DETROIT — In a gothic-inspired building on the leafy campus of Marygrove College, roughly 40 Black organizers, activists and everyday people gather on February 22 for a mock caucus.
But this caucus breaks with the ones we’ve seen in 2020: It places the aspirations of Black communities centerstage.
The event ignites with a chant, lit by an organizer with Detroit’s chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a national youth-led organization against racial, gender and economic injustice. “Unapologetically!” the organizer thunders. The room roars back, “Black!”
Organized by BYP100 and the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Electoral Justice Project, the 2020 Black Democratic Caucus is intentionally set in the Blackest major U.S. city. The goal is to measure each candidate’s agenda against the many burning issues facing Black communities.
Caucusgoers spill into the building and are sorted into random groups of seven to 10. Each group rotates through 20-minute policy sessions on housing, healthcare, criminal justice reform and education, based on the stated platforms of the four highest-polling Democratic candidates for president. Caucusgoers vote at the close of each session, but without knowing their candidate — candidates have been anonymized as A, B, C and D. For better or worse, candidates are judged without knowledge of their personalities or track records.
“We focus on issues and policy” instead, says Jewel Butler, 25, a Detroit BYP100 member and fellow with the M4BL.
Shoniqua Kemp, lead organizer with Detroit Action (a grassroots, member-led organization), facilitates the discussion on housing. She begins by sketching a devastating image of Black homeownership.
“For many Black households, the housing crisis never ended,” Kemp says. Indeed, more than a decade after Wall Street plutocrats decimated the already skeletal wealth of Black families (before running off with trillions in federal relief), Black homeownership has plummeted to record lows.
Kemp shows a slide that says Candidate A vows to provide “assistance to people hurt by federal housing policy failures” and communities caught in the decades-long teeth of redlining and housing segregation. One caucusgoer remarks, “Those are obviously Black neighborhoods that are now being gentrified.” The caucus also likes Candidate B’s plan, and concludes that Candidates C and D’s plans wouldn’t meaningfully improve home ownership among poor and working-class Black Detroiters.
The sessions are rich with excitement for bold action balanced with skepticism that any platform goes far enough. What is clear is the urgency of putting people in homes and repairing the vicious legacies of housing discrimination and exploitation by corporate Goliaths.
“Capitalism teaches us that some people don’t ‘deserve’ things,” says caucusgoer PG Watkins, a lifelong Detroiter. “I believe that’s bullshit, and that everyone deserves a safe place to live. I want us to develop and advocate for policies that acknowledge that housing is a basic human right.”
The same urgency is felt for healthcare, criminal justice reform and education. Take the horrifically high rates of Black uninsurance (9.7%) and maternal mortality (3.3 times that of their white counterparts). Or the suffocating debt Black students face (nearly five times likelier than white students to default). Or the sociopathic cruelty of our racist punishment system.
On every issue, caucusgoers rank Sens. Elizabeth Warren (A) and Bernie Sanders (B) first and second, respectively. Candidate C is Joe Biden and D is Michael Bloomberg. While many were thrilled to see their progressive hopes withstand the faceless process, the enthusiasm is eventually brought down to earth.
As the day wraps, BYP100 members clarify that today is not a road to political endorsement. Rukia Lumumba, a Mississippi-based human rights leader and co-chair of the Electoral Justice Project of MB4L, stresses that elections are simply one “tool in our arsenal to work toward liberation” rather than a freedom-delivering gemstone.
The results seem to endorse a future when popular movements force a redistribution of wealth to everyday people, through programs like Medicare for All and massive investments in K-12 education, while taking a sledgehammer to racial and economic oppression and mass incarceration. That’s an agenda, caucusgoers believe, that can move Black people to not only vote, but join movements that alter the country’s social and economic fabric.
“We coming hard with our issues,” Butler says. “Whoever wins office, we making sure they know what we want, and that they understand how we coming to get what we want.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.