In a presidential election jam-packed with theatrics, protests and even acts of violence, it’s easy to overlook the other races on a ballot, but on Tuesday we got a reminder that a powerful group of politicians are trying to defend their seats against the movement to reform our broken criminal-justice system. In an election that marked a significant victory Tuesday, voters in Cook County, Ill., unseated one of the worst prosecutors in the country, Anita Alvarez.
Elected prosecutors are now facing an unprecedented but well-deserved level of scrutiny from voters who care about police accountability and ending mass incarceration. For black people, these elections are as important as any this year. For every Donald Trump supporter attacking protesters because of their race and political affiliation, there are hundreds of prosecutors making decisions that tear apart black families and legitimize police violence every day. If we learn anything from this week’s primary elections, it should be that it’s not enough to simply stop Trump; prosecutor elections can no longer be uncontested spaces in the fight for criminal-justice reform.
Prosecutors have enormous authority in every phase of a criminal case, including whether to initiate an investigation, which charges to file, bail amounts, and whether to offer a plea bargain or request leniency. In all of these areas, black people are more likely to be harshly punished. Despite momentum on both sides of the political divide to address our prison crisis, too many prosecutors, including Alvarez, continue to campaign and govern on the obsolete “tough on crime” agenda that resulted in the drug war and record incarceration rates.
Alvarez was one of the worst of the worst. She was responsible for the lack of police accountability in the killing of Laquan McDonald and of Rekia Boyd and led an office that was notorious for wrongful convictions. In 2011, the Dixmoor 5 was released and exonerated after years of tireless campaigning to get Alvarez to recognize DNA evidence. Additionally, she failed to bring charges in 68 police shootings during her tenure and had advocated for harsher sentencing and against the right to record the police. Having called for her resignation last year, ColorOfChange.org is proud to have supported grassroots groups like Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 and the BlackRoots Alliance, who, after months of protests and voter-outreach efforts, replaced Alvarez with Kim Foxx, an attorney with a track record of advocating for criminal-justice reform.
The effort to unseat Alvarez was carried out through a diverse set of strategies. In addition to traditional voter-turnout operations, grassroots organizers used protests and online activism to communicate with voters. Young Chicago-based black organizers like Assata’s Daughters directly confronted Alvarez at her campaign events, drawing attention to the race using the hashtag #ByeAnita.
Inspired by these activists and supported by our 1.3 million members taking action online, ColorOfChange.org launched ByeAnita to give people all over the country a way to get involved. We were able to recruit over 800 phone-bank volunteers and, with our collaboration with Black Youth Project 100 on a social-media-based voter guide, reached hundreds of thousands of people online.
Over the last few years, we’ve watched the development of a powerful grassroots movement in response to prosecutors who have failed to hold police and vigilantes accountable when they have killed black people. As great as the victory of unseating Anita Alvarez is for the people of Chicago, we are just getting started. According to our research, of the 2,400 elected prosecutors nationwide, 70 percent run unopposed. Hand in hand with other partners and grassroots activists, we are taking the lessons learned from Tuesday to other parts of the country and transforming our online activism and action in the streets into electoral strategies to unseat these corrupt decision-makers.
Tens of thousands of our members from around the country got engaged in this race because they know we must hold prosecutors accountable at the ballot box and beyond. Electoral strategies alone will not be enough. In states across the country, we have been running campaigns to call on prosecutors to hold police accountable and end practices that criminalize black people. We are also fighting for systemic policy changes to make it harder for prosecutors to let cops off the hook.
Donald Trump as president may be a frightening proposition, but Trump-like prosecutors have already been leading the way in giving violent police a pass and making America first in locking up its own people. For too long, elected prosecutors have been rewarded for their role in fueling mass incarceration, but in Chicago and beyond, the tide is turning, and we must continue to move the work forward.
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