The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor set off protests like the nation has never seen — more than 15 million people marched in the name of justice for Black lives this summer. So it’s no surprise that the rallying cry out on the streets was still on voters’ minds when they cast their ballot in November.
According to preliminary data from AP VoteCast, a comprehensive survey conducted for the Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, roughly a fifth of all voters said the racial justice protests were the single most important factor when voting in the election.
But just like Americans’ views on wearing a mask or social distancing, the protests have become a politically divisive issue — 53 percent of those voters went for Biden, 46 percent voted for Trump. Some conservative voters focused on the small percentage of looting and vandalism associated with the unrest, calling the protests “childish,” according to interviews conducted by the New York Times, while progressives and first-time voters were inspired by the movement to make radical change.
In the end, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests shaped the results of the election: Many organizers worked to get people out to vote, with Black voters turning out in droves, despite obstacles of voter suppression. Black voters also helped flip key battleground states like Georgia and Pennsylvania to elect Joe Biden, while voters in cities across the country approved ballot measures on police accountability.
Still, despite these wins, there is much work to be done, according to both activists and Democratic voters. Patrisse Cullors — one of three women founders of Black Lives Matter, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — says this work must remain constant and varied.
“We are going to use protests,” Cullors told Vox. “We’re also going to use our power, and the halls of power to make sure change happens.”
This includes launching a political action committee to raise funds to elect and defeat candidates — a big step for a grassroots organization like Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, organizers in cities and towns across the country — the movement has no single leader — will continue to mobilize local communities in the fight against police violence.
I spoke with Cullors about how the protests impacted 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 has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the presidential election. Democrats flipped key battleground states. Tell me about the impact the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests this summer, had on getting people out to vote.
We really wanted to galvanize the energy from the streets this summer and move it to the ballot box. Just through our massive, multi-million dollar Get-Out-The-Vote efforts, we’ve texted 6 million new voters. We partnered with the Hamilton casts to make absentee ballot instructional videos.
We worked with a live creative agency called Trap Heals, where we did Get-Out-The-Vote drive-in events in California, Michigan, and Georgia. We also started a “Dear White People” campaign, looking at the way in which the GOP was trying to paint Black Lives Matter in a negative light, so we started to run ads across the Midwest to combat the demonization of Black Lives Matter.
Most of our work during this election cycle was very much hands-on. Through our PAC, we signed 6,000 volunteers for 10,000 shifts to phone-bank in battleground states. We’ve knocked on thousands of doors in Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and Atlanta to bring registered voters to polls on Election Day.
We also endorsed candidates up and down the ballot from the president down to the school board. We spent a lot of our time focused on electives who are going to fight for Black lives and working with Black voters — and new Black voters, in particular — to get them out and to really teach them on how to use mail-in ballots.
Tell me more about the Black Lives Matter PAC and what it’s currently focused on. I know one of the states that Black voters helped flip blue for Joe Biden was Georgia — and much of that was with the help of Black women organizers. What are your current efforts for the Senate runoff in Georgia, which will dictate which party has the majority?
For our PAC, we are going to focus all of our efforts on Georgia for the Senate runoff elections. We’re coordinating a coalition of Black-led organizations to ensure we’re working together and putting all of our resources together in the best way possible. We’ll be phone banking, texting, knocking doors, running ads in digital and TV to help not just replicate but improve upon the record turnout we saw in November.
We are so grateful for the work of Stacey Abrams, Nsé Ufot, LaTosha Brown, and their respective organizations for the groundwork that they’ve done in Georgia. So we want to just build with them and continue to build off of that. Georgia will decide who controls the Senate, and if we win, then we’ll have the political environment for progressive and affirmative legislative agenda ideas. We know that elected officials, and our current system, isn’t a magic fix to getting Black people 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 legislation the organization wants to push.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation sent a letter to Biden and Harris requesting a meeting. We did that the day they were announced as the Vice President-elect and President-elect. So we’re looking forward to having that meeting with them directly to discuss our agenda. We believe that we need legislation that affirms and values Black lives. It could be comprehensive and intersectional.
During the uprising in the summer, our movement came together with the movement for Black Lives when we wrote the BREATHE Act. We see it as a modern-day civil rights bill and the legislative love letter to Black people.
