Nineteen-year old Carrie Mays has spent the last few weeks on the streets of Boston armed with a clipboard, a pen and a list of names of potential voters.
“We registered over three hundred and twenty people to vote in Boston” in a single weekend, she told GBH News.
Mays is one of a host of young people who organized street protests over the summer to call for racial justice in the wake of several high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people. Now she is trying to convert that movement's grassroots energy into political power.
Since age 14, Mays has been a youth organizer for a Boston non-profit called Teen Empowerment. Running her hands over the navy-blue streaks in her hair she also proudly declared that she is a Black Lives Matter activist. Speaking on the back porch of her grandmother’s Dorchester home, Mays said she was spurred to action by the police killings of DJ Henry of Easton, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. She also experienced personal trauma last year.
“Me, my grandmother and my mother was pulling into the driveway from my godmother's funeral and five cops held us at gunpoint out of mistaken identity because the description of the car was the same one as a robbery that was supposedly nearby," she said at her home in Dorchester. "From then on, I knew that this movement is just the epitome of all of us. And I am Black Lives Matter.”
Black Lives Matter supporters include self-proclaimed liberals, progressives and anti-capitalists; some see little difference between former Vice President Joseph Biden and current President Donald Trump. At an Aug. 30 rally in Nubian Square, one speaker said: “It doesn't matter who's in the White House. You can have Jesus Christ in the White House. You could have the Buddha in the White House. You can have the Dalai Lama at the White House. Black people are still getting gunned down every single day by the police.”
Barbara Ransby, an historian at the University of Illinois Chicago, could not disagree more. “Even those of us that are cynical about electoral politics have to take this electoral moment seriously,” she said.
Ransby is on the national leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives and a professor of African American history. She argues that while Biden may not be progressive enough for some Black Americans, the alternative is far worse.
“The movements that are organizing for change will be in a much better position struggling with Joe Biden to do the right thing than defending ourselves against Trump," she said.
Ransby is the author of “Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.” She said voting is a natural next step for the BLM movement and that it echoes the efforts of a prior generation of civil rights activists to gain power through the ballot box in the 1960s.
“Most Black people in the South were excluded by various means from the ballot box, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee joined up with Mississippi sharecroppers and teachers and longtime activists, with Fannie Lou Hamer at the helm, and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party," Ransby said. "And they really did that to force the issue of Black disenfranchisement to the forefront.”
More than 93 percent of BLM protests nationwide have been peaceful, according to a study by a Wisconsin-based political violence research organization. But President Trump and his supporters accuse the movement of fomenting violence in the streets, which is part of his campaign strategy to mobilize white suburban voters.
Some Democratic strategists are concerned that his anti-BLM message might resonate at the polls. But not former Boston city councilor, Tito Jackson
“Yes, it turned off some folks, but it didn't turn off the folks who weren't already turned off by Black Lives Matter,” Jackson told GBH News.
Jackson, says the protests have had a dramatic positive impact, leading directly to police reforms in Massachusetts and beyond. “There are many major cities in the United States of America who cut their police budget in this last election cycle. And I don't think you lost one single vote," Jackson said. "I think when people look at the records of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, if this is your issue, if this was your tipping point, you were already on Trump's side.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley points to other political achievements resulting from the BLM movement. In an interview with GBH News, she said, “The fact that now we can, on a debate stage, demand that someone disavow white supremacy — I can assure you five years ago you would not have even had a debate stage that would have acknowledged white supremacy as a frame or that racism is something that is structural and that is systemic.”
Pressley said the fact that Biden picked a Black and Asian woman as his vice presidential running mate is also a political consequence of the BLM movement.
Mays said Black Lives Matter needs to be about more than the police. "I think a lot of people misconstrue the Black Lives Matter movement to only be about police brutality,” she said. “But when we scream Black Lives Matter, we mean in every area of society. And one way we can make Black lives matter is through voting.”
She is working with fellow Black Lives activists arranging carpools, phone banks and social media call-outs to get people to the polls. She said she is working as though her “life depends on it.”