‘Justice is on the ballot’: how the Black Lives Matter movement is galvanising voter turnout

The Black Lives Matter organisation has launched a political action committee to support candidates, campaigns and legislation

FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2018, file photo, Patrisse Cullors poses for a photo on day three of Summit LA18 in Los Angeles. Black Lives Matter's influence faces a test, as voters in the Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, election consider candidates who endorsed or denounced the BLM movement amid a national reckoning on race. "We're a very young organization with a whole lot of visibility in a really short amount of time," Cullors, one of three BLM co-founders, told The Associated Press. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File)
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On June 6, 2020, half a million people marched across the US under the Black Lives Matter banner, in almost 550 locations. This renewed focus on racial injustice is driving some voters to the polls for the first time.

The summer of protests was sparked by the death of George Floyd, after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes in May. Americans took to the streets to protest against the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, also killed by police, and numerous other black people who were killed and did not receive justice.

Figures published by various data analytics firms, including the Kaiser Family Foundation and Civis Analytics, revealed that 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations during 2020, potentially making the recent Black Lives Matter protests the largest movement in the country’s history.

The Black Lives Matter movement has not only inspired the public to get involved in social justice matters, but has also galvanised Americans to vote, say organisers.

"More people came out of their houses to protest this year than they ever have in American history," Isaac Bryan, executive director of the UCLA Black Policy Project, told The National. "And that speaks to the magnitude and power and the reach of this movement."

Mr Bryan also co-chairs Yes on J, a Los Angeles ballot measure that has been put forward by Re-Imagine LA, a group of almost 200 non-profits that advocate for justice for people of colour.

The measure, which LA residents will also consider on election day would redirect 10 per cent of local controlled revenue – about $1 billion – to be reinvested into communities of colour and incarceration alternatives.

Mr Bryan says he has friends and family who have never voted in presidential elections before, but will be casting a vote in this election.

“This election is teaching people that your vote does matter,” he adds. “If people vote on Measure J and it passes in Los Angeles County, that was something that was definitely inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Black Lives Matter started just seven years ago, following the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman, a man later acquitted of the teen’s death – and who sued Martin’s family for $100 million.

Janaya Khan, the network’s international ambassador and co-founder of its Canadian branch, told the Associated Press: “I think over the past seven or eight years, so many people within Black Lives Matter have been asking what started out as questions that were only ever asked in academia – questions like, ‘What can we do about police brutality?’ and ‘What to do when we feel we can’t call the police?’

“So now in this time of pandemic, when so many people are experiencing a kind of precarity, one that so many black people already know intimately, there are questions that they’re asking and we have some answers that we can offer,” Ms Khan said.

Black Lives Matter has now made its foray in politics. Earlier this year it launched a political action committee to support candidates, campaigns and legislation.

“We want to be able to not just speak in ‘get out the vote’ language,” Patrisse Cullors, one of the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, told Politico at the time.

“Black Lives Matter is launching our PAC so we can talk directly to voters about who we think that they should be voting for and what we think they should be voting on.”

More than 91.6 million Americans have already voted to decide their president, surpassing a third of all ballots that were cast in the 2016 presidential election.

Jasmine Swift, 28, another Los Angeles-based activist, first marched in 2016, following the death of black man, Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by law enforcement during a police traffic stop.

"I went to my parents house to paint a sign and my Dad, who is 68 now, pulled me into a hug and apologised," she told The National. "He said something I'll never forget: 'Kid, I'm so sorry you're still having to march for the same things I did'. It broke my heart. I took his words with me that day and everyday since, they made my voice louder."

How the Electoral College system works

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Ms Swift said what was different about the movement this year was the diversity of people stepping up to support, of “all races and ethnicities".

Ms Swift also has friends voting for the first time. “I have always been passionate about voting but I’ve recently focused on trying to get as many people I know to vote,” she says.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has incentivised me to vote for all the brothers and sisters we've lost to police brutality and a corrupt, racist criminal justice system.”

It is not just getting out the vote. The Black Lives Matter organisation has hopes of introducing the Breathe Act, a bill drafted by the policy table of the Movement for Black Lives, into federal legislation. It was announced in July by Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

And if it continues to galvanise its supporter base, that Act may stand a very real chance of passing into law.

Either way, the Black Lives Matter movement appears to have done something few other campaigns have been able to do. The climate movement has long struggled with how to turn its millions of supporters, who are happy to march in the streets, into tangible action and turnout at the polls.

Since the first protest began in Minneapolis on May 26, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, the New York Times noted.

And, regardless of the outcome on November 3, it seems the Black Lives Matter movement is only just beginning.

“We are seeing something special, something different,” Mr Bryan adds, “and Black Lives Matter is an incredibly powerful contributor to this kind of mobilisation. This kind of engagement is unprecedented.

“Justice being on the ballot has become a cliché phrase, but this time, justice really is being voted on.”