TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Fifty years ago, two Florida A&M students were arrested for sitting next to a white woman on a bus here. The next day, they were rewarded with a cross burned on their front lawn.
The following day, and for months afterward, Florida A&M students boycotted the city’s buses, in one of the critical pieces in the larger mid-century civil rights movement.
Decades later, on the likely verge of a second Clinton presidency, young black activists are more organized, more active, more influential than they’ve been in decades. There is a new civil rights movement, engaging young black Americans — and colliding with an election activists never really intended to get involved in.
Here in Tallahassee, all these things converge. Clinton will do well with young black voters, but not as well as Barack Obama. Clinton has campaigned on reversing decades of criminal justice policy, but that’s not quite convincing to a group of people attuned to the effects of crime policy from those decades. People here are sick of the “enthusiasm” question, but that doesn’t mean enthusiasm for voting is flooding the campus — not one person at a table of FAMU students, clad in orange shirts, raised their hands at the prospect.
“I’m actually not excited about Hillary Clinton,” said Chelsea Maloney. Clinton had seemed “so against” Obama in 2008. Now, it’s a “little convenient” for her to be so friendly toward him. Clinton, Jacob Smith said, is too manufactured: “If my vote mattered, or the people’s majority mattered, I feel like we’d have different candidates than we have right now.”
Jessica Floyd, Dominique Parks, and Ryan White — all FAMU students on the cheer team, are voting for Clinton — but were inspired to do so when Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee. Floyd wishes she could have cast a ballot for Barack Obama; Clinton is the next best thing. But excited? “Uhhhm, kind of yeah, you know, that my opinion matters,” White said.
“It’s important to have a voice because a voteless people is a hopeless people,” said Floyd. “How are we supposed to articulate what we want if we can’t vote for who we want to be able to? I just think that Donald Trump definitely isn’t for our type of people. I think Hillary will have more compassion.”
“It’s crazy, because they’re begging for our vote now,” said Sharon Washington. “But back then we were dying to vote. So I’m, like, at this point, do you deserve the vote? I don’t think so.”
What happens when you win with the support of an energized but deeply skeptical bloc of voters?
“This might be a little bit controversial, so I apologize,” warns Raynal Sands, a graphic design major from Miami.
“People try to say that [Clinton's] cold-hearted and things like that, but I absolutely love the fact that she does not back down in the presence of anyone,” Sands says. “To me, it shows that she’s strong and confident. Women — we can’t be fluffy and all smiley, because then we get run over.”
Sands, for one, is convinced Clinton’s the real thing. And so certain was she that Clinton would be the nominee during the primary, she took the semester off and has been working as the campaign’s organizer on campus since. (“If we had 100 of her,” said Tierra Ward, the campaign’s region director, “things would be 100 times better than what they are.”)
But even on this sunny afternoon in Florida, and even with Sands’ enthusiasm, the task of converting student into voter involves a lot of labor. Bill Clinton was supposed to be here, but Shimon Peres died, and he went to Israel instead. So Sands and Dajuh Sawyer decided to make the most of the afternoon, sending their organizers out two-by-two to register voters, clad in T-shirts reading “Black Votes Matter.”
At Truth Hall, they came upon a student from South Florida named Isabelle Louis, with whom Sands had already spoken. A first-year student, Louis was not inclined to vote before coming into contact with Sands, who bounded into a classroom to canvass students. This time, she and Sawyer listened as Louis talked about her classes and why she might make a switch, and tried aloud to remember if Hillary Clinton had a famous husband. “I don’t really know much," she said. "I’m not voting for Trump, I know that.”
Sands sat sideways, speaking softly as she asked Louis if a political education class would be helpful. The workshop, she argued, would help broaden her thinking politically. They also tried to convince her that casting a vote for the right candidate makes a difference. “Once upon a time,” Sawyer added, “women didn’t have the right to vote.” Louis opened up. She thinks she might be like to become an OB-GYN. The freshman, they were stunned to learn, drives a car on campus. The pair managed to turn the conversation about politics into one about her future.
The Clinton campaign in particular has directed much of its work toward historically black colleges and universities — especially in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina. Organizers on campus focus on convincing students of why their vote matters, often attempting to delve into personal histories, backgrounds, and ambitions before getting to the big ask. Sands says that students who are open to voting for Clinton want to know more about what she believes, even as they express confusion about the electoral college.
“It’s a true test of your will to really keep your purpose and what you’re doing this for in mind,” Sands says later. “Sometimes you can get discouraged. Sometimes students will look at me and then they’ll just keep walking.
“I just have to remember I need them to listen to me—” she paused, then changed to a slightly brighter tone. “You need to at least get your question out. You have to humble yourself and know you’re not doing this for friends. You’re doing this because you want them to register have an impact on their communities.”
In October focus groups, the Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher’s polling firm found two factors dramatically increased vote likelihood among groups like young black voters: learning of the “urgent consequences” of a potential Trump presidency (i.e. his ability to appoint judges or his proposal to implement stop-and-frisk, inflaming racial tensions), and connecting “passion and discontent” with personal capacity to effect change in their communities by voting for local candidates. “When presented with the power of political process, they begin embracing their responsibility to make change happen,” an internal memo shared with BuzzFeed News read.
