Fight racism by voting in local elections

Jeff Cox offers some reasons for Iowans who care about racism to “think local.” -promoted by desmoinesdem

Low levels of voter turnout in America are disheartening. Bernie Sanders showed that large numbers of young, new voters can be brought into the electoral system. But what about local elections for school board and city council elections, not to mention bond issues, and the sadly neglected party primaries for local officials?

Here are some reasons to “think local” about elections if you care about racism, with evidence taken from five recent Johnson County elections.

The first two, in 2012 and 2013, were bond issues for a large expansion of the county jail, supported by the entire city and county establishment and by the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee. Johnson County has a national reputation for racial disparities in incarceration (not to mention astonishingly high student arrest rates for alcohol and marijuana offenses).

Johnson County in fact needs a new modern jail, but in 2012 the Democratic establishment was not content to build a new jail. They insisted that we plan for growth, i.e. even more incarceration in a country that already imprisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This was a classic case of the well-documented New Jim Crow launched by Bill Clinton in his 1994 crime bill, which has re-imposed racial segregation in America by the mass criminalization and incarceration of African-Americans.

The jail bond faced an organized and successful campaign against the proposed jail, organized around the slogan: “If We Build It, They Will Fill It”. The Democratic establishment was so astonished when the bond issue lost the first time in 2012 that they brought it back again in a 2013 special election that was timed for a lower turnout, assuming that regular voters in heavily Democratic Johnson County would endorse jail expansion. They failed again.

The result of these two victories against racism has been a gratifying fall in the number of people in jail, demonstrating that incarceration rates are as much a consequence of policing and prosecution policies as they are of population growth and crime rates.

Race also became the central issue in a third election. Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, a popular and well-known incumbent, faced a vigorous primary challenge in 2014 from a complete unknown, Jonathan Zimmerman. Vowing to eliminate prosecutions for marijuana possession, he promised a complete review of documented racial disparities in the policies of the County Attorney’s Office. He received 30 percent of the vote by making an issue of the County Attorney’s racial disparities in marijuana prosecutions, which are among the highest in the nation.

Zimmerman left town shortly after the election, and he is unlikely to be nominated for membership in the Johnson County Democratic Hall of Fame, but he has performed a valuable service to the community by exposing the way the New Jim Crow works in a liberal Democratic stronghold. A losing race can sometimes produce important changes in public opinion. Since that primary, the County Attorney’s Office has devoted increasing attention to what they refer to as “jail diversion programs.”

A fourth election led to important changes in policing policy. In 2015, for the first time in living memory, Iowa City elected a progressive majority on the city council. The “core four” promptly named Jim Throgmorton mayor. Having survived a non-partisan election in which he faced a highly personalized campaign of vilification from members of the city establishment, he has made it a priority to speak out against racism in the community.

What is far more important is the new council majority’s choice of a police chief in 2017: Jody Matherly. He has reached out to the Black community to discuss ways to reduce the frequency of traffic stops, even offering to give out free vouchers to replace broken tail lights. He met with the American Civil Liberties Union, and made it clear that policing policy needs to change if confidence in the police is to be restored. Without the city council election in 2015, it is likely that we would a very different kind of police chief.

Finally, there was a school board election in 2017. One of the issues in the campaign was the use of windowless “seclusion” rooms, some of them little more than plywood boxes situated in classrooms. These are essentially a form of solitary confinement used for unruly students, many of them in special education, but also for school discipline.

The school administration and some teachers had been steadily expanding the use of these rooms as the percentage of African-American students grew to 20 percent. Seclusion rooms were the first experience many African-Americans had in the “school to prison pipeline.” Shortly after the election, and as a result of public debate, a reluctant school superintendent gave up and ordered them removed.

There are many facets in the struggle against racism, but these five elections since 2012 have produced real gains for real people struggling against oppressive policing and incarceration. If you want to fight racism, vote local. A good place to begin would be casting a bold progressive vote in the June Democratic primary.

A version of this article appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest political newsletter, which is printed by union printers and delivered in hard copy by unionized postal workers. Subscriptions are $12 a year to The Prairie Progressive, Box 1945, Iowa City, IA 52245.

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