US president-elect Joe Biden.

IN THE after­math of the 2020 elec­tions, Demo­c­ra­t­ic offi­cials have sparred over who’s respon­si­ble for the party’s unex­pect­ed loss­es in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Mod­er­ates (or ​“cor­po­rate Democ­rats” as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) has dubbed them) claim that calls to defund the police, end frack­ing and ensure Medicare for All spooked mod­er­ate vot­ers and helped tip oth­er­wise com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sion­al races.

Mean­while pro­gres­sives point to their more con­ser­v­a­tive coun­ter­parts’ refusal to embrace pop­u­lar poli­cies that increase vot­er turnout and sub­stan­tive­ly address insti­tu­tion­al racism or invest in strate­gies like dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing and orga­niz­ing.

Over the past week, In These Times spoke to nine orga­ni­za­tions from Ari­zona to Geor­gia to Penn­syl­va­nia, each of which played a major role in turn­ing key coun­ties and states blue. Togeth­er, these groups showed how Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties increas­ing­ly ignored by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in favor of white sub­ur­ban­ites can defeat Trump­ism by swing­ing entire states. Although the pres­i­dent man­aged to increase his vote share with peo­ple of col­or, these orga­ni­za­tions’ achieve­ments rein­force the impor­tance of mobi­liz­ing low-income vot­ers with cam­paigns that address their mate­r­i­al conditions.

“The peo­ple who came out [to vote] were incred­i­ble,” says Dina Pare­des, a Cal­i­for­nia hotel work­er who was laid off dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and joined can­vass­ing efforts in Ari­zona through her union, Unite Here. ​“They had nev­er ever vot­ed before in this country.”

Pare­des is from El Sal­vador and has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. As a Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus (TPS) hold­er, she received a work per­mit under a human­i­tar­i­an pro­gram set to expire in 2021 after the Trump admin­is­tra­tion suc­ceed­ed in elim­i­nat­ing pro­tec­tions from depor­ta­tion for around 400,000 ben­e­fi­cia­ries. ​

“I have TPS, so I get but­ter­flies in my stom­ach when I talk about this,” she con­tin­ues in Span­ish. ​

“What we achieved is his­toric. I’m going to recount it to my chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren. [But] our fight isn’t over. This is only the beginning.”

For decades, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has invest­ed in pre-elec­tion can­vass­ing that allows vol­un­teers to speak direct­ly to swing-state vot­ers about their can­di­date of choice.

Due to the pan­dem­ic, how­ev­er, the Joe Biden cam­paign did not approve this kind of door-to-door out­reach until Octo­ber, focus­ing instead on tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ments, text mes­sages, emails and vir­tu­al events.

There to pick up the slack were groups like Unite Here, which began its can­vass­ing in the sum­mer and com­plet­ed its work with­out a sin­gle one of its 1700 vol­un­teers con­tract­ing COVID-19. 

“You don’t beat Trump­ism with ads, you beat it with orga­niz­ing,” says Jacob Swen­son-Lengyel, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up, a coali­tion devot­ed to build­ing peo­ple pow­er across the state.

Swen­son-Lengyel explained that vol­un­teers engaged com­mu­ni­ties in lengthy con­ver­sa­tions about how they were car­ing for one anoth­er dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and what it would mean to have a gov­ern­ment that did the same. In all, the orga­ni­za­tion spoke to over 400,000 eli­gi­ble voters.

By estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers that will last well beyond the 2020 elec­tion, orga­ni­za­tions like SONG Pow­er, a grass­roots effort focused on the South, offer a pow­er­ful mod­el for base-build­ing.

​“We need to be ori­ent­ed toward slow and respect­ful work,” says orga­niz­ing lead Jade Brooks. ​“How do we com­bine that approach with an elec­toral cycle that’s all about [imme­di­ate] impact? [Part of] the answer is to invest in build­ing com­mu­ni­ty-based and root­ed orga­ni­za­tions that are going to stick around…long after the elec­tions and will invest in the lead­er­ship of Black and brown lead­ers who have been doing the work [rather than] consultants.”

This is pre­cise­ly the work SONG Pow­er car­ried out with Black, Indige­nous, and peo­ple of col­or com­mu­ni­ties in South Car­oli­na and Geor­gia. Many of these peo­ple had nev­er vot­ed before, but out­reach includ­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of food, coats and lit­er­a­ture helped bring them into the elec­toral process.

For Native Amer­i­can vot­ers, a key issue this Novem­ber was era­sure — a phe­nom­e­non cap­tured by a recent CNN demo­graph­ics poll that clas­si­fied them as ​“some­thing else.” Fol­low­ing Don­ald Trump’s upset vic­to­ry in 2016, groups like Four Direc­tions and the Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance (among oth­ers) care­ful­ly stud­ied how this pop­u­la­tion could deter­mine the out­come of key swing states, lead­ing to the first Native Amer­i­can Pres­i­den­tial Forum.

The forum, held in August of last year, allowed Demo­c­ra­t­ic hope­fuls to con­verse direct­ly with trib­al lead­ers and activists.

