The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests the likes of which the nation has never seen – more than 15 million people marched this summer in the name of justice for blacks. No wonder, then, that when voters cast their votes in November, they still thought of the rally in the streets.
According to preliminary data from AP VoteCast, a comprehensive poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the Associated Press, about a fifth of all voters said protests against racial justice were the number one factor influencing the election.
But just like Americans' views on mask wear or social distancing, the protests have become a politically divisive issue – 53 percent of those voters voted for Biden, 46 percent for Trump. Some conservative voters focused on the low percentage of looting and vandalism related to the riots, calling the protests "childish," according to interviews with the New York Times, while progressive and first-time voters were inspired by the radical change movement.
In the end, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests shaped the election results: many organizers tried to get the people to vote, with black voters turning out in droves despite the obstacles in suppressing voters. Black voters also helped flip key battlefield states like Georgia and Pennsylvania to vote for Joe Biden, while voters in cities across the country approved election actions to make police accountable.
Despite these victories, activists and democratic voters say there is still much to be done. Patrisse Cullors – one of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi – says that this work must remain constant and diverse.
"We'll use protests," Cullors told Vox. "We will also use our power and the halls of power to ensure that change takes place."
That includes setting up a political action committee to raise funds for the election and defeat of candidates – a big step for a grassroots organization like Black Lives Matter. In the meantime, organizers in cities across the country – the movement does not have a single leader – will continue to mobilize local communities to fight police violence.
I spoke with Cullors about how the protests affected the elections, how Americans can address the political divide in this country, and what to expect from the organization in the new Biden Harris administration. Our conversation was easily edited for length and clarity.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the presidential election. Democrats turned key battlefield states around. Tell me about the impact the Black Lives Matter movement and protests had on voting this summer.
We really wanted to get the energy off the streets this summer and put it in the ballot box. Through our massive, multi-million dollar get-out-the-vote efforts alone, we texted 6 million new voters. We partnered with the Hamilton casts to create videos with postal voting instructions.
We worked with a live creative agency called Trap Heals, where we ran get-out-the-vote drive-in events in California, Michigan, and Georgia. We also launched a Dear White People campaign, which examined how the GOP tried to paint Black Lives Matter in a negative light. That's why we've run ads across the Midwest to fight the demonization of Black Lives Matter.
Most of our work during this election cycle has been very practical. Through our PAC, we have committed 6,000 volunteers for 10,000 shifts to the telephone bank in battlefield states. We knocked on thousands of doors in Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and Atlanta to get registered voters to vote on election day.
We have also supported candidates from the president to the school board. We've spent much of our time focusing on electives that fight for blacks' lives and working with black voters – and especially new black voters – to get them out and really teach them how to use postal ballot papers.
Tell me more about the Black Lives Matter PAC and what it's currently focusing on. I know that one of the states where black voters helped Joe Biden go blue was Georgia – and much of it with the help of black women organizers. What are your current efforts to get the Georgia Senate runoff election that will determine which party has the majority?
For our PAC, we will focus all our efforts on Georgia for the Senate runoff elections. We're coordinating a coalition of black-run organizations to make sure we work together and pool all of our resources in the best possible way. We'll be doing phone banking, texting, knocking on doors, running ads on digital and television to not only replicate but improve November's record turnout.
We are so grateful for the work of Stacey Abrams, Nsé Ufot, LaTosha Brown and their respective organizations for the groundwork that they have done in Georgia. So we just want to build with them and continue to build on them. Georgia will decide who controls the Senate, and if we win we will have the political environment for progressive and positive ideas on the legislative agenda. We know elected officials and our current system are not a magical solution to bringing blacks closer to freedom, but it is an important part.
How do you see Black Lives Matter's relationship with the upcoming Biden administration? Tell me about the types of laws the organization wants to promote.
Black Lives Matter's Global Network Foundation sent a letter to Biden and Harris asking to meet. We did that on the day they were announced as Vice-President-Elect and President-Elect. We look forward to having this meeting with you directly to discuss our agenda. We believe we need laws that affirm and value black lives. It could be comprehensive and intersectional.
