The Sunday brunch was packed as the sounds of Beyoncé and Drake blared from the sound system set up in the corner, as attendees nibbled chicken and waffles and downed mimosas.
Those gathered last weekend in a third-floor workspace in downtown Washington set their plates in front of open laptop screens. Forks in one hand, they sent flurries of text messages to voters with the other. Every few minutes — ding ding ding — a ringing bell signaled that another 1,000 voters had been contacted.
In recent weeks, the Color of Change PAC, the political arm of the decade-old civil rights group, has held nearly 90 such text-a-thons across the country, during which volunteers send scripted text messages to black voters in key electoral battlegrounds. Those messages (3.5 million sent, reaching at least 1.5 million voters) aim to both educate and engage black voters in crucial presidential swing states, contested Senate races and a smattering of local district attorney races that activists believe crucial to advancing criminal justice reform.
The efforts are among the largest underway by any of the groups associated with the Black Lives Matter protest movement aimed at swaying today’s elections — a concerted voter education and get-out-the-vote apparatus embedded within a movement whose figureheads have been at times reluctant to engage in electoral politics.
“We are not here to ride for any individual candidate, we’re not here to ride for any political party,” said Rashad Robinson, spokesman for the PAC and executive director of Color of Change, after he paused the music and addressed the crowd. “We’re here to build independent black political power. The type of power that holds whoever is in office accountable, that translates our presence in our world into the power to change the rules.”
In a method similar to that employed by Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign, volunteers are each given 500 names and numbers at a time and, using a custom computer interface, type personalized text messages to voters. In early voting states if they had cast their ballots, and others if they knew who they planned to support in the presidential and Senate races.
Even more specifically, the outreach has focused on black voters in four local district attorneys races, where the civil rights group hopes it can amplify on the ground work by local organizations to oust tough-on-crime prosecutors and see them replaced with reformers, which for years has been a major focus of protest groups.
“They are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice space,” said Robinson, who noted that of the more than 2,300 elected prosecutors, nearly 95 percent are white and about 85 percent of them run for reelection unopposed. “They will determine whether someone gets a misdemeanor or a felony, whether a police officer is held accountable, whether or not someone in your family or someone you love and care about is given the benefit of the doubt.”
Hoping to build on Democratic primary wins in prosecutor’s races in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and Orlando — in which local and national activists helped topple incumbents — the Color of Change campaign has targeted prosecutor’s races in Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Tampa, and Houston.
While Robinson says he doesn’t expect his group’s preferred candidates to be victorious in every race, he stresses that by engaging voters on criminal justice issues as they pertain to specific races, activists are empowering themselves to better hold local prosecutors accountable no matter who wins.
“The district attorney is one of the most powerful positions in local government,” said Tasha Jackson, an organizer with the Texas Organizing Project, which has released a platform of criminal justice reforms and is campaigning on behalf of Kim Ogg, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Devon Anderson in the county that includes Houston.
Jackson, who has been an organizer for criminal and juvenile justice reform for 15 years, says that it was only in recent years — as high-profile deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police turned attention to how rarely officers are charged or convicted — did she realize how vital it was that political pressure be applied to prosecutors’ races.
“We’ve been fighting these fights for so long, but for too long the district attorneys races have been overlooked,” she said.
Activists in Harris County and elsewhere are hoping to emulate victories in Cook County, Ill.; Orlando; St. Louis, and Cleveland, where prosecutors with tough on crime reputations and central roles in the prosecutions, or lack thereof, in high-profile, racially charged cases have been booted from office in recent months.
Many are quick to reference the primary defeat of Anita Alvarez in Cook County, which came not long after the release of the video showing the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, which she and other local officials had withheld from the public for more than a year. Amid outrage at the handling of the case, Alvarez received just 29 percent of the vote, losing the March primary to challenger Kim Foxx. In a similar effort, activist groups in Cleveland worked to turn out voters to oust Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who was criticized for his handling of the shooting death in 2014 of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was playing with a toy gun when a police officer shot him to death.
With Foxx expected to win today’s general election, activists nationwide view the Chicago race as a model of how rage in the streets can be siphoned into direct power at the ballot box that drives reform.
“We were seeing a ton of direct actions and people taking to the street but we know that doesn’t necessarily always translate to people at the polls,” said D’Angelo Bester, executive director of the Chicago Worker’s Center for Racial Justice, who said a coalition of local activist groups contacted about 100,000 black and Latino voters in Cook County in advance of the primary. “So we contacted voters we contacted voters, asked them who were they supporting, and if they would be willing to vote for Kim Foxx.”
There was much discussion at the beginning of the presidential race about what, if any, role the national protest movement around policing and criminal justice would play in the contest. Democratic candidates, including the eventual nominees Hillary Clinton, eagerly sought audience with many of the young activists. Candidates of both parties found their rallies interrupted by protesters waving signs and screaming chants.
The #BlackLivesMatter network, a collective of dozens of BLM chapters as well as allied organizations, said early in the cycle that they were not planning to endorse any candidate in the presidential race. Exit polls following the Democratic primaries showed that, despite two years of vocal black political activism, young black voters were not voting at rates higher than they did in 2008, when Barack Obama first appeared on the presidential ballot.
“Many young black voters are not as engaged as maybe they have been in years past,” said the Rev. Cassandra Gould, who has been mobilizing voters in Missouri to vote against Amendment Six, a ballot measure that would allow the state to institute new voter ID laws. “But it’s our belief that local issues matter and that it’s those local issues that will help keep people engaged.”
Concerned, at least in part, that the young black men and women whose protests seized the nation’s attention for the past several years may be disillusioned and sit out today’s presidential election, several prominent activists such as Deray Mckesson and Brittany Packnett publicly declared their personal support for Clinton.
Bester, 40, like many of the organizers associated with the broader protest movement, says he is disillusioned by the choices in the presidential contest. The fact that Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the primary, partly because of black voters, makes him “sick to my stomach.” But, he notes, his organization’s and his own personal get-out-the-vote efforts have continued.
“We’ve been telling folks that, you may not like Hillary, but there are other races in this state that you need to turn out for,” he said. “The key is going to be building political power around these issues that we can turn into momentum during off-year elections, too.”
That aim — building political power — has been at the center of Color of Change’s mission since its founding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, activists found themselves dismayed by the poor government response, which Robinson describes as no one in the government “being afraid to disappoint black people.”
In the years since, the group has formed powerful membership campaigns, launching and executing efforts aimed at voter mobilization, fundraising and pressuring corporations to both improve their diversity practices and withhold funding, advertising and partnerships from media companies whose coverage has been racially insensitive or inflammatory. Earlier this year, the group’s PAC pressured sponsors to pull out of the Republican National Convention, and in recent years has been involved in the national push for police and criminal justice reform — arguing that by engaging voters on criminal justice issues, they will be able to force otherwise reluctant prosecutors to adopt reforms or face political ouster.
“I think the movement has influenced the conversation and the broader presidential election in how it has raised the visibility of the issue of state violence and mass incarceration,” said Arisha Hatch, executive director of the Color of Change Political Action Committee. “It seems to me that there is a clear choice at the top of the ticket, but it’s the local races that can have more of an impact on the daily lives of black people.”