That this campaign — largely driven by personality in its final months, and questions of nationalism and national identity — might be driven by policy on the smallest increments is sort of an irony. Here, there is a near obsessive emphasis on educating the voting-aged members of the student body. “There are two different versions of what America could look like following this election,” said Ward, the regional director. “So it’s more than just, ‘Are you hype?’ ‘Are you excited?’ It’s more, ‘Do you understand what’s at stake in this election?’”
Terrence Woodbury, an analyst, said, “Amongst low-propensity voters there is a much lower threshold of getting them understand what this election means and how it affects their immediate lives,” saying respondents in two focus groups with young protesters in Charlotte said the candidates didn’t impress them or that they believed the candidates were not talking directly to them, or about their issues.
“Connecting that reality to the power that they have to shape that is remarkably impactful in increasing their vote likelihood," he said. "It’s all the way from ‘I am absolutely not participating’ to an absolute ‘yes, I’m voting.’”
“It would be tough for Barack Obama to reach them for how they are right now,” said Alan Williams, a term-limited member of the Florida House of Representatives.
In recent days, young activists in the broader movement often referred to as Black Lives Matter have endorsed Clinton, framing her publicly as an ally of the movement’s goals. Peter Haviland-Eduah, the co-policy chair for Million Hoodies for Justice, and Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson of Campaign Zero are the most prominent figures to get behind the campaign. According to a Clinton aide, Packnett and Mckesson met with her at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland for nearly a half hour. Privately, Mckesson has told friends he walked away quite impressed by Clinton in the intimate setting, though both activists have yet to discuss the meeting in much detail; but Clinton vowed to keep dialogue with the activists going, and that she would herself begin the arduous work of building a foundation for her campaign to engage in the work on Nov. 9.
Clinton, who has been the target of direct action from the movement during the campaign, spoke openly with Mckesson and Packnett about how she understands that young people are upset. As president, she said she’s going to keep fighting to improve the lives of black Americans, but that it was important that young people frustrated with the system use their vote to change it.
Alicia Garza, probably the most public face of the Black Lives Matter Network’s two-dozen chapters, has said she’s personally voted for Clinton to stop Donald Trump, but the organization as a whole is not endorsing her. “I believe we must ask ourselves what it takes to make a candidate feel accountable to the concrete policy demands of a movement," Garza told Melissa Harris-Perry.
Garza’s position echoes a sentiment in the movement that engagement in electoral politics is not a means to solutions to big problems like ending racism or police brutality — and Clinton, the White House, and federal government are not seen as vehicles for the kind of change some envision. It’s why the Clinton campaign enlisted validators like Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. A son of FAMU, Gillum cast his first ballot at another politically charged time for Al Gore. “I talk a lot about how important that it is that we make this election personal,” Gillum said. “A lot of times when you talk to college students, and frankly when most older people talk to college students, they talk about the election standpoint: ‘People had fought and died for your right to exercise your ability to vote — and you ought to do it.’ I think that’s compelling for some people. But I think still for others they need to know what’s in it for them.”
Gillum understands the youth movement and thinks the protesters believe in the power of the ballot box: “They’re embodying the seriousness of this moment by taking collective action. I believe that collective action in November is going to lead them to the ballot box.” He said he thinks the protesters know they need to put policymakers in place who understand the movement and why it’s important — for Clinton, it’s the granularity that she grasps.
Clinton’s devotion to rolling up her sleeves on policy should be a good sign for movement groups that have shown a recent inclination to work within the very system Clinton believes many young black voters to be frustrated by. The policy platform Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power landed on lawmakers’ desks this summer. In September, Black Youth Project 100 held its first “Build Black Futures Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill.” It engaged directly with lawmakers including Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Bobby Scott while holding true to its roots: At a Budget Committee hearing, silent protesters held up signs demanding the government invest in young black people.
When Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and Alfred Olango were all killed by law enforcement in September alone, Clinton got sharper. She called on Charlotte to make public video it had in the Scott case. She told Steve Harvey in an interview the shootings were “unbearable, and it needs to be intolerable." Most surprisingly, Clinton, on a black radio show said she was speaking “directly to white people” when she said that “this is not who we are.”
The movement, then and now, was built on something of an unspoken principle as it related to protest, mistreatment, justice, and blackness: If something happened to one of us it, in effect, happened to us all.
In this way, FAMU’s civil rights history is not difficult to connect to the 2016 election. It's seen in where volunteers gather, near the sign commemorating the students who started the bus boycott. It's in the "Black Votes Matter" T-shirts and the collective feeling that Clinton will have to be held accountable once elected.
Skeptical as they may be of Clinton, it's history and a call to unity that is compelling students to turn out for her.
In 1956, black citizens powered through the bus boycott by ride-sharing. The carpooling system was funded by groups and was so effective that it was even prosecuted in court. Without that unity, it's questionable as to when many of the demands of the bus company would have been met.
The thought crossed Sawyer’s mind as she engaged with the young woman unsure if she was voting. She didn't just ask Louis to commit to vote: She strongly suggested she volunteer to bring “5 or 10” people to the polls, too.
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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