Youth Activists Consider the Role of Voting in Freedom Struggles
Student activist Makayla Gilliam-Price, Dayvon Love, Director of Public Policy for the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and community activist DeJuan Patterson discuss 50 years of voting rights
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
August 6 marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. And to consider its impact and current value among younger activists, we’ve decided to convene a small panel here at the Real News. We have Mr. Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. We have student activist Makayla Gillian-Price. And DeJuan Patterson, a student of public policy, a community activist focused on civil engagement, mental health, and education. Welcome, all of you, to the Real News.
So Makayla, let’s start with you. We again have seen the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act passed, 50 years of civic engagement at new levels for African America. How do you feel its value is measured in today’s climate, as a young activist? The power of the vote, the use of the vote, the focus on the vote as a method of, mechanism of change. How do you respond to that, what do you think about that?
MAKAYLA GILLIAM-PRICE, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: Well, as a high school student activist I represent a large constituency which can not yet vote. So voting is a sort of abstract thing for us. It’s something that we’re working towards, but not something that we can actively engage in as a–.
BALL: Are you excited to get to that point?
GILLIAM-PRICE: Oh, absolutely. I’ll be voting next year for my first time. But I think that coming from that standpoint we have an important perspective, because we know we cannot essentialize our political agency to just being voting. So we’re forced to look to different alternatives instead of just voting to activate that same political agency. So while it might not hold the same significance for our age group, it’s something that we look forward to engaging in in the future. But as of right now, it’s really just a stasis point for how we can work around it.
BALL: Dayvon, same question. I mean, and even as Makayla talks about the excitement of being able to vote for the same time next year, part of my concern at least is for whom will she be able to vote? And what value will it bring? What do you think?
DAYVON LOVE: Well, reflecting on the fight to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, I think about the fact that what inspired it was the importance of black political power. And I think sometimes the vote is reduced to just this abstract, ethical obligation to participate in the political process instead of using the vote strategically to build power in the fixtures that exist in the larger political structure.
And so I think given that, particularly here in Baltimore, we have local elections coming up which have a dramatically more direct impact on lives of people in Baltimore, for me the vote is one of many tools that one should use in order to develop the kind of political power necessary to organize communities effectively.
BALL: You ran not too long ago for local office. How did you situate that campaign, given your broader political perspective on things? How did you, how did you engage that?
LOVE: I mean, our general idea was around representing a view that it’s important to shift the dynamics of power in society, and kind of saw the campaign as just giving an alternative, like you said, to those who traditionally had to vote for the lesser of a few evils. And one of the things I was able to learn from that is that there’s a tremendous amount of money, resources, and institutions behind making sure certain candidates are made more available to the public than others.
And so a part of our work since the campaign has really been around cultivating a culture around civic and political engagement that can help to break up some of the institutional monopoly over what candidates are made available in the mainstream to the general public.
BALL: What do you think about all this?
DEJUAN PATTERSON, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Well, Dayvon said a lot of things that I would agree with. And I think the Voting Rights Act is important right now because we have to look at things from a grassroots level.
Too often times we get caught up in the federal and the national level, and we forget about the lower level, within the localized level. That level is one of the most, if not the important level that we can participate in as far as the political arena. That’s the arena where we begin to see more immediate results. So we begin to get people more engaged in that arena first, because within a certain community that’s impacted by the Voting Rights Act, they perceive that the only time they should be politically engaged is during the federal elections and the presidential candidates, and these things and these discussions.
However, if we begin to start looking in the local level, we can have more immediate impact and influence. And if we look at Baltimore City, we have a 64 percent African-American population. But however, when we look at the distribution of wealth it does not reflect that. So voting rights, and political engagement, it transpires over into the economical distribution of wealth as well.
BALL: But that even goes back to the quote I mentioned to all of you off-air, one of my favorite quotes on this issue, from George Jackson. What good is the vote after the fact of monopoly capital? If the idea among some is that we can use the vote to more equitably distribute wealth, how does that, or doesn’t that stand in contradiction to the way voting is often dependent upon, or who we have to vote for is dependent upon how much money they have and can use to promote themselves? In other words, the wealth that we’re looking to redistribute works against us in terms of developing campaigns and candidates, and even parties that would be of any value to the rest of us. I hope that made sense, and I’d love to hear your response to that point.
LOVE: I think when we look at the things made available to us, because I think it’s important that we think about building economic infrastructure in our communities as a way, as a basis for launching different political and social endeavors. And I see moments of strategic engagement in the political process as a part of a potential strategy in terms of seizing some of the wealth and creating the kind of infrastructure we need in order to advance our interests.
