Fifty years ago tomorrow, hundreds of activists marched in Selma, Alabama in support of voting rights. The anniversary is being tied to events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, where the respective deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner raised concerns about the sometimes adversarial relationship between local police forces and black residents. The resulting movement named after a hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, aims to bring concerns of the African American community to the forefront of political debate in the country.
Will the nascent #blacklivesmatter movement live up to Selma? Not electorally.
It's worth taking a moment to note that protest movements do not generally focus on winning elections; they tend not to have specific demands at their onset. The #blacklivesmatter protests were reactive against whatever unsavory headline occupied the news media, such as when the Ferguson District Attorney Bob McCulloch announced that a grand jury failed to indict a local police officer in Brown's death.
Since those events, protesters have won some victories. The growing use of body cameras by police departments across the country counts as one success for the movement. Some local departments have also begun to reject surplus weaponry from the federal government following accusations of police militarization in Ferguson and other municipalities. Most explosively, the protests prompted a federal Department of Justice (DoJ) investigation released last Wednesday that is forcing reforms in Ferguson.
But the protests failed to resolve the underlying issues that contributed to the deaths of Brown and Garner. In St. Louis County, a byzantine patchwork of traffic laws financed local governments like Ferguson. By excessively fining citizens, local government inadvertently turned the region into a powder keg that blew with Michael Brown's death. The DoJ investigation will force changes in the specific town of Ferguson (already, two police officers have resigned and one city official was fired). However, experts expect most other local communities in St. Louis County to avoid significant changes forced by the federal government.
And in New York City, a routine stop enforcing an outlandishly severe cigarette tax became the setting for Eric Garner's death. Nevertheless, the city council has shown no compunction to roll back its excessive cigarette taxes.
To affect this kind of change, protesters must organize and actually elect new leaders in local government. So far, they have failed.
In the 2014 election in Ferguson, turnout dropped 10% lower than the last midterm election. The protests were expected to mobilize local residents outraged by Brown's death who otherwise would not have bothered to vote. Instead, opponents of the protesters won a key race. In the election for St. Louis County Executive, a white Democrat named Steve Stenger primaried the black incumbent. The general election became a case of strange bedfellows. Stenger allied himself with McCulloch, who faced criticism from protesters after he refused to recuse himself from the Brown case. In contrast, Republican nominee and state Rep. Rick Stream received endorsements from local black officials who criticized the district attorney and remained bitter about the Democratic primary. Stenger not only won, he also took over 60% of the vote in Ferguson.
A similar situation repeated itself in New York. Almost 18,000 less voters turned out for midterm elections in 2014 than 2010 on Staten Island, where Eric Garner died. Instead, the prosecutor who presented Garner's case to a grand jury, Dan Donovan (R), announced a run for Congress in a May 7th special election. With a Democratic poll showing Donovan up twenty points on a potential opponent, the district attorney is the overwhelming favorite for the seat.
Protesters may have one victory to claim: the demise of Governor Jay Nixon (D-MO)'s political career. Nixon faced significant criticism over a bungled attempt to impose a local curfew and a belated decision to call the National Guard into Ferguson when some protesters turned to looting local businesses. In the past, Nixon had been discussed as a potential challenger to US Senator Roy Blunt (R) this cycle. Instead, Secretary of State Jason Kander is taking up the Democratic mantle and has already received support from the national party.
Electoral Future- Ferguson
Protesters theoretically still have a chance to make a difference. Ferguson will hold city council elections April 7th, and three open seat races will provide a barometer for their success.
- In Ward 1, four candidates filed for an open seat: Ella Jones, Adrienne Hawkins, Doyle McClellan, and Mike McGrath. Hawkins was inspired to run by the protests. Jones is a member of the city's Human Rights Commission and the president of a local Democrat club in Ferguson. The other two candidates, McClellan and McGrath, are white. McClellan moved to Ferguson two years ago and is looking to run a centrist campaign, while there is not anything online about McGrath (he appears to be affialiated with a volunteer police program in Ferguson). Ward 1 is centered on the northeastern segment of the city, which is higher income than other parts of town (particularly in the northwestern part of the ward).
- In Ward 2, Bob Hudgins faces former Mayor Brian Fletcher. Fletcher is apparently a Democrat and counts himself as a progressive, started an "I Love Ferguson" campaign in the wake of the protests to improve the city's image. Ward 2, centered along South Florissant Road, includes the more prosperous downtown section of town. Hudgins has aligned himself with protesters in the race.
- In Ward 3, retiree Lee Smith faces Wesley Bell. It contains the poorest southeast corner of Ferguson where Michael Brown lived. Both candidates are black, but Bell is a local municipal judge (Critics say he is part of the local legal problems, while he says he was an early reform proponent). This ward is normally incredibly low turnout and is the biggest target for protesters looking for a win.
Electoral Future- New York
Donovan's race started as likely Republican, and at this point it will be safe for him. His Democratic opponent, State Senator Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn, is making the Garner case a major issue in the campaign. The issue may not be the best fit for the district: in an average of two Quinnipiac polls, only about 41% of Staten Island residents supported charging the officer in Garner's death. This should not be extremely surprising, given that Staten Island was 64% white in the 2010 census and that the issue divides along racial lines. And of course, the Garner case will not be the only issue in the race. Although Gentile also previously represented parts of Staten Island, the same insular type of politics that made ex-Rep. Michael Grimm a frontrunner will also neuter Gentile's attempts to win this seat.
Protesters may have a better chance in the Staten Island DA race this November, which will be open after Donovan wins his congressional seat. Donovan had nailed down the seat in recent years, winning a close race in 2003 and easily securing reelection in 2007 and 2011. Already former Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Smalls (D) has announced a bid and highlighted the Garner case. While other candidates are rumored to run on both sides (rounded up here), the most noise has been made about State Senator Andrew Lanza (R).
Ultimately, it is hard to see why the #blacklivesmatter movement would electorally succeed where it has failed in the past. After all, the size of protests since the DoJ released the results of its investigation last Wednesday pale in comparison to those immediately after grand juries declined to indict officers in Ferguson and New York City.
Unless something changes, the effect of the #blacklivesmatter protests should diminish over time. Using 2014 as a barometer, we should not expect legions of new, predominately black voters to appear on the voting rolls next in 2015 or 2016. Similarly, the Stenger-Stream contest illustrates the limited strength of any constituency whose vote choice is determined by events in Ferguson.
We may see an electoral impact locally. In Ferguson, the Stenger-Stream example only goes so far. Stream is a Republican, while the races in April are nonpartisan. Furthermore, the diminished off-year electorate means a lower raw number of voters need to turn out to impact the election result. And in New York City, the Garner case will be an issue in the special congressional election and in the Staten Island DA race, even if it's not decisive.
But Ferguson is the same town where an effort to recall the embattled Republican mayor fell apart and a 2014 voter registration effort pushed by the NAACP failed to turn out any appreciable number of new numbers. Although registration efforts are ongoing (the deadline to register is March 11), it is hard to see why this effort will be different than the last.
Like Selma, the Brown and Garner cases pushed some big issues into the public consciousness. But unlike the marches fifty years ago, #blacklivesmatter has not shown its own staying power. Until last Wednesday's DoJ report, the media had moved on from Ferguson. The New York Times had even consigned the protests to the history books ("Historians sift the ruins for Ferguson's legacy," the headline several weeks ago read). After Ferguson and New York's off-year elections, don't expect #blacklivesmatter to make electoral waves.