Analysis: Black Chicago youth are disenchanted by 2020 election options, but hope for a progressive future

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Injustice Watch is partnering with The TRiiBE to provide stories, perspectives, and critical information about the 2020 election. Click here for Injustice Watch’s judicial election guide.

When I interviewed Kaleb Autman in July about the unique challenges that Black teens face in Chicago, I asked the 18-year-old organizer what reforms might improve their situation.

“I can’t in good consciousness propose any reforms,” Autman said.

I wasn’t surprised.

In speaking with Chicago’s progressive youth organizers and resistors who’ve been attending local protests throughout this year’s uprisings, I’ve come to understand that their idea of progress isn’t attained by settling for incremental reforms.

In fact, totally resisting the status quo instead of reforming within its confines has been one of the major ideological forces behind the 2020 uprisings often led by people in their late teens and twenties. Instead of emphasizing ways to tweak social institutions and systems to make them more equitable, the mission of progressive Chicago youth is to take steps toward dismantling those unequal institutions and systems altogether.

“At the very least, to me, the ideal candidate has to be supportive of the abolition movement. That’s the bare minimum,” says Darnisha Hale, a 24-year-old woman from Austin. “If they aren’t willing to surround themselves with people who are outspoken anti-capitalist progressives, they probably aren’t going to work too hard to put [anti-capitalist and progressive] policies in place.”

Hale is one of four Black youth I spoke with to hear exactly what a progressive political candidate looks like in their eyes. Each one identifies politically as progressive. While all four of them have reasoned that if they had to pick between the two options for president, they’d vote Biden, none of them are enthusiastic about voting in the 2020 election. A couple are likely to skip the voting booth altogether.

After young people (ages 18-24) only accounted for about 3.5% of votes cast in the 2019 Chicago mayoral elections, according to the Chicago Board of Elections data, many seasoned politicians, political pundits, and older people find it hard to take young people and their progressive ideals seriously during the election season. But young people are the future of the nation’s body politic, so understanding and accommodating their political views will only encourage their participation in the process.

 

Each of the people I spoke with admitted that they’d originally planned to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders in this year’s election — and a couple of them would’ve been doing so for the second time around after voting for him in the 2016 primaries.

At the time, Sanders was an energizing force for progressives nationwide as his demands for free healthcare, affordable education, and environmental justice were groundbreaking in the mainstream. But the choices we have now have invoked great frustration within young Black people. President Donald Trump is seen as an unabashed white supremacist, and former Vice President Joe Biden lost what little credibility he may have maintained in their eyes when he spoke on the uprisings to condemn rioting.

Now their only remaining incentive to vote is for the sake of those directly endangered by Trump’s reign, including themselves. As Black people, some of whom are gender non-conforming, living under leadership that endorses white supremacist factions and fights against the rights of queer folk, is by no means a safe place to be. Essentially their vote for Biden is really a vote against Trump.

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

In July 2020, organizers and resistors gathered in Freedom Square in Homan Square.

While third-party candidates don’t provide many credible progressive candidates who can defeat Trump, write-in candidates present another choice. But only a celebrity or someone with a large national following could ever pull much weight as a write-in candidate.

Kanye West is determined to do just that, encouraging his fans and supporters to write him into their ballots. The artist turned politician has used his celebrity to carve out his own corner of the market, which consists of both superfans who haven’t a care in the world about the political and economic turmoil the country is facing, and incredibly jaded voters who are willing to cast a ballot in hopes of at least some kind of change in direction for the country.

Ye’s platform has some pieces that appeal to young Black progressives — protecting the environment, restructuring the education system to benefit at-risk youth, and reforming the judicial system to be more equal. But, at every turn, they are shown that West is still far from progressive. This year, West argued that Forbes magazine underreported his earnings by more than $2 billion when they announced he was a billionaire, which — considering that young Black progressives generally have an anti-capitalist disposition — isn’t a very attractive anecdote. West has spent time as a soldier for Trump and mostly aligns himself with right-wing political figures and commentators, including Candace Owens.  

According to West, he was being used by Trump to “deliver messages that [he doesn’t] believe in.” However, even since he claimed to have left the Trump train, West has made statements like “Harriet Tubman didn’t actually free any slaves, she just took them to work for other white people,” and has come out as anti-abortion for religious reasons.

Some folks, like 20-year-old Blake Saint David — eligible to vote for president for the first time this year — don’t particularly agree with all of Kanye’s politics but value some of the things West outlines in his platform.

“Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with all that wild shit he says,” says Saint David, who uses they/them pronouns. “I believe in abolishing the police and prisons, and I feel like the government should provide families with basic necessities like housing, education, and water. He isn’t the perfect progressive candidate.”

Saint David isn’t certain whether they’ll be voting, but it’ll be for Biden if they do. “I don’t think I’ll write in Ye because I get that the goal is to get Trump out,” they say. “But between the three, I feel [Ye] the most.”

Saint David was among other newly eligible voters who chose not to vote in the 2019 Chicago mayoral elections because they thought neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor her challenger Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle had enough progressive bona fides. Now, in their second brush with the democratic process, they are still unsure about whether they will vote at all.

“They were both pretty much cops, and I couldn’t vote for that,” Saint David says. “My views are important to me. I don’t often engage with politics because I know it’ll require me to compromise my views.”

For 22-year-old Lauren Adams, though, participating in an election to any degree compromises her views because she feels that any political office in this country is inherently tainted.

“Any candidate running for a position within our political system as it currently exists, on stolen land, is inherently illegitimate and not ideal to me,” Adams says. “But I believe that harm reduction is a real, important thing, and I just feel like if Biden is nominating a Supreme Court justice and choosing his cabinet, I can at least expect that less-evil human beings will be chosen for those positions.”

Adams is a Morgan Park High School alum who currently resides in Bronzeville. She became a member of BYP100 through a college initiative in which Charlene Carruthers, founder of BYP100, was the instructor. BYP100 is a member-based organization of Black youth activists who advocate for creating justice and freedom for all Black people.

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

After speeches and performances at July’s Freedom Square demonstration, participants began to march around the neighborhood — feeding the block and spreading the word about #DefundCPD.

Adams is willing to vote against Trump to minimize the damage his administration has caused to her communities. “When I talk about the community I want to see protected and benefited by public policy, I mean Black people, I mean queer people [and] I mean indigenous people,” she says. “I also mean the community I live in and the community of organizers I work with.”

Adams gave several reasons why she’s voting against Trump, including policies from his administration that locked children in cages at the border and forced hysterectomies on immigrant women, Trump encouraging white nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys, and his decision to put an aggressive capitalist in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hale is also casting a harm reduction vote for Biden. But she expects the worst from him still. “Biden is the perfect example of someone who we can’t trust to make any progressive decisions,” she says. “He’ll probably end up more like an Obama lite, pun intended, than anything close to even a Bernie Sanders, let alone anyone I would call ideal.”

Hale is one of two out of the four I spoke with who plans to cast a vote in this election. She’s primarily focused on the down-ballot races, including the state legislature, judges, and state’s attorney, all of which have more of a direct impact on her life. Unfortunately, even some of those candidates are unsatisfactory, she says.

“[Cook County State’s Attorney] Kim Foxx seems like a cool Black lady on the surface, but I’ve heard her in press conferences propping up the same misguided idea that hunting down looters is essential to public safety,” Hale says, referring to an August press conference Foxx attended alongside Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Department Superintendent David Brown. “I don’t care whether the State’s Attorney can bring up charges on a 30-year-old who stole a flat-screen [TV], I want to see cops charged for beating protesters.”

Like 22-year-old Xavier Mason from the South Side of Chicago, some folks are looking forward to continuing to resist and fight for progressive change, regardless of who wins in this year’s election.

“I don’t want us to get complacent if Biden wins,” Mason says. “He does not represent the things we’ve been in the streets protesting for. They will still be killing black people. They will still be separating immigrant families.”

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

At July’s Freedom Square demonstration, organizers wore gear and held signs supporting Black trans women and other marginalized community groups.

Mason has participated in protests throughout the summer uprisings, and his outlook for the future of progressive politics is to have someone who represents an intersection of marginalized identities. “Of course it’s by design that a majority of people holding public office are old-money white men,” he says. “I think that it’s important to have a woman in office, a woman of color especially, who can empathize with the struggles of people who are the most disenfranchised.”

He learned a lesson from the Obama presidency — that being of the demographic isn’t exactly a guarantee of righteousness toward that demographic.

“I mean, I’m sure Obama came into power with intentions of good, but ultimately he was swallowed up by the establishment,” Mason says. “But it’s also important that we don’t have somebody trying to be just the president of Black people. We need someone who understands the problems all marginalized identities face.”