Fentress simply does not feel the same excitement or energy about the presidential election as she does about the protests, which were sparked this summer after George Floyd died in Minneapolis while in police custody. As members of Washington’s political establishment turned their attention this week to the spectacle of a vice-presidential reveal, the dozens of dutiful activists with Fentress in Detroit — where turnout will be critical for Biden — paid little attention.
Harris, a California senator of Jamaican and Indian descent, made history as the first woman of color to be chosen as a vice-presidential nominee by a major party. African American advocacy groups cheered Biden’s pick, which they saw as recognition that Black voters are a pillar of the Democratic Party. But the choice was greeted more skeptically by the party’s left flank, including many younger Black activists who have been critical of Harris’s record as a mainstream politician and former prosecutor.
Black representation in national politics matters, Fentress said, but what matters more is policies that address systemic racism.
She is not sure the Democrats have figured that out or that Harris changes that.
And yet, despite her skepticism toward the Democratic Party, she intends to cast a ballot for Biden and Harris in November — not because of Harris, but because of her disdain for President Trump.
“You know, I go down the streets and I see people lined up just for [donated] food. How is that normal? How is that right?” she said, pointing to wealth inequities between Black and White families that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. “Are we going to vote? Yes. It’s an obligation. It’s something that you should do . . . because right now, the president we have, we don’t want him in office.”
The lower-than-expected turnout in 2016 among Black voters in Detroit looms over the upcoming presidential election, said James Curenton, who is a pastor at the city’s Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ. A Democratic voter, Curenton regrets that he did not do more in 2016 to encourage his community to vote. Trump narrowly won Michigan, by about 11,000 votes.
“The blame has to go all around. We locally here as pastors could have gotten out 15,000 more folks to vote if it had been a priority. The Democratic Party could have made the vote in Detroit a major priority, which it did not. Hillary Clinton did not show up here,” he said.
Even as the church focuses on adjusting its programming for the pandemic and distributing hundreds of food boxes to struggling families, Curenton says he will organize phone banks and even canvassing in the fall.
This year, he said, he feels a personal responsibility to make sure his congregation of several hundred turns out to vote in November. It is a conversation happening among other pastors as well.
But he acknowledged that many Black voters, especially younger ones, feel alienated from the political process and have grown skeptical of the Democratic Party, in part because of failed promises to turn Detroit around. Their disillusionment, he worries, is self-defeating; he believes political strength rests on voting.
The protest movement, he said, has lit a fire in many Black communities, especially among young people, who are paying more attention, especially to local politics. He said he hopes that energy will be harnessed for the presidential election.
But there is also plenty of political skepticism and cynicism that community leaders like Curenton will have to battle.
The real work of creating social change, many activists said this week, was happening here on the streets of Detroit, not in Washington. On Wednesday, instead of watching Biden and Harris in their first joint appearance, dozens of protesters set up loudspeakers and passed out buttons that read “Black Women’s Lives Matter.” They took turns delivering impassioned orations about the civil rights movement they see unfolding in the United States.
Biden and even Harris almost seemed beside the point.
“I come out here basically every day they have it,” Parrish Saiter, 28, said of the protests,as “No justice, no peace” chants roared in the crowd.
For Saiter, the protests are a form of civic engagement that feels “more hands-on,” and likelier to accomplish change.
Saiter expressed skepticism over Biden’s efforts to reach Black voters, including adding Harris to the ticket.
“They did that so they could get the Black vote,” he said, explaining his concerns over Harris’s record as a prosecutor. “I have been to prison and the prison system makes the person worse. . . . It don’t rehabilitate.
“Yeah I’m going to vote. But I feel that Democrats and Republicans, they’re basically the same thing,” he said.
Saiter suggested that keeping Trump in office might benefit the movement because at least the president’s rhetoric draws attention to systemic problems that have existed for a long time.
His comments echoed other critiques of Harris’s claim that she was a “progressive prosecutor” in California. As California’s attorney general, Harris declined to support a bill that would have required her office to investigate fatal police shootings, commenting that it would take power away from local district attorneys who had systems in place to hold police officers accountable. She opposed a statewide standard for police officers to wear body cameras, again citing local authority.
Harris was also once a fierce advocate for anti-truancy laws that led to prosecution and even jail time for parents whose children missed too many school days, measures that critics at the time warned would disproportionately hurt low-income communities of color. She has since expressed regret over how the laws have been applied.
But many Black voters interviewed in Detroit this week said they have not been paying much attention to the presidential election, even if they disagree with Trump.
Ten miles north, Samyah Haynes, 20, said she’s not “too much into politics.” As she set up for her sister’s 6th-birthday party in Palmer Park, she said she had heard only a little bit about Harris. But having a Black woman on the ticket definitely makes it more interesting for her.
“Barack Obama said it was a good decision, and I trust Obama,” she said.
A group of six moms and aunts was gathered nearby watching their children chase one another and blowing bubbles. One of them, Lindsay Gray, 30, said she was thrilled to hear that Harris had been chosen as Biden’s running mate, especially as a Howard University graduate.
“Short of Michelle Obama actually running for president, I’m excited” by Harris, said Gray.
But she worried about the role sexism might play in the election: “A lot of men, they just are not going to vote for a woman, let alone a woman of color.”
She “got those inklings” after Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign, but she hopes the country has changed since then, especially given the anger in Black communities toward Trump.
Curenton, though, said he believes Black women will be crucial to get-out-the-vote efforts in November. Their excitement over Harris, he predicted, could be a boon for Democrats.
“And if Black women are excited, the Black men have to get excited, too. Black women still rule the roost, if truth be told, in the Black community,” Curenton said. “Senator Harris, her appointment for the African American community does one thing: It says that, okay, we were right. Uncle Joe will respond to us, will try to do something for us. He takes us seriously. And he did it not in words. Like what do you have to lose? He’s taken action.”
Ruble and Elmer reported from Detroit.