Justice movement urges black voters to oust bad prosecutors on election day
DC Pittman reckons he has knocked on more than 1,000 doors in the past two weeks. Perhaps as many as 1,500. “Let’s get these people to go vote,” he said with obvious relish before heading off to Houston’s Third Ward.
The 24-year-old works as a canvasser for the Texas Organizing Project, a not-for-profit advocacy group aiming to boost turnout among minorities.
Though recent polls depicted Texas as a battleground state, it is still very likely to favour Trump over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, on 8 November. But Pittman and others are trying to generate enthusiasm in African American communities with a pitch that is not necessarily focused on the race for the White House.
In Harris County – which, with about 4.4 million residents, is more populous than 24 US states – a Democrat may be about to oust a Republican in a highly influential position: the county prosecutor.
A University of Houston poll last month gave Kim Ogg a lead of seven percentage points over the incumbent district attorney, Devon Anderson. She was appointed by former Texas governor Rick Perry in 2013 to succeed her husband, Mike, who died of cancer, and beat Ogg in an election the following year.
But Anderson’s office has been beset by controversies including the jailing of a rape victim to ensure she would testify against her attacker, accusations that Anderson stoked racial tensions after a white sheriff’s deputy was shot dead by a mentally ill black man, and complaints that she has not introduced truly transformative reforms to a system that critics say treats low-income, low-level offenders unfairly.
“I explain to them how important it is to not just vote presidential but to vote for your locals as well,” said Tarasha Hollis, who oversees a team of 12 canvassers paid $12.50 an hour. Hollis and Pittman said that one of the key issues for potential black voters is criminal justice; specifically, crime rates and police brutality.
Along with the Organizing Project’s phone banks and door-to-door operations, a separate new national digital campaign is also aiming to eject Anderson. The #VotingWhileBlack initiative is harnessing technology in an effort to increase African American voter engagement in notable contests across the country.
In addition to the race for Harris County district attorney, #VotingWhileBlack is focusing on elections of prosecutors in Ohio and Florida in targeted attempts to replace officials they feel have poorly served black communities.
“We’re the most incarcerated country and that didn’t happen overnight or by mistake, it happened by a whole set of decisions that are made every day, and the most powerful actors in the criminal justice space are district attorneys,” said Rashad Robinson, a civil rights activist and spokesman for Color of Change Pac, which is backing the campaign.
“They determine whether or not police are held accountable but they also determine every day whether or not someone gets a misdemeanor or a felony, whether someone gets a second chance, whether someone’s bail is set extremely high.”
In Harris County, Robinson argued, the district attorney has failed to institute progressive reforms and maintained old-fashioned tough-on-crime policies that unduly penalize communities of color. A spokesperson for Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.
To educate voters and encourage them to head to the ballot box, #VotingWhileBlack has taken inspiration from some of the successful outreach tactics of the Bernie Sanders campaign, including the use of text messaging.
“We’ve bought the access to black folks’ cellphones through the voter file and then coordinated that through the voter file to be able to identify registered black voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and also adding in the Harris County district attorney race,” Robinson said.
He said the initiative has sent more than 2.2m text messages and attracted nearly 1,500 volunteers for events such as “text-a-thons”, where attendees try to engage possible voters in text conversations.
The ultimate aim is to take a data-driven approach that will harness the kind of energy seen in the Black Lives Matter movement to achieve political change in local communities. Prosecutors in Cleveland and Chicago who drew criticism for their handling of fatal police shootings of African Americans were defeated earlier this year.
In August, Angela Corey, a state attorney in the Jacksonville area who was behind a number of harsh sentences and did not get a conviction in the George Zimmerman case, lost her GOP primary to a relative unknown.
“We’re gonna win some of these races around the country, we’re gonna lose some. What we will change is that district attorneys will no longer get a free pass. For far too long, district attorneys could go off and do whatever they want, they could decide they were going to serve the police alone and not the community, they were just going to serve moneyed interests and not the wider community,” Robinson said.
A study last year found that 95% of elected prosecutors in the US were white.
Success, Robinson said, will be a shift in the balance of power that makes elected officials “nervous about disappointing black people”.
This story originally appeared 11/3/2016 in The Guardian.