting booth.”
The last few weeks have illustrated the power of the rising racial-justice movement in the wake of Floyd’s death. In less than a month, the protests have shifted public opinion on systemic racism, toppled high-profile executives and gathered momentum in their quest to defund police departments. The next few weeks and months will test whether the movement can translate its social and cultural might into political power.
The first test comes on June 23, when several young Black candidates who have aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement are running in competitive Democratic primaries. Those races could in some ways be a preview of the presidential election in November, when presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden hopes to ride strong turnout among African Americans to victory. The protests could be a political bonanza for Democrats, political strategists say, galvanizing its most reliable voting bloc and boosting voter registration. But it’s not yet clear whether the party is poised to take advantage, especially at the national level.
Already, the movement has fired up some voters. The progressive non-profit Rock The Vote registered 150,000 new voters in the first two weeks of June, the highest tally of any two-week period in the 2020 election cycle. And despite significant obstacles at the polls, Democrats in Georgia cast more than 1 million ballots in the state’s June 9 primary, breaking the record set in the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “People were in line for hours,” says Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, which registered hundreds of voters at Black Lives Matter protests ahead of the primary. “Can you imagine the strength, the resolve, the steely-eyed determination that folks are going to have when they go to the polls in November?”
The New Georgia Project is among a handful of organizations actively registering voters in person at protests around the country. But so far the effort to convert the energy of the movement into votes is spontaneous, localized and disjointed, much like the protests themselves. The most expansive national efforts are digital: The Collective PAC, aimed at building Black political power, has launched a new effort to collect cell phone data from protesters in order to serve them ads about registering to vote. Michael Bloomberg has given $2 million to the Collective PAC’s efforts to register 250,000 Black voters in key battleground states.
“It makes more sense to do it digitally, from a safety perspective,” says Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC. “We know who the unregistered African Americans are, we have their names, we have their address, we know the Black people who are purged, and we are targeting them specifically.” James says that in six days, more than 1,000 people have clicked on the ads the group has run through the geo-targeting effort.
National Democratic organizations, meanwhile, have been slow to capitalize on the movement’s energy. The DCCC and DSCC are not coordinating national efforts to register voters at protests, and the Biden campaign has not been actively registering demonstrators, according to spokespeople. Such an effort would be logistically difficult: many actions planned by local organizers are spontaneous and vaporous, operating outside the party structure, which makes it difficult to coordinate voter-registration efforts.
Above all, the protests are both a gift and a challenge for Biden, who has supported the movement’s goals without embracing activists’ more controversial demands. “This movement has politicized young Black voters in particular,” says LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which aims to register Black voters in overlooked areas. “They’re taking a much harder look at his record. And that doesn’t necessarily work in his favor.”
The former vice president, whose support among Black voters rescued his sinking campaign with a critical victory in South Carolina, has knelt with demonstrators, given a well-received speech about America’s long struggle against racial injustice and spoken at Floyd’s funeral. He has also touted his criminal justice reform plans, which include a $20 billion grant program to encourage states to move towards violence-prevention rather than incarceration, decriminalizing marijuana, ending cash bail, and using the power of the Justice Department to crack down on systemic misconduct in police departments. Since the protests, he has called for a ban on chokeholds and an end to qualified immunity as well as stopping the transfer of “weapons of war” to police departments. Yet he has rejected activists’ demands to “defund the police,” doubling down instead on his police reform plan that provides $300 million for community policing.
So far, the balancing act seems to be working: Trump’s attempts to paint him as a radical don’t appear to have stuck, while new polling has emerged suggesting that 58% of Americans oppose the call to “defund the police.” And Biden has maintained his solid lead in key battleground states. “What we say to young people is that we hear your concerns, we share your pain, we share your enthusiasm,” says Biden senior advisor Symone Sanders. “We have similar goals, we want change, we want police reform in this country, and I think we all agree that this moment has given us an opportunity to do just that.”
