Thanks to #BlackLivesMatter, Prosecutors Who Bungle Police Shooting Cases Face Tough Election Fights

While recognizing the limits of electoral politics, the movement has ousted two prosecutors--Anita Alvarez and Tim McGinty--and has more in its sights

Jennifer Ball

The movement for black lives is winning at the ballot box--without endorsing a single candidate. (niXerKG / Flickr)

An unex­pect­ed win­ner emerged in the March 15 pri­maries: the move­ment for black lives. In major upsets, vot­ers in the Chica­go and Cleve­land areas oust­ed two sit­ting pros­e­cu­tors accused of bungling police-shoot­ing cas­es. Young black activists staged for­mi­da­ble cam­paigns to oust the incum­bents, pro­vid­ing con­crete evi­dence of the movement’s impact. By sig­nal­ing that offi­cials who fail to hold police account­able will pay a polit­i­cal price, the vic­to­ries could also change the cal­cu­lus of upcom­ing local elections.

“We recognize that no head prosecutor is going to save us, that no politician will be what saves us.”

Accord­ing to a 2009 study, pros­e­cu­tors win re-elec­tion as much as 95 per­cent of the time. Until now, even those crit­i­cized for their records on police pros­e­cu­tions have gen­er­al­ly emerged unscathed. Daniel Dono­van, the for­mer dis­trict attor­ney for Stat­en Island who failed to secure an endict­ment of police involved in the 2014 choke­hold death of Eric Gar­ner, went on to win a spe­cial elec­tion to the U.S. House in May 2015.

Not so for Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez or Cuya­hoga Coun­ty Pro­s­ec­tor Tim McGin­ty, whom vot­ers sent pack­ing by deci­sive mar­gins. McGin­ty was pil­lo­ried last year for dis­suad­ing a grand jury from indict­ing the Cleve­land police offi­cers involved in the fatal 2014 shoot­ing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed while play­ing with a toy pel­let gun. Alvarez wait­ed 13 months to press charges against the Chica­go police offi­cer who shot Laquan McDon­ald 16 times. Crit­ics believe she might nev­er have done so if a video of McDonald’s killing had not been released under court order.

Next up, orga­niz­ers may attempt to force out at least two oth­er con­tro­ver­sial pros­e­cu­tors up for re-elec­tion this year: L.A. Coun­ty Dis­trict Attor­ney Jack­ie Lacey and Flori­da pros­e­cu­tor Angela Corey, denounced for botch­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of Trayvon Mar­t­in’s killer in 2013.

While rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of get­ting hos­tile pros­e­cu­tors out of office, many activists say they can be most effec­tive by remain­ing inde­pen­dent from elec­toral cam­paigns. Assata’s Daugh­ters, a grass­roots col­lec­tive of black women, was one of sev­er­al Chica­go groups that staged ral­lies, ban­ner­drops and teach-ins as part of the effort to defeat Alvarez. The cam­paign set the prece­dent for how young black peo­ple can orga­nize against elect­ed offi­cials with­out endors­ing oth­er can­di­dates,” says mem­ber Tess Ras­er. She empha­sizes that the group will con­tin­ue to hold Alvarez’s pro­gres­sive suc­ces­sor, Kim Foxx, account­able. We rec­og­nize that no head pros­e­cu­tor is going to save us, that no politi­cian will be what saves us.”

Jen­nifer Ball is a Spring 2016 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. She is a grad­u­ate of the Medill School of Jour­nal­ism at North­west­ern University.
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