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Opinion
Guest Essay

George Floyd and
the Seeds of a New Kind
of Activism

George Floyd and
the Seeds of a New
Kind of Activism


A Series on George Floyd and America


A Series on
George Floyd and America

How the George Floyd and BLM Protests Became Political Power 1

How the George Floyd and BLM Protests Became Political Power 2

Photograph by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Guest Essay

How to Turn Protest Power Into Political Power

May 22, 2021

Kayla Reed and

Ms. Reed is a community organizer and the executive director of Action St. Louis. Mr. Strode is a civil rights attorney and the executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

This article is part of a special section on George Floyd
and America, a year after his death. Read more about this project
in a note from deputy Opinion editor Patrick Healy in our Opinion Today newsletter.

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ST. LOUIS — Last year, the world watched for nine minutes and 29 seconds as a video showed the final moments of George Floyd’s life. We all heard Mr. Floyd plead with the police as he gasped for enough air to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times. In the weeks that followed his death, as many as 26 million people took to the streets in defense of Black lives.

For those of us in St. Louis, this moment felt gruesomely familiar. Just five days before George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, Michael Brown would have celebrated his 24th birthday. On Aug. 9, 2014, Mr. Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson — spurring protests and a movement to build a world where Black lives matter. The Ferguson uprising brought a new generation into the work of fighting for transformation in our communities.

What we have learned in the nearly seven years since Mike Brown was killed is that the uprising is just the beginning.

Maya Angelou taught us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Like many organizers and advocates across the country, our work has continued to evolve as we strive to know better. This movement, spurred by the daily devaluation of Black lives and punctuated by brutal police killings, has matured beyond calls for “reform.” In St. Louis, following the uprising, our demands included elements like implicit bias training and body cameras, and shined a spotlight on obvious abuses, like racist fines and fees. But tepid reforms have failed us repeatedly. Our vision is now one of defunding police departments and abolishing the carceral system, as we push ourselves and others to imagine a society that is truly rooted in principles of justice, love and liberation.

Not only has this evolution demanded a deepening of our analysis, but it has also required that we develop a wide range of tools to bring about the transformation that we deserve, including grass-roots organizing, legal advocacy, policy formulation and, yes, electoral justice. In St. Louis, we and many others have been developing these tools and tactics to build infrastructure for our movement — the kind of serious, sustained effort that is critical to overcoming the pernicious hold of the status quo.

The organizations that we lead in St. Louis are reflective of this sustained effort. We and our partners have been building coalitions to eradicate municipal debtors’ prisons and expose racist for-profit policing and courts; to re-envision public safety as community well-being; to close the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse; to combat environmental racism; and to defund a system of policing that continues to drain precious resources and perpetuate violence and harm in our communities. We have protested, rallied, phone-banked, held teach-ins and town halls, produced reports, drafted legislation, knocked on doors, posted bail, created hashtags, penned commentary and sued cities, towns, slumlords and jail guards.

But the pursuit of political power remains one element of the fight for Black lives that is too often misunderstood.

Just over five years ago, organizers and advocates like us who had come together in the wake of the Ferguson uprising began to direct our time and resources in a concerted way toward shifting the political landscape in the St. Louis region. The focus would not be on the candidates themselves, but on the people — all of us — who shape and select the candidates and the issues they champion. For example, ours and other community organizations have invested time and resources into candidate forums, debates, questionnaires and informational guides that prioritize the needs and urgent concerns of marginalized Black residents, and demand that those seeking to hold and keep elected office be accountable to those concerns.

In 2016, the first community debate that we co-moderated, whose theme was “Questions From the People,” had 350 people in attendance on a Sunday afternoon. The next debate the following year brought 1,200 in-person attendees. And the most recent debate this year garnered 22,000 virtual viewers, not only observing but also engaging, questioning and critiquing. Far beyond any one person or organization, this growth is a reflection of the deep interest and engagement resulting from years of committed organizing for social and racial justice. By working to shift the public dialogue and center voices that are typically ignored and subordinated, we have seen the extraordinary power that exists in a community of ordinary people.