The BREATHE Act actually offers a complete reimagining of public safety, it offers community care, and it really reevaluates how we spend money as a society, especially towards the most marginalized parts of our communities.
It’s invested in non-punitive and non-carceral approaches to community safety — and it’s really trying to shrink the current criminal legal system that has completely decimated Black people. The BREATHE Act centers the protection of Black lives, including Black mothers, Black trans people, Black women, and Black men. So that is going to be a central piece of our work.
Some of the wins this election were ballot measures on police reform, but most of them aren’t nearly as radical as defunding the police. What can we expect to see in the future on upcoming ballots? What is some of the work you’re doing around that?
We’ll be working to support the implementation of Measure J, which is here in Los Angeles County. It doesn’t defund police, but that’s an oversimplification. What it does is actually allow for Los Angeles to fund solely a non-punitive system.
And while in the short term, it may not defund the police, in the long term, it offers us an opportunity to show elected officials that policing and incarceration don’t work. And if we could show them by proving it to them, by investing in communities, then, in fact, the social service of policing will be a shrinking system.
Black Lives Matter has been around for over seven years now. Tell me what it was like to see a shift this summer — white people in suburbs and small towns actually chanting “Black Lives Matter” and putting signs in their windows — and is that shift something we can hold on to?
Yes, I think that we can hold on to it as long as we fight for it. We know that once the GOP started to see the power of Black Lives Matter, especially in this election year, they went after us. They demonized us. And so we saw the number of white people that stopped defending Black Lives Matter based on the polls. We need people to not allow for fear-mongering to stop them from being allies of our movement. We need them to see the necessity of this movement.
The political divide in this country is still so stark — from wearing masks to election misinformation to views on policing to even the nationwide protests this summer. How is Black Lives Matter working to cover the gap? How should other folks fill that divide?
Our elected officials are divided on a lot, but when you talk about division, I think one of the main issues is access to our democracy. We’re keeping people out of the system, primarily Black and brown and low-income folks, so what we end up with is a political system that has this artificial divide when that’s not actually the case.
We’re looking at the Electoral College that makes votes in Wyoming count way more than votes in California, which makes very little sense outside of the racist structure of the Electoral College.
The filibuster lets one senator hold up legislation that the majority agrees upon. Our current court system is packed with ultra-conservatives who are willing to strike down voting rights, health care, and is now actively hostile towards abortion rights, and queer and trans rights. I’m thinking a lot about voter ID laws, and other forms of suppression that keep people of color from voting at disproportionate rates. And the most obvious is our two-party system that reinforces these political divides. We need an additional political party or more for poor and working-class, Black and brown families.
The unfortunate reality is the system keeps people’s voices silenced, and it makes our government work worse. What Black Lives Matter is really calling for is real democracy — a democracy that creates a progressive agenda that allows for everybody inside of this country to enjoy the fruits of democracy.
With a Biden-Harris win, clearly the work is not yet done and there’s no magic fix to systemic racism. What kind of short-term and long-term changes and reforms do you think everyday people should focus on when it comes to racial justice and holding the police and elected officials accountable?
Keep fighting locally. The work at the local level is the most important work. What we do at the local level impacts the national work. Our Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter PAC are going to keep doing the work to build a world where all Black lives matter. When it comes to bringing the movement to the halls of power, we are particularly thrilled to see folks like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, who are part of the movement, taking that step into the political arena.
I just want to pick Cori Bush up, because she’s a perfect example of the type of people we need inside. She went from the street and now she’s in Congress, and she represents us unapologetically. Our movement will never lie to people and say get this person in office and everything you’ve desired will come true, because that’s not true. History has shown that to us. If it were, Black Lives Matter would not need to exist.
What we do believe is that we have to be in the streets organizing for a better future for our people. It’s about building a political environment. It’s about building a social environment and a cultural environment. Sometimes we’re gonna have awful candidates — and we can’t stop fighting. We have to fight for change. We saw that for four years, we essentially lived in purgatory in this country because of what Donald Trump did to marginalized people. But our movement did not stop fighting. We didn’t put down the baton because we had a fascist in office. In fact, we grew stronger — so we see ourselves being able to maintain that strength and build that strength.