It also served to com­bat Native peo­ples’ dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem while gen­er­at­ing the inter­est and invest­ment nec­es­sary to train them how to over­come the huge bar­ri­ers to voting on reservations.

OJ Semans Sr., Co-founder of Four Direc­tions, trained and hired Native peo­ple across the coun­try to con­duct vot­er out­reach in their com­mu­ni­ties.

He esti­mates that vol­un­teers reg­is­tered 2,500 new vot­ers in the Nava­jo Nation, which helped boost turnout and played a major role in deliv­er­ing key coun­ties to Joe Biden in Ari­zona. ​“This is one of the only elec­tions where I’ve seen trib­al orga­ni­za­tions unit­ed in help­ing Natives get to the polls,” he said. Semans is now in Geor­gia to train local tribe mem­bers ahead of the state’s runoff elections. 

While Black turnout in Geor­gia was up over 2016, it nonethe­less rep­re­sent­ed a low­er share of the elec­torate, and data indi­cates that Biden made some of his biggest gains with mod­er­ates in the Atlanta sub­urbs.

For Brooks, this under­scores the dan­ger of draft­ing cen­trist can­di­dates who will not address the needs of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties.

The future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, she con­tends, depends on its abil­i­ty to attract vot­ers with a bold, pro­gres­sive agen­da that will pro­duce the kind of sys­temic change that has long been the goal of orga­ni­za­tions like SONG Pow­er, Mijente and the GLAHR Action Net­work. ​“This col­lab­o­ra­tion has been built over years of con­nec­tion and orga­niz­ing togeth­er,” says Brooks. ​“We have the kind of trust that’s only forged in struggle.” 

Whether or not they can deliv­er Democ­rats con­trol of the Sen­ate via December’s runoff elec­tions remains to be seen, but these orga­ni­za­tions have already suc­ceed­ed in oust­ing two local sher­iffs whose deputies worked in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) to deport undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants for infrac­tions as minor as speed­ing. Recount­ing a recent call cel­e­brat­ing these vic­to­ries, Brooks says SONG Pow­er mem­bers were ​“cry­ing” tears of joy about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of even­tu­al­ly end­ing mon­ey bail and ​“melt­ing ICE.” Mean­while in North Car­oli­na, where many undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ties fall under the juris­dic­tion of the same ICE office, groups like Siem­bra are knock­ing on doors to ensure res­i­dents know their rights in the event of retal­ia­to­ry raids.

In Ari­zona, the past 10 years of orga­niz­ing against dra­con­ian anti-immi­grant poli­cies pro­vid­ed the infra­struc­ture to turn out Black, Lat­inx and Native Amer­i­can vot­ers at a scale that proved deci­sive. Alexa-Rio Osa­ki, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy group Our Voice Our Vote, Ari­zona, has seen first­hand how these vio­lent poli­cies gal­va­nized a new gen­er­a­tion of orga­niz­ers. ​“Account­abil­i­ty [means more than] going on Twit­ter and yelling,” she observes. ​“Through the pow­er of orga­niz­ing, we have to show that there are con­se­quences for being on the [wrong] side of history.”

These Black and brown-led move­ments are now set­ting their sights on states where right-wing pow­er remains entrenched. Ear­li­er this year, SONG Pow­er launched a ​“Crack Gra­ham” cam­paign to unseat South Car­oli­na Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham that fea­tured ​“Hoe Downs” empha­siz­ing the joy in col­lec­tive action. While the cam­paign was ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, orga­niz­ers believe they were able to ​“seed the ground for a New South” by build­ing rela­tion­ships with rur­al Black, Lat­inx and queer communities.

As Trump’s pres­i­den­cy draws to an end, the incom­ing Biden admin­is­tra­tion will be forced to con­tend with a pro­gres­sive move­ment gain­ing strength and momen­tum across the coun­try. One Penn­syl­va­nia is redi­rect­ing its resources toward pre­vent­ing an evic­tion cri­sis, com­bat­ing wage theft and ensur­ing work­ers receive their paid sick days, while mem­bers of Penn­syl­va­nia Stands Up in Lehigh Coun­ty are strate­giz­ing on how to defund local police depart­ments and cul­ti­vate pro­gres­sive can­di­dates for future elections.

While autop­sies of the 2020 elec­tion have only just begun, the impact of orga­ni­za­tions like Mijente is unde­ni­able. So too is their impor­tance mov­ing for­ward, espe­cial­ly as Trump’s gains with peo­ple of col­or have shat­tered the illu­sion that demo­graph­ics are des­tiny. ​“All of these ideas of return­ing to what was con­sid­ered reg­u­lar under Oba­ma was won through orga­niz­ing,” cau­tions the organization’s senior cam­paign orga­niz­er, Jac­in­ta Gon­za­lez. ​“It was won because com­mu­ni­ties fought depor­ta­tion cas­es, fought for local and state poli­cies and took to the streets and spoke to their elect­ed officials.”

Only time will tell whether Democ­rats heed her warn­ing. But if they don’t, there’s an entire move­ment ready to hold the party’s lead­er­ship to account.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here