In the midst of the 2020 presidential election one thing remains evident: the solid organizing work that Black Lives Matter leaders did across the country to elevate, mobilize and engage the voting electorate.
Jessica Byrd, the founder of The Movement for Black Lives‘ Electoral Justice Project is one of the leaders who is committed to doing the heavy lifting required. Byrd is also a co-leader of The Frontline an election initiative working to transform the anger and grief from the racial justice protests over the summer into electoral power.
“The Frontline is responsible for the Election Defenders project, which is training people on how to spot voter suppression at the polls, has hosted teach-ins on the various election scenarios to prep activists on how Trump may try to steal the election, and is the movement behind those great joy to the polls videos I’m sure you’ve seen all over Twitter,” said Byrd.
That work was vital and evident as people stood in line for hours at the polls, grounded by the momentum which began 400 years ago, and activated once again by the repeated killings of Black community members in the midst of a historic general election.
Now that the election is over, the work continues. For Byrd that culminates in years of organizing around the liberation of Black people who are on one track to be free in a country which routinely weaponizes against them.
“We’re actually in meetings now but we’re moving into the governance portion and so along with the Working Families Party, created a People’s Charter which is essentially a working manifesto of the governance needed for working people across race and gender to live in their highest lives in the United States,” said Byrd. “We will be full force engaging in advocacy and political education on how The Breathe Act could really be the divestment from violence and policing and the investment in our futures that so many of us are longing for. We’re excited to get to work, we’re already getting to work on that and so it should be a really busy few months.”
MadameNoire sat down with Byrd to discuss Movement for Black Lives, The Frontline initiative and why she will always put her faith in the work of Black organizers.
MadameNoire: Is there anything that can be said to offer some comfort or rejuvenation in this taxing time? Especially because it seems that there’s a split between celebration and apprehension in regards to the outcome of the election.
Jessica Byrd: My first response is that it makes sense to me that our feelings are complicated because I think largely, this election we are experiencing a trauma response to four years of extremism of state sanctions from the White House, Oval Office, gaslighting, lying, violence, terror. And then I would say my second thing though is as an organizer who has truly worked on a campaign every single day the last 10 years, it is not possible to refill your cup without acknowledging your own contributions and process. And if we want this really f—–g powerful multi-racial working-class movement to refill it’s cup, we have to celebrate our power.
MN: In September, you wrote a NYT opinion piece about the future of Black Politics which was widely shared and heralded. You wrote, “We put at the center of our politics the voices and leadership of people whose appeals for justice are most likely to be ignored by the state — Black queer and trans people, people who were formerly incarcerated, sex workers, disabled people and people who have been made poor by violent and oppressive systems.” Can you talk about the power within mobilizing around the specific disenfranchised members of society that you named and how it leads to a collective groundswell of how we, especially as Black people, can all get free.
JB: I think it’s something that I’m still processing in terms of Tuesday [Election Day] as I look at the data and really think about the stories to be told about the way that so many of us rose up. But I can say this—and when I wrote that piece was during the time that I was planning and leading the Black National Convention and it was really clear that I had a choice to make. And that choice was to make Black politics and in particular radical leftist ideology, to make it irresistible to white people and to people who hold different views, or to remind the millions of Black people who have been sitting on their porches talking about this structure, whether I would talk to them and say, “You know what, we have everything that we need in order to be free in this country and to build power.” And there are Black people building power every minute of everyday everywhere that Black people live. So what I will say is that whether it’s in Georgia or Louisiana or Florida or Mississippi or all the places that people are fighting for re-enfranchisement, is that there is nothing I trust more than Black organizing and I really believe that from the bottom of my heart. The way that we build community, the way that we build trust, the way that we are told the stories about our lives to motivate others is just something you can always count on.
MN: As we know “Trumpism” is just a new name for ideals that were held long before Donald Trump became president. A Biden presidency will also not cure us of Trumpism and racism. What are some things we can actively do to hold the next administration accountable?
JB: One thing is as we turn our attention to local races in 2021. In the spring of 2021 we’re going to see really exciting mayoral races. One of those races is in St. Louis. Tishaura Jones is running again after she lost by 888 votes in 2017 and she is a Ferguson frontline recruited candidate and those are the opportunities that we really have to transform our communities. So one thing is show up to your city council meetings. A lot of them are happening on zoom. We’ve had some amazing footage of people turning up on their city council meetings and those meetings are also a place where you talk about the budget of the city. No matter where you stand on the defund police debate, that’s going to be debated in city hall. That’s going to be debated with city council members and with the mayor. And so find out where those conversations are happening and engage there. And also, right now there’s a rush to have the perfect kind of post-election post mortem, who did what, why did we lose here, and who’s to blame, and of course the easier scapegoat is Black organizers and the mandates that were set during this election cycle. And for anyone who feels demotivated by that or who feels frustrated by that is to know, we’re winning. We have won the hearts and minds of millions of people and now our job is to make that vision more plain. And so for Movement for Black Lives I know that we’re going to spend these next several months illustrating explicitly how we reimagine public safety and at which levels you can do that of your government and how people can make change to not just hold police accountable, but to surely have better communities where we’re not in fear of city workers. Wherever you fit in that, whether it’s at the local level, whether you want to advocate for the Breathe Act at the federal level, there is truly a lot of work to do and there are more than enough of us to truly make a progressive legislative agenda happen. It’s just going to take some fighting and that’s not anything new.
MN: The Frontline is one way power was used to work on the ground during the election. We know the work is never done–where does the focus lie now that we are have an elected leader?
JB: The Frontline is as you know a united front that was really intended to take social movements who have a race or class, power analysis and to combine our powers and to really demonstrate that we’re more powerful together than we are apart. So the Movement For Black Lives and the Working Families Party, United We Dream Action, all of us are in formation with hundreds of organizations building state and local power across the country, to streamline our tactics and also to provide the maximum amount of support that we could to organizations who share our political ideologies. And so what we did was to really set up an infrastructure to do that. We built a distributed organizing program of phone banking and texting as well as created a voter protection and election defense program through the Election Defenders program where we were working with state based organizations to ensure that volunteer poll watchers could help voters feel more safe and prepared. and then the joy to the polls program was born where you saw filming in places across the country that DJ’s and concerts were set up so that people could release some of that anxiety and that fear about what was to come. The election version of that is transitioning to a governance version, so over the next few months The Front Line will really lead on the progressive vision for the future and work with the same power building organizations across the states to make that vision real both locally, statewide and at the national level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.