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NAACP Aims to Mobilize Infrequent Voters

After two White officers manhandled and stripped Chikesia Clemons during an arrest in an Alabama Waffle House caught on camera in April, protests sparked against what’s been described as a violation of the young woman’s human rights and another instance of race-based police brutality.

Months after her ordeal, and a disorderly conduct conviction, Clemons has her sights set on effecting change in the ballot box this November.

On a recent teleconference, she urged thousands of people to vote in upcoming local, statewide and congressional races to shift the paradigm she said allowed officers in Saraland, Alabama, and across the country, to abuse their power with impunity.

“When my incident happened, thousands of people were outraged,” Clemons said on the teleconference last Tuesday night, organized by the NAACP as part of its “Power of 5” campaign, a national effort to attract infrequent voters and increase African-American participation in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Joining Clemons on the hour-plus Sept. 18 call were NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson; Tiffany Dena Loftin, director of the NAACP’s youth and college division; Aubrey Hooper, president of the NAACP Dallas chapter and assistant secretary of the national board of directors; and Sheila Isong, NAACP’s new national political director for civic engagement.

“Sit-ins at the Waffle House kept the momentum,” Clemons, introduced by Loftin, told listeners. “I ask that people get out and vote. Each one should teach one. This is an important moment. I want elected officials to stand up and see that this is not only a problem in my community.”

Through the “Power of 5” campaign, voters across the country will set out on increasing African-American turnout by helping register five nonvoters before the deadline, oftentimes 30 days before an election, taking five people to the polls on Nov. 6, and volunteering five minutes, five hours, or five days.

The campaign launched this month, nearly a year after federal courts in Louisiana and Texas ruled in favor of the NAACP in cases involving voter ID laws the civil rights organization said disenfranchised Black and Latino voters.

Since then, the NAACP has experienced some setbacks. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a process where election officials in Ohio purge from their rolls the names of those who haven’t cast a ballot in six years.

Citing the more than 400 House and Senate seats up for grabs this November, Johnson stressed voting’s role in choosing those who create laws affecting communities of color. The outcome of Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump administration-backed U.S. Court of Appeals circuit judge, also weighed heavily on the minds of “Power of 5” campaign organizers.

“This is a crucial juncture in our nation’s democracy and we play a role in making sure public policy [gets enacted],” Johnson said. “Our priorities haven’t changed. We’re 109 years old and want to improve quality of life and fight against discrimination. We’re focused on building power over time and making sure communities are self-determined and policy is of quality.”

Midterm elections, which occur every four years in the middle of a presidential term, often generate a relatively low turnout. Data from the Pew Research Center showed participation in the midterms to be 40 percent, nearly 20 percentage points lower than when voters choose the occupant of the White House.

President Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 spurred voter enthusiasm and political engagement, particularly among registered Democrats and African Americans. The number of Democrats who cast ballots during primary races in 31 states increased by 84 percent this year, compared to similar contests that occurred four years prior, according to the recent Pew Research Center study.

A similar poll conducted by the African American Research Collaborative, in association with the NAACP, found that 62 percent of Black respondents considered the 2018 midterm elections to be more important than 2014, in part because of the issues at play, including jobs, housing, criminal justice reform, and institutional discrimination.

Millennials, generally acknowledged as people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, have counted among those who’ve spoken out against the Trump White House, online and in on-the-ground social movements across the country.

In recent months, the NAACP has turned to the 20 and 30-somethings as a significant voter base.

On last week’s teleconference, Loftin, who serves more than 700 NAACP youth councils, and high school and college chapters in her role, outlined a strategy to engage millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, the combined potential voter population of which has been predicted to surpass that of baby boomers.

“In the last month, we’ve trained new student leaders in webinars and on the ground at college campuses,” Loftin told teleconference participants in her opening comments. “School has just started, and we’re encouraging incoming first-year students to take up leadership to make sure their peers are registered to vote.

“They’re not only showing up or tabling on campus, but holding teach-ins, going to HBCU homecomings, and using social media to educate students across the country,” she said.

Isong, whose installation the NAACP announced last week, told listeners the “Power of 5” campaign will extend beyond the 2018 races.

She expressed plans to create an infrastructure through which on-the-ground players can organize around public policy specific to African-American communities in the months and years leading up to 2020, when President Trump would be up for re-election.

“We’re developing strategic campaigns around Black infrequent voters,” Isong told listeners. “We want to elect champions to grow the equity and justice movement. We’re growing a political investment infrastructure that would allow us to reach our 2020 goals. This is the stage for our agenda, but we have to get past 2018.”

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