The Democratic Party has a lot to learn from southern activists
To offer a coherent message to voters, the party must listen to those on frontlines of the far-right attack
“We brought the FBI here,” 30-year-old activist Aaron Jordan told me this week. Aaron lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker, died in March 2020 after being shot multiple times by police during a midnight raid on her apartment.
Along with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna’s killing sparked a national uprising against police brutality. More than two years ago, I first met Aaron at a rainy ‘no justice, no Halloween’ rally. I followed as he and a dozen or so activists marched the empty streets of Louisville to demand justice for Breonna’s death.
Since Joe Biden took office, the US Justice Department, under the leadership of attorney general Merrick Garland, has charged three police officers over their role in acquiring a search warrant for the raid on Breonna’s apartment. One of these officers, a former detective named Kelley Goodlet, admitted to falsifying the search warrant application. She is now the first officer to be convicted for the death of Breonna.
“Although a very low reward in comparison to having Breonna Taylor still alive, it was still rewarding,” said Aaron. “Having a moment where it’s like, ‘Well, ok damn, this wasn’t all in vain.’ It was a good feeling.”
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The judge who granted the search warrant, Mary Shaw, was chosen by Joshua Jaynes, one of the detectives accused of falsifying an affidavit, because he believed she would “not look too closely at the application”, according to The New York Times. (Jaynes has pleaded not-guilty. And Judge Shaw has denied knowing Goodlet or Jaynes.) This midterm cycle, Shaw is currently in a re-election battle with attorney Tracy Davis, who is running on a platform centered on healing and transparency.
“We are the reason why Judge Shaw, who signed that warrant, is now facing a challenge from Tracy Davis. We’re trying to see that [Davis] is elected, and that Judge Shaw is recused from her place,” added Aaron.
The main focus of this midterm election cycle will be on the federal races. Control of the Senate and the House of Representatives are up for grabs.
But there are also important local races all across the country – from school boards (where millions of dollars are being pumped in from dark money groups to support candidates against ‘critical race theory’), to circuit judgeships (like the one in Louisville) – that perhaps best reflect the current political frontlines of this moment.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the south. The insurgent Republican ‘Make America Great Again’ movement, fueled by conspiracies of electoral fraud, outlawing abortion, and attacking LGBTIQ rights (to just name a few) is seeking seats across statewide offices.
Fighting this agenda on the frontlines are the racial and voting rights activists. These forces delivered Democrats and the current administration to power in 2020: Biden’s momentum following his South Carolina victory led him to secure the party’s primary, while the wins of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia gave the party a slim control of Congress.
And a lot was said and promised by Democrats in the last electoral campaign in 2020. But was it delivered? It’s an important question, because the party properly aligning with democratic forces in the south is crucial to defeating the immediate threat posed by the right – and building the resilient coalition required to expand the democracy of our politics and economy.
Biden and Democrats across the country ran on a fairly bold agenda in 2020, in an apparent shift from the neoliberal triangulation of his predecessors. They promised a $15 minimum wage, to decarbonize the economy by 2050, to lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, pass voting rights and more.
And whilst they haven’t delivered at the scale that was sold – there have been some significant accomplishments, especially in recent months.
“I was really happy about student debt cancellation,” Aaron said, referring to the Biden administration’s announcement in August that it would cancel up to $20,000 for people making less than $125,000. The policy is currently on hold in a federal appeals court, after six states filed a joint lawsuit claiming it would hurt state-based loan companies.
Aaron’s thoughts were partially echoed by Jessika Ward, a press secretary for the Dream Defenders – a Black and Brown youth-led justice movement based in Florida, which formed in the wake of the 2012 tragic killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
“Though I appreciated Biden’s effort to relieve some of the stress I and other people with student loan debt have… I don’t think it's enough,” Jessika stated. “It’s literally unfair for college to cost as much as it does, which is why I believe all student loan debt should have been forgiven.”
The Dream Defenders were among those pushing the Biden administration to cancel student debt, along with many racial justice organizations and southern organizers – including the New Georgia Project, NAACP – and senators such as Georgia’s Warnock (who’s up for re-election against Herschel Walker).
Democrats also finally passed climate legislation in the Inflation Reduction Act. (Although as I noted in August, it falls far short of what this moment requires.)
But unfortunately, many of the most significant anti-poverty policies went by the wayside, including those that would have disproportionately benefitted communities in southern states, which have the highest poverty rates in the US. (These states also have governors that refuse to accept Medicaid funding – a government health insurance program for those on low incomes.)
Democrats failed to extend one of the most ambitious anti-poverty programmes in recent history, the childhood tax credit, which lifted 2.1 million children out of poverty. They also failed to raise the minimum wage; pass voting rights reform; expand healthcare; and protect against the wave of suppression in Republican states.
And now, people are being squeezed even further as 8% inflation pushes down real wages. Meanwhile billionaire wealth and energy company profits continue to skyrocket.
Amid this difficult economic landscape, mainstream Democrats – who for weeks were campaigning on protecting abortion after the Dobbs decision – have faced criticism for ceding conversations around the economy to the right.
“I just hate that the Democrats never market themselves well. We don’t talk about the stuff that we’re doing,” said Aaron. “Just let people know that we’re getting shit done and that we don’t care about all the BS in the way.
However, in the last several weeks there has been a noticeable shift as Biden and top Democrats blame corporate greed for price rises – and propose a windfall tax on energy companies. It’s a popular message.
Heart of the resistance
“If we talk about leadership and just being competent – which is a very low bar – [Biden] meets the criteria. There’s just so much more work that needs to get done,” said Aaron. “I just wish that we had bigger voices in the Democratic Party.”
Many of these most visionary voices are across the south. Groups such as the Dream Defenders; Cooperation Jackson, New Georgia Project and others are leading the way.
Meanwhile, young leaders continue to enter the political arena for the first time – sustaining a trend over the last several years that is shifting the Democratic coalition to the Left.
“We, young people in communities, on college campuses, in schools all across this country, are ready to lead,” said Jessika. “We continue to see more and more young people running for office – and we are ready to show the world and our country what we want for our futures by going to the polls.”
And as Aaron emphasized to me, the movement has made tremendous progress, even outside the halls of power, since it came onto the streets demanding justice for Breonna Taylor over two years ago.
“Louisville is different now. Black folks are taking up more space. Women's voices are being elevated. More LGBTQ voices are being amplified,” said Aaron. “It blesses me all the time seeing all the activists from across the country in their communities, getting the work done – from tackling food injustices to voter suppression. And letting the rest go to the birds.”
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