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After months of sustained resistance in the wake of several high-profile police killings of Black and Brown people, a new generation of progressive candidates are running for state and local office across the country on pledges to confront systemic racism in the criminal legal system. While most such pledges remain cautious compared to the liberatory calls for police abolition that have filled the streets, there’s no doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement has profoundly impacted candidates’ platforms in down-ballot races.
In New Orleans, several current and former public defenders are challenging sitting judges in the city’s criminal court with plans to decriminalize poverty and mental illness and ensure that people are not jailed simply because they cannot afford to post bail or pay fines and fees. In Phoenix, millennial climate activist Yassamin Ansari is running to be the city’s first Iranian-American elected official on a platform declaring “Black Lives Matter” and proposing to “demilitarize” the police and “guarantee police accountability.” Phoenix has the third-highest rate of police killings per capita among major cities in the United States.
Christian Menefee says his reasons for running for Harris County Attorney in Houston, Texas, are grounded in his lived experience. Both Menefee and his wife are Black attorneys, but their class privilege has not shielded them from racism. Menefee described how his wife was once forced to “stare down the barrel” of a police officer’s gun because she was profiled for wearing a hoodie in an upscale neighborhood. To end police-perpetrated violence, we must acknowledge that “racism is systematically embedded in our country’s institutions of justice,” according to Menefee’s campaign.
“Real change in our communities starts with electing people locally that can bring the reforms we need to our doorsteps,” Menefee told reporters on Thursday.
Advocacy organization People for the American Way (PFAW) announced on Thursday that it will support and fund the campaigns of more than 100 young progressives who are running for state and local public office and have committed to work toward “stopping police killings.” Virtually every candidate is a Democrat, and a number of them are running in competitive races against Republican incumbents. PFAW President Ben Jealous said Republicans were encouraged to apply for support, but the group was unable to find any candidates willing to commit to the pledge to stop police-perpetrated murder.
“The reality is Donald Trump has moved his party to become a pro-police brutality party,” Jealous said.
While many of the candidates are people of color and say they support Black Lives Matter, most have not openly embraced all of the visionary proposals amplified by activists during the protests that erupted after police killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others. Many activists call for defunding — and abolishing — the police. Abolitionists argue that police violence will not end until policing itself is scrapped, and the public resources sucked up by policing are redirected toward addressing housing, public health and other social challenges that bring people in contact with police in the first place.
For many activists, the popularity of slogans like “defund police” and “abolish police” is expanding the scope of what is politically possible. Meanwhile, President Trump and the GOP have also seized on them in a dishonest effort to scare privileged white people to the polls.
Trump has falsely claimed that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden supports the defunding of police, but in reality, Biden supports giving police more money alongside modest criminal legal reforms.
PFAW chose its slate of candidates to support based on their support for police reforms that reflect the Democratic Party’s platform, including practices that limit unnecessary police contact, removing particularly problematic officers from local forces, cultural competency and de-escalation training for officers, and reallocating police budgets toward social services. The public defenders running challenging incumbent judges in New Orleans are not included on the list, but local activists hope they would reduce incarceration rates in a city where Black people are disproportionately jailed after interacting with police.
In June, Bernie Sanders endorsed 10 progressives running for district attorney, state attorney or a local prosecutor’s office, including a few incumbents and newcomers like José Garza, a former state and federal public defender and immigrant justice activist in Austin, Texas. Garza defeated an incumbent Democrat in a primary runoff this summer, and the local press credited his victory to an upswell in support for criminal legal reform inspired by Black Lives Matter protests.
PFAW is now getting behind Garza along with dozens of other younger candidates for local state office. Jealous has argued that young candidates energize young progressive voters to polls, where they are likely to support other Democrats on the ballot.
“A lot of candidates are in competitive races who are running on these issues,” Jealous said.