The next test of the Black Lives Matter movement’s political power comes June 23, when several states hold primaries featuring young black candidates. In New York’s 16th congressional district, which stretches from the Bronx up into lower Westchester, middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman is running to unseat 16-term Democratic incumbent Eliot Engel. In New York’s 17th district, Mondaire Jones is attempting to become the first openly gay Black member of Congress, competing in a crowded primary to replace a retiring Democrat. And in Kentucky, state Rep. Charles Booker is running against a well-funded opponent, Amy McGrath, for the Democratic nomination to take on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
All three candidates have explicitly aligned themselves with the movement. “We’ve centered racial and economic injustice from the very beginning of our campaign,” Bowman says of his bid to unseat Engel. “In terms of volunteers signing up to phone bank, people making contributions to the campaign, all that stuff has increased exponentially over the last several weeks.” It didn’t help that Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, has been a scarce presence in his district and recently was caught on a hot mic at a protest, saying that “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
In May, Bowman was getting roughly 30 to 40 volunteer signups a day, according to data provided by the campaign. Floyd died on May 25. By June 4, the number of volunteers had doubled; by June 10, it had tripled. Bowman raised nearly $265,000 in three days in early June—almost a third what he’d raised in the entire previous year. After endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, even more money flowed into his campaign. A week into June, he’d surpassed a million dollars.
Jones, an attorney who worked in the Obama Administration, says he’s also seen a significant increase in donations from the wealthier, whiter parts of his Westchester district. “I think what people have to come to grips with is that if they want to see racial justice, then they have to support progressive candidates like myself,” he says.
As for Booker, his family knew Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was shot and killed in March by cops executing a no-knock warrant. He’s become a fixture at the Kentucky marches demanding justice for her death. “Standing in the streets crying with people who are facing trauma, the same trauma I carry from cousins who have been murdered over the last four years, the Commonwealth has really taken note,” Booker says. “It has amounted to a big boost in fundraising, a big boost in support.”
Before the protests began, Booker was raising roughly $100,000 a month. He’s raised roughly $2 million in the month of June, according to his campaign, enough to fund an ad accusing McGrath of skipping the protests. He says he’s working to mobilize historically disenfranchised black voters in Kentucky with a volunteer network of hundreds of people across the state who hadn’t been involved in politics before. Before Memorial Day, his campaign averaged about 300 phone bank shifts a week, his campaign says; now they have more than 100 a day. “We get ignored, we get taken for granted, and the only time people talk to us is when they want us to vote for them and then they disappear on us,” he says. “We’re helping redefine what it means to be involved in politics.”
Polling remains scarce in Democratic congressional and Senate primaries, so it’s hard to tell which of these candidates is likely to prevail on the 23rd. According to one Data for Progress poll, Bowman now leads Engel by 10 points, including a 46-point lead with Black voters (the poll had a margin of error of roughly 5 points). A Public Policy Polling survey has Jones leading by more than 10 points in a crowded primary. The Booker campaign points to internal polling that shows him catching up to McGrath. But the true electoral impact of the movement won’t become clear until the votes are counted.
As younger Black men, candidates like Booker, Bowman and Jones can speak personally about the scourge of systemic racism and police brutality. Biden is a different matter. While he has a strong connection with many Black voters, some Democrats worry his unwillingness to meet the movements’ demands could cost him enthusiasm and votes. A coalition of more than 50 progressive groups recently wrote Biden a letter urging him to adjust his positions on policing, demanding he revise his platform to “ensure that the federal government permanently ends and ceases any further appropriation of funding to local law enforcement in any form.”
“You cannot win the election without the enthusiastic support of Black voters, and how you act in this moment of crisis will play a big role in determining how Black voters—and all voters concerned with racial justice—respond to your candidacy,” the groups wrote. “A ‘return to normalcy’ will not suffice.”
Veteran organizers say that while older Black voters are loyal Democrats who delivered Biden the nomination, the young activists flooding the streets are demanding more. “If Biden does not come correct, he’s going to take a hit,” says Brown of Black Voters Matter. “He needs Black folks and young folks. He cannot win without either.”
As Republican strategist Stuart Stevens points out, President Trump’s chances of winning spike if Democratic voters of color stay home. Stevens, who advised GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, notes that Ronald Reagan got 55% of the white vote in 1980 and won, while John McCain got 55% of the white vote in 2008 and lost, largely because nonwhite voters turned up for Obama. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost partly because of depressed Black turnout in big cities in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“If Biden can get nonwhite turnout up to what it was in ‘12, ‘08, or ‘04, he wins if everything else stays the same,” Stevens says. “He doesn’t need to win one more white voter.”
Ultimately, many activists say they plan to vote for Biden even if he doesn’t meet all of their demands. “A lot of people might feel disenchanted, but I also think it will make a lot of people go out and vote, because what else is there to do?” says Dara Hyacinthe, a 25-year old freelancer in Brooklyn. “It’s a two-pronged attack, really: you protest, and then you vote.”