Before the 99 percent captured the world’s attention, another number helped energize an often overlooked part America’s electorate: 58 percent. That’s the percentage of black voters between the ages of 18 and 29 who showed up at the polls in 2008 to elect the country’s first African American president. It was an extraordinarily promising number; in an election that drew its strength from the eagerness of young voters, black youth led the charge. Nearly two million more black voters between the ages of 18 and 24 cast ballots in 2008 than they did in 2004. While white voter turnout stayed relatively the same as it had been when George W. Bush won a second turn, the 2008 election showed that young voters of color–including records numbers of young Latino and Asian voters–were now a statistically significant voice in America’s democratic future.
Obama’s brand of political change turned out to be a painstakingly gradual one–and, at times, frustrating. So it’s no surprise that political skepticism and an eager conservative base helped lead to lower voter turnout numbers in 2010. But as the 2012 presidential election kicks into full gear, operatives from both parties will be looking to engage younger voters. And as they do, they’ll have to pay attention to what drives young folks into the political process, and how they’ve managed to turn that process inside out.
Shortly before the 2010 congressional elections, I spent some time reporting from Milwaukee. Though Wisconsin’s election of Gov. Scott “I-hate-public-workers” Walker that year turned out to be part of a conservative tide that washed over America, Milwaukee had already long been a symbol America’s neglect. It’s a poor, deindustrialized city with mostly black and brown residents and few jobs. But the young organizers I spoke to had used those facts to help galvanize their peers. While the 2008 election had been their coming-of-age of sorts, they embraced the opportunity to shape their own destinies precisely because they could see clearly what was at stake.
“If no one gets out to vote, it’s gonna stay the same,” Romero Jackson, a 25-year-old organizer told me. “Like a Twilight Zone.”
Since then, young organizers from around the country have used political disappointments as a call-to-action, one that’s not dependent on the political showmanship on Capitol Hill.
That’s especially true for those who are still fighting for their right to participate in democracy. After the federal DREAM Act was defeated in the Senate last year, undocumented youth turned up the pressure in their own way. As Rinku Sen pointed out earlier this week, that shift among immigration rights advocates was a decidedly cultural one intended to show that people without papers are, in fact, people. Some took to making funny videos that poked fun at the awkwardness of trying to have a social life while undocumented. Jonathan Perez, 25, and Isaac Barrera, 20, engaged in some good, old-fashioned civil disobedience in protest of Alabama’s draconian HB 56 and spent days in federal detention. The young folks of the Oakland, Calif.-based coalition 67 Sueños challenged the traditional immigrant narrative altogether and pointed out that the majority of undocumented people in the U.S. wouldn’t quality for DREAM Act legislation even if it did become law. In April, the group painted a mural in downtown San Francisco that helped drive their message home.
Even for those of us who do have the privilege of legal citizenship, there’s still no guarantee that we’ll have a voice in the country’s upcoming elections. The defining fight of 2012 will arguably be who’s able to actually cast a ballot on election day. In 2011, conservatives pushed an aggressive legislative agenda to pass dozens of strict voter ID laws in several states. Across the country, there are 19 new voter ID laws, and more than 40 are still pending in state legislatures. The new laws claim to address the Republican-backed myth of “voter fraud” and require eligible voters to obtain select forms of identification at the polls – and endeavor that’s proven to be costly and unnecessary. A new study released in October by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU estimated that the new laws could affect five million voters, the majority of whom are poor, young, or color. Attorney General Eric Holder vowed this month to use his power to protect voters, and in 2012, he’ll need plenty of on-the-ground help.
And then there’s the basic fight for survival. To be young and of color in America is still an enormously dangerous thing. NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has been the subject of widespread criticism for targeting black and brown men; a New York Times investigation found that 93 out of every 100 were stopped by officers in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s predominantly African American. The New York Civil Liberties Union recently reported that a total of 4 million people have been stopped since the program began in 2004, and those stops increased 13 percent in 2011.
For some, police encounters turn deadly. This was also the year that former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was released from prison after being convicted of manslaughter in the killing of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day in 2009. Earlier this month, prosecutors in New Orleans convicted NOPD officer Ronald Mitchell of attempting to cover up the shooting of a civilian in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, making him the 16th police officer to be convicted of crimes committed during the chaos of storm. Those convictions show that there’s at least some movement to hold law enforcement accountable for the often young and mostly black lives they take.
If there were any one person who’s come to embody the urgency with which young folks have taken up political action as a deeply personal fight, it may be DeJaun Davis-Correia. The 18-year-old has survived an almost unimaginably brutal year. His uncle, Troy Davis, was executed by the state of Georgia in September. A few months later his mother, Martina Davis-Correia, succumbed to her long battle with breast cancer. While the fight to save his uncle’s life helped reignite the movement against the death penalty, DeJaun’s fight for justice was shaped the everyday wars he’s already learned to fight.
“There are so many other cases out there like [my uncle’s],” he told Jen Marlowe earlier this year. “My uncle is not the only one going through this type of pain … a lot of people really want someone to hear their case but they don’t have the power and resources. I see myself as an activist, helping people.”