And so I think sometimes that gets confused with an interest in participating in the capitalist system. But I think it’s important that we use the strategic things we have at our disposal. So if you think about local, city government, you’re talking about access to contracts, access to monies and resources to do certain programs, that will help to create a culture around revolutionary and political thinking, and so forth.
So I think it’s important for us when we think about the vote in the context of the quote you just mentioned, that we see them as strategic ways to take advantage of the fissures in the system, as opposed to wanting to participate in the system as it exists.
BALL: Anybody else want to respond to that?
PATTERSON: I would like to bring up a good point. We look at current Baltimore City State’s Attorney Mosby, she was outspent. She was outspent and out-earned, as far as raising financial capital. However, the process she took was a grassroots approach and focused on the social capital that Baltimore had to offer.
If we begin to galvanize the community and think of the importance of social capital, because we have the numbers here, if you have the numbers and you begin to pique their interest, and you go in against some of the corporate interests that have the economical support to push certain institutions and figures [inside a place]. But if you go ahead and talk on the social capital, you have more boots on the ground, they have more time.
See, that’s the thing that with the economical piece of the political process, they had that money to push somebody in front of you because they’ve given them more money and more time. But if you’ve got some people here, like in Baltimore you’ve got a lot of people disengaged, unemployed, uneducated, but they still have interests. And they are bodies [social record].
BALL: But even the point you raise kind of speaks to one of my concerns. Because Ms. Mosby is not a revolutionary. And at the end of the day, she may have been able to pose herself progressively in the Freddie Gray incident. But even right now she’s turned right back to a regular state’s attorney and started to prosecute mainly black, poor people who are going to spend a lot of time in jail. So your point is well taken, but I don’t want to confuse her with a true radical break from what’s been going on.
Makayla, do you want to add to that?
GILLIAM-PRICE: Absolutely. I think that the capital that’s used to, like what you were saying earlier, push certain candidates in front of you and push certain parties in front of you, I think that’s extremely problematic because it instills a sort of complacency in black communities, especially. Just looking at the dichotomy between the Democratic party and the Republican party in Maryland, especially I think a lot of people find comfort in being Democrats. It seems comfortable, it seems like the most progressive option. But instead we should be shifting to a model that Dayvon’s talking about where we’re redirecting that capital, creating independently black-owned institutions to advocate for our own personal needs and our own personal interests, and we don’t currently have that.
BALL: Is there any discussion in your circles of the Ujima People’s Party, and what, can you–this is the independent black party here in Maryland that is looking to do, or address some of the concerns you all are–what are folks in your spaces saying about that? Is it inspiring, are you like, I’m not sure if that’s worth our time, should we stay with the Democratic party?
LOVE: Most people I think see it as a pipe dream. I think it’s–.
BALL: But isn’t voting for Democrats? Like, only–.
LOVE: But I think that is a good long-term project in terms of what the endgame should be. Because I think too many times we create objectives around limited possibilities. And so I think creating objectives around an endgame that seems outside of the current political imagination, I think it’s important to start to plant the seeds so that eventually–.
It’s actually, in a state like Maryland where a third of its population is African-descended people, you have a large size of Latino, Latina population. So just thinking about the endgame in terms of the acquisition of power to actually influence state legislation, the government in general, to me seems like an endgame that is more worthwhile than some of the short-term benefits that one may think that we get from going Democratic.
BALL: Any quick concluding comments from either of you?
PATTERSON: I would say, speaking back on to something you said earlier, not taking away from Mosby. But I was speaking on the social capital piece, the approach. And we’re talking about something, he was talking about just a few minutes ago, we have to go in this way of civically engaging them, but it comes on awareness. If we go ahead and go to the alternative parties outside of the two-party system that we have been accustomed to, a lot of times now culture in that community is history and tradition that they’ve been exposed to. And that conditioning predisposed them and propelled them to go ahead and go into a particular arena when it’s a two-party system.
So we begin–to deviate away from that we have to begin educating more on the reasons why we need to go to an alternative. And the alternative, we’re taking our social capital somewhere else. That will make the other parties more [progressive] to our interests.
GILLIAM-PRICE: Just the portion on the Ujima Party, I think in order for black institutions and black political parties like those to work, we have to be mindful of two things. One, that it’s not a short narrative, right. It’s a long-term goal, like what Dayvon was saying. But also we have to be mindful of black political leaders who don’t necessarily have the best interest of the community at heart. And just like, pop-up politicians who aren’t really looking for the long-term goal, maybe just to name–they play a large part in delegitimizing black institutions like the Ujima Party and like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, right, because people don’t know what’s to be seen as genuine.
So we have to be extremely mindful of that in order for black institutions to be successful.
BALL: Makayla, Dayvon, DeJuan, thank you for joining us.
PANEL: Thank you.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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