During the summer riot, our movement merged with the Black Lives movement when we wrote the BREATHE Act. We see it as a modern civil rights law and the legislative love letter to blacks.
The BREATHE Act actually offers a complete redesign of public safety, it provides community care, and it really re-evaluates how we spend money as a society, especially for the most marginalized parts of our communities.
There has been investment in non-punitive and non-carcinogenic approaches to community safety – and there is a real attempt to downsize the current criminal justice system that has completely decimated blacks. The BREATHE Act focuses on protecting the lives of black people, including black mothers, black transsexuals, black women, and black men. So that will be a central part of our work.
Some of the electoral victories were police reform election measures, but most are nowhere near as radical as defusing the police. What can we expect from the upcoming votes in the future? What are you doing with it?
We will work to support the implementation of Action J, which is located here in Los Angeles County. The police are not disappointed, but that is an over-simplification. In fact, Los Angeles only allows one non-criminal system to be funded.
And while it may not disappoint the police in the short term, in the long run it offers us an opportunity to show elected officials that police and incarceration don't work. And if we could show them by proving it to them by investing in communities, then police social service is actually going to be a shrinking system.
Black Lives Matter has been around for over seven years. Tell me what it's been like to see a shift this summer – white people in suburbs and small towns are actually singing "Black Lives Matter" and putting signs in their windows – and can we hold on to that shift?
Yeah, I think we can hold on to it as long as we fight for it. We know that when the GOP began realizing the power of the Black Lives Matter just this election year, it was haunted us. You demonized us. And so we saw the number of whites who, because of the polls, stopped defending Black Lives Matter. We need people who do not allow scare tactics to prevent them from being allies of our movement. We need them to see the need for this movement.
The political divide in this country is still huge – from wearing masks, misinformation in elections, views on policing, to national protests this summer. How is Black Lives Matter working to fill the void? How are other people supposed to fill this gap?
Our elected officials are divided on many points, but when you talk about division I think that one of the main problems is access to our democracy. We keep people out of the system, especially blacks and browns and people on low incomes. So in the end we have a political system that has this artificial divide when it doesn't.
We look at the electoral college, where votes in Wyoming count far more than votes in California, which makes little sense outside of the racist structure of the electoral college.
The filibuster lets a senator stop laws that the majority approve. Our current judicial system is full of ultra-conservatives ready to remove voting rights and health care, and who are now actively speaking out against abortion rights and queer and trans rights. I think a lot about voter ID laws and other forms of oppression that keep people of color from voting inappropriately. And the most obvious is our two-party system, which increases these political divisions. We need an additional political party or more for poor and black and brown working class families.
The unfortunate reality is that the system is silencing people's voices and our government is working worse. What Black Lives Matter really calls for is real democracy – a democracy that creates a progressive agenda that allows everyone in this country to enjoy the fruits of democracy.
Clearly, with a Biden Harris victory, the job is not done and there is no magical solution to systemic racism. What kind of short-term and long-term changes and reforms do you think people should focus on in everyday life when it comes to racial justice and the accountability of the police and elected officials?
Keep fighting on the spot. The work at the local level is the most important work. What we do at the local level affects the national work. Our Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter PAC will continue to work to build a world where all black lives play a role. When it comes to getting the movement into the halls of power, we're especially excited when people like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, who are part of the movement, take that step into the political arena.
I just want to pick up Cori Bush because she is a perfect example of the kind of people we need inside of us. She walked off the street and now she's in Congress and she represents us without an apology. Our movement will never lie to people and say to put that person in office and whatever you have asked for will come true because that is not true. History has shown us that. If it were, Black Lives Matter wouldn't have to exist.
What we believe is we have to be on the streets to organize a better future for our people. It's about creating a political environment. It's about creating a social and a cultural environment. Sometimes we have terrible candidates – and we can't stop fighting. We have to fight for change. We saw that we essentially lived in purgatory in this country for four years because Donald Trump did something to marginalized people. But our movement didn't stop fighting. We didn't take the baton off because we had a fascist in office. In fact, we have gotten stronger – so we see ourselves able to maintain that strength and build that strength.
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