Local Organizing Won Yesterday!

The Black Lives Matter movement was formed, not simply as a result of police shootings of unarmed Black men/boys. It was also a reaction to local prosecutors who failed to bring indictments against those police officers.

As German Lopez explains, it can be incredibly difficult to unseat those prosecutors.

About 95 percent of incumbent prosecutors won reelection, and 85 percent ran unopposed in general elections, according to data from nearly 1,000 elections between 1996 and 2006 analyzed by Ronald Wright of Wake Forest University School of Law.

But beyond the headlines today about the presidential primaries that were held yesterday, local organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement scored two big victories yesterday.

There were two little-known but stunning upsets during the Super Tuesday II elections on March 15: Anita Alvarez lost her bid for reelection for state’s attorney of Cook County, Illinois, and Tim McGinty lost his reelection bid for county prosecutor in Cuyahoga, County.

As a reminder, here is why those two were targeted.

Alvarez drew a serious challenge to her reelection bid after she failed for more than a year to prosecute the Chicago police officer who in October 2014 shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Only after a court forced authorities to in November 2015 release a video of the shooting did Alvarez, facing serious protests, decide to file charges.

McGinty, meanwhile, was challenged after he didn’t land criminal charges against the Cleveland police officer who in 2014 shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice or a conviction against a Cleveland police officer who in 2012 shot and killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

As those incidents occurred, a lot of the conversation centered on what President Obama was/wasn’t doing or saying in an effort to stop these kinds of things from happening. But the truth is that the federal government is severely limited in what it can do about the behavior of local police officers and prosecutors. When it comes to serious violations of civil rights, that is probably something that needs to change. Former Attorney General Eric Holder pointed that out prior to leaving office.

Attorney General Eric Holder says that he will soon call on Congress to lower the standard of proof in federal civil rights cases, to allow federal prosecution where local authorities are unable or unwilling to get a conviction.

“There is a better way in which we could have federal involvement in these kinds of matters to allow the federal government to be a better backstop in examining these cases,” Holder said in an NBC News interview conducted on Thursday.

But absent federal oversight, responses at the local level are the most powerful tool to combat the kind of racial bias that plagues these systems. That requires engagement in local politics and elections. Holding up these successes as a way to demonstrate the possibilities is a great way to keep that ball rolling forward.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.