2020 is a year like no other. It’s a year of wildfires and murder hornets, bankruptcies and impeachment, elections, protests, and, of course, Covid-19.
This year, youth and adults alike have spent months brooding in their bedrooms with only their phones to connect them to the outside world. Instead of preparing for a calculus test or worrying about their commute to work, Americans have been reading the news.
We have watched as the United States, one of the largest and most affluent global powers, fails to protect its citizens from a global pandemic in a painful demonstration of American partisanship and distrust of the government. The American system and its meager attempts at justice, equality, and freedom, which also happen to be its main selling points, are becoming increasingly unsuccessful. Miniscule policy changes and calculated messaging are no longer enough to mask the thinly veiled corruption and racial discrimination that have been running rampant in our country’s government and law since its inception. Citizens are realizing that their government does not represent them and, more importantly, that they have the power to do something about it.
With the protests that broke out across the nation this summer in the name of racial equality and police accountability, Americans have made it abundantly clear that they are ready for change and prepared to make it happen. Polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Civis Analytics, NORC, and Pew suggest that between 15 million to 26 million people in America participated in racial justice demonstrations within the past few months. A USA Today map of nationwide protests shows that these demonstrations are happening in all 50 states, not just diverse or historically Democratic areas.
In an interview with The Politic, Nia White, activist and Lead Organizer of the Freedom March NYC, summed this phenomenon up: “If we can’t call the police, we’re going to call the people to the streets.”
Furthermore, the recent public outcry over the unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and numerous other Black Americans has led to a sudden swell in support for police reform and defunding. According to Civiqs, support for the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement was a controversial opinion in 2018—with 41 percent opposition and 38 percent support. By April 2020, opposition to the movement had tanked by a quarter and support grew to 42 percent. Less than two months later, opposition dropped to only 28 percent and support spiked at 52 percent, making what was formerly seen as a radical standpoint the new status quo.
This has even spurred the introduction of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday, June 8, that mandates that law enforcement officers undergo implicit bias and racial profiling training, use body cameras, and report all use-of-force incidents.
However, increased support and the introduction of a bill in Congress does not equate to tangible, sustainable change. Inevitably, media coverage of the movement will begin to die out, the public will lose interest in racial justice politics, and elected officials will be left without constant public pressure to hold them accountable.
“When the protests are over, when no ones getting interviews, when the media outlets go back to their Breaking News, when no one is rioting, it’s not making Instagram highlights, when all of that is over, we need people in office,” White explained, “We need to make sure that this does not happen again. That we’re not coming back to the streets because another person says ‘I can’t breathe.’”
And young, diverse politicians are using their platforms to show their constituents that they will do exactly that. In a tweet on Friday, August 7, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) wrote, “I’m proud to announce that #TeamAOC has raised over *1 million* in direct aid to people – all from small dollar, grassroots donations.” Progressive politicians like Ocasio-Cortez are making it clear that voting for candidates from diverse racial, religious, class, and gender backgrounds leads to the representation of the totality of the American experience.
On Tuesday, August 4, Cori Bush, a progressive racial justice activist, defeated ten-term incumbent Representative William Lacy Clay (D-MO) in a Missouri Democratic primary. On Friday, July 17, Jamaal Bowman, a progressive lawyer with a strong anti-establishment agenda, defeated 16-term incumbent Representative Eliot L Engel (D-NY) in New York.
Incumbents across the nation are being ousted by progressive leaders, proving that the nominations of people like Cortez (D-NY) and Representative Antonio Delgado (D-NY) in the previous congressional election cycle were not anomalies. They were the first few dominoes of a long, vast, and loud chain determined to shove Congress towards progress.
Even on a local scale, New Haven and its city government have been reflecting on these recent swells of support for social justice organizers and activists. The appointment process for its Civilian Review Board, which will “monitor and review civilian complaints of police misconduct,” according to the official ordinance, was accelerated due to recent public outcry over incidents of police brutality. It was first established in 1999 but until just over a month ago, only six of its 11 seats were filled.
The incident that was largely responsible for the sudden pressure to fast-track this board occurred in April 2019, when Hamden Police Officer Devin Eaton and Yale Officer Terrance Pollock fired 13 shots at two unarmed individuals who were listening to music in their car. Over 1,000 citizens, including New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, marched from the New Haven Green and gathered outside the New Haven Police Department in protest.
Caroline Tanbee Smith ‘14, Co-Founder of Collab, a community-centered support network for Connecticut entrepreneurs, explained in an interview with The Politic, “I’ve always seen New Haven as an activist town. There’s a protest, it feels like, almost every day in front of City Hall.”
For years, our community and many others like it have exemplified the methods of democracy that work. When people are angry, they make sure their government knows. When their government doesn’t do anything about it, people vote someone in who will. Now, others are catching on as well. In more and more cities across the country, people are protesting the sickening examples of police brutality that are being thrust into the public eye. People are electing new, progressive candidates in lieu of established incumbents and moderates. People are making their voices heard and making use of their vote.
However, this year could either be an anomaly or a breakthrough, and that depends on voters.
The opportunity to vote only comes around once every two years locally and four years nationally. If voters didn’t elect Ocasio-Cortez into Congress, the Green New Deal that would result in nationwide net-zero emissions would never have been introduced. Her anti-poverty bill that would allow for more access to federal benefits like Medicaid would never have been proposed.
If voters didn’t elect President Donald Trump into office, two conservative Supreme Court Justices and 187 other conservative federal judges would not be serving lifetime appointments nor given the privilege to act as our nation’s ultimate moral compass. The United States would not have pulled out of landmark international pacts like the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran nuclear deal), and numerous alliances. Its treatment of migrant families might not have “deeply shocked” the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, as reported by the UN News.
Policymakers can do a lot in a few years.
By voting, Americans put their trust into a leader to shape the country. To uphold its values. To build a community. By not voting, citizens are telling them that they are good enough. Citizens are telling them that the 6,677 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, reported by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, is good enough. Citizens are telling them that the country’s global ranking of the second-highest poverty rate of all democratic and free-market countries is good enough. Citizens are telling them that letting all three of Breonna Taylor’s murderers walk free is good enough.
Previous years have shown that electing diverse policymakers works. Raising donations and signing petitions works. Spreading information online works. But it is up to the voters to decide whether this trend continues and democracy actually leads to progress, or it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than one of the many dream-like oddities that took place in 2018. Eventually, Covid-19 will become a nightmare of the past and the gears will resume their daily grind. Will you still care? Will you still vote?