Some Young Black Activists Say They Won't Vote For President

Jun 22, 2016
Originally published on June 26, 2016 2:34 am

This November's presidential election comes on the heels of a year of incomparable black activism.

Young activists are protesting in the streets, organizing on college campuses and disrupting campaign rallies to push for change in powerful ways.

You might expect this political energy to be reflected at the ballot box. But some activists, like Koya Graham, don't see much of a point in voting for president.

When Graham turned 18, the first thing she did was register to vote. And, year-after-year, she was a loyal voter — until this primary season.

"I'm not interested anymore. I don't see any immediate, significant changes happening," says Graham, now 36. "I don't see voting as a means to an end."

Graham recognizes that her decision could be controversial.

"I know people use the argument, 'Well, black people have fought so hard to get the right to vote and then how can you not vote?' I understand, I understand your point," she says with an exasperated sigh. "But, we vote, we vote these people into office, but once they get into office — then what?"

Part of Graham's frustration is that she says black lives have not improved under the country's first black president. She doesn't necessarily blame President Obama; she knew he could never be a panacea, but she says maybe she had too much faith that he could change the country.

"That was his big word, 'change' and 'yes we can,' ... and we have not. Nothing has changed," says Graham, as she goes on to list the names of unarmed black men shot in the streets.

"There's been no kind of justice brought to these parents, to these families," Graham says.

She wishes Obama could say or do something to placate the black community, but she says the Obama presidency has shown her the limits to presidential power.

These days, Graham no longer has any hope in national politicians.

Instead, she's focusing on grassroots activism. Last year, she created an organization called the "Coalition of the Willing" to empower and educate black people in Cleveland, her hometown. Once a month, she holds public meetings so that locals can collectively craft solutions to community problems — problems like the controversial use of police force that Cleveland has witnessed first hand.

The most notorious police incident dates back to November 2014 — when Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot while playing with a toy gun in a park. This shooting is top of mind for many, like Kelton Latson. He says it's one of the main reasons he voted in the Ohio primary this year.

Latson, 24, wanted to vote against Tim McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who had recommended a grand jury not bring charges against the police officers in the Tamir Rice case.

"I only voted in the primaries for the prosecutor," says Latson, referring to McGinty (who lost his seat in the Ohio primary).

The question of voting for president is more complicated for him. He did not vote for a president in the primaries; he merely left that part of the ballot blank.

"My views on voting now — is just that, overall, your vote doesn't really mean much as far as the system," says Latson, a student at Cleveland State University studying English with the hope of becoming a high school teacher. "So, I believe in voting for community struggles, like councilman, mayor, local stuff — mainly because that right-there, first-hand affects you the most."

But even on a local level, he's not sure politicians are talking about the real concerns of black people, who suffer from the highest unemployment rate and the shortest life spans.

"It's a lot of problems that I feel, within the black community, that can only be solved by us. Politics is not gonna fixed any of that," Latson says. He makes a point of regularly visiting the juvenile detention facility to talk to black kids. He says a combination of community engagement and local politics will solve problems more than the president.

Both Graham and Kelton say they have no intention of voting for president this November.

Their decision is less a referendum on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump than a referendum on voting itself.

But for some young activists, the final choices — Clinton and Trump — are a major is a part of their dissatisfaction.

Ashley Williams, a masters student at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, who famously interrupted a Clinton fundraiser in South Carolina, and questioned the candidate's 1990s criminal justice platform, is not sure about voting this November.

"I'm 23 years old, I'm black and I live in the south in America .... I have not seen the powers of voting materialize," says Williams, who insists that organizing is a more effective way to maintain "people power" than traditional voting.

"I don't think that we are being dismissive of (voting), I think ... we're acknowledging those things, but we're also saying it's going to take something else. We like to say in the movement 'voting is not going to get us free ... voting is not going to abolish prisons,'" Williams says.

This is by no means to say that African-Americans as a whole are going to bypass the November election. Millions have already voted in the Democratic primary and millions intend to vote in the general election.

But some are making a conscientious objection.

"They may think at this stage in their lives that it's best for people to work outside the political process because of the perception that Washington is broken," says Andra Gillespie, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta who focuses on race and political mobilization.

But Gillespie points out that even if some young African-Americans sidestep voting this November, they are still involved in politics, continuing a long tradition of risky, labor-intensive political activity in the black community.

"I think we would be remiss to not acknowledge the importance of Black Lives Matter in making criminal justice reform an issue that candidates have to address," she says.

Gillespie says the hard work of activists is often more challenging than simply casting a ballot.

But she also warns that just as the presidency has its limitations, politics with no voting has limitations, too.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This presidential election comes on the heels of a year of incredible black activism in the streets, on college campuses and at campaign rallies. You might expect that political energy to be reflected at the ballot box. But as NPR's Asma Khalid reports, some young activists don't see much point in voting for president.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When Koya Graham turned 18, the first thing she did was register to vote. And she was a loyal voter until this primary season.

KOYA GRAHAM: I'm not interested anymore. I don't see any immediate significant changes happening.

KHALID: Graham is in her 30s now. And she no longer sees voting as a means to an end.

GRAHAM: And I know people use the argument well, black people have, you know, fought so hard to get the right to vote. And then how can you not vote? I understand. I understand your point. But we vote. We vote these people into office and then once they get in the office, then what?

KHALID: Part of her frustration is that she says black lives have not improved under the country's first black president. She points to the repeated shooting of unarmed black men. And she doesn't necessarily blame President Obama. But she says she now realizes the presidency is limited in its power.

GRAHAM: For me to have so much faith in him coming in, thinking that he was going to make a change - and that was his big - that was his big word. That was his word - change and yes we can and yes we will and we have not.

KHALID: These days, Graham is focusing on grassroots activism. She is a community leader working to empower and educate black people in Cleveland, her hometown. Cleveland is a city that's witnessed police-involved shootings firsthand. The most notorious incident was Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot while playing with a toy gun. For Kelton Latson, it's a shooting that's hard to forget. Latson is 24, a student at Cleveland State. And for him, the question of voting is a little more complicated. He did vote in the primaries but only for down-ballot races.

KELTON LATSON: So I believe in voting for, like, community struggles, like councilmen, mayor, like, local stuff mainly because that right there, firsthand, affects you the most.

KHALID: But even on a local level, he's not sure politicians are talking about the real concerns of black people, who suffer from the highest unemployment rate and the shortest lifespans.

LATSON: It's a lot of problems, I feel, within the black community that can only be solved by us. And that's - politics is not going to fix any of that.

KHALID: So Latson makes a point of regularly visiting the juvenile detention facility to talk to black kids. Both Latson and Graham have no intention of voting for president this November. Their decision is less a referendum on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump than a referendum on voting. This is by no means to say that African-Americans as a whole are going to skip out on November. Millions have already voted in the Democratic primary. But some are making a conscientious objection.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: They may think at this stage in their lives that it's best for people to work outside of the political process because of their perception that Washington is broken.

KHALID: Andra Gillespie is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta who focuses on race and political mobilization. Gillespie points out that even if some young folks skip out on voting, they still are involved in politics.

GILLESPIE: I think, you know, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the importance of Black Lives Matter in making criminal justice reform an issue that candidates have to address.

KHALID: But Gillespie warns that just as the presidency has its limits, politics with no voting has its limits, too. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.