While this may seem an obvious strategy, it is one that is too often forgone, either by committed activists who assume the effort will be futile or by nonprofits that deeply fear being labeled “political.”

Opinion
One year since George Floyd’s death: What has changed and what comes next?

Our own organizations are committed to this work. Action St. Louis is a grass-roots racial justice organization explicitly embracing electoral and campaign work as a central strategy in building power for Black people. ArchCity Defenders is a holistic legal advocacy organization that fights state violence and criminalization. While ArchCity is not an electoral organization operating at the campaign level, the clients we serve are poor, unhoused or housing insecure, and they are overwhelmingly Black.

All of this work is political — we aim to build power with those who have been disempowered so that they have the tools and resources to shape their own lives and communities.

The first test of this strategy came in 2016, when Kim Gardner was elected circuit attorney in the city of St. Louis. Two years later, a robust grass-roots effort led to the defeat of Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor who led the grand jury process that ended in the non-indictment of the officer who killed Mr. Brown, and to the election of Wesley Bell. The victories by Ms. Gardner and Mr. Bell, Black prosecutors who ran on progressive reform platforms, followed years of organizing and mass public education about the oppressive systems of cash bail, incarceration and police abuse.

While there was promise in the tactic of merging electoral organizing with strong visionary campaigns, we quickly saw the limitation of focusing narrowly on the role of prosecutors. Prosecutors do not close jails, cut police budgets or foster anti-carceral investments. So our vision required that we sharpen our strategy and turn our focus to impacting legislative and executive policymakers, connecting those seats to the policies we demanded and the budget we wanted to see overhauled.

The largest victories have happened in the past year with the election of Cori Bush to Congress in 2020 and Tishaura Jones as mayor of St. Louis less than two months ago. These women, both closely aligned with local movement organizers for years before their electoral victories, have already brought a radically different approach to their political leadership that centers on the needs of underserved and neglected Black communities across the region and displays a commitment to racial justice and equity. Both have begun working immediately to divest from policing and jails, to invest in support of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, to expose the sources and effects of environmental racism and to focus public investment in abandoned poor and Black neighborhoods throughout the region.

The recent political victories in St. Louis highlight the strength of our movement. Our investment in electoral justice is paying off: Candidates are running on platforms that reflect our movement’s demands — from closing the Workhouse jail to expanding affordable housing — and winning.

The election of these candidates is often incorrectly described as a shift from protest to policy. We did not leave the streets for the ballot box — we found the power at the intersection of those tactics. The same organizers who mobilized thousands in defense of Black lives built strong enough campaigns to shift the consciousness of an electorate, and voters showed up at the polls to fuel the election of aligned candidates.

Our position on candidates is simple. We don’t do this work to elect people; we elect people to do this work. So we fully expect those acting in our names to divest from the criminal legal system, hold accountable public actors who abuse their power and dramatically invest in communities that have suffered from generations of systemic racism and economic exploitation.

What we have watched unfold in St. Louis has analogs across the country. As a new generation of activists continues to deepen its analysis of and commitment to the work of racial justice, we will continue to see an evolution in our movement’s tools and tactics. We neither depend upon elected leaders to spur this evolution, nor do we diminish the important role that accountable political leadership can play in transforming the material conditions for our people and communities.

But we cannot afford a single moment of complacency. Whatever the wins, we continue to face great odds, particularly in the face of recalibration and backlash in places like Missouri, where many in positions of power are working daily to criminalize protest, entrench racial and economic disparity and pre-empt any sign of progress at the local level. This context requires us to deepen our resolve and insist upon political courage by those who represent us.

As we reflect on the past year since the brutal public killing of George Floyd — a year characterized by uprising, pandemic and insurrection — we see almost everywhere seeds of a movement that this tragedy made all the more urgent. It is our responsibility to nurture those seeds wherever they may be, no matter how inhospitable the terrain, until victory is won.

Kayla Reed (@iKaylaReed) is a community organizer and the executive director of Action St. Louis. Blake Strode (@BlakeStrode1) is a civil rights attorney and the executive director of ArchCity Defenders.