Slate is hosting a weekly election live show, In the Know, every Monday at 1 p.m. on YouTube and Facebook. On October 19, Slate staff writer Julia Craven spoke with Phillip Agnew, an artist and organizer with Black Men Build, about election protection and why it’s important to vote despite frustrations with either party. Part of their conversation, adapted from Slate’s weekly live election show and edited for clarity, can be read below.
Julia Craven: Let’s talk about the election protection leg of your organization, because right now you’re looking for 1,500, if I’m not mistaken, Black men to join in this part of what you’re doing. So, tell us about that. What sparked your desire to get involved with election protection?
Phillip Agnew: Well, frankly, when we look at the voting numbers, we know it is our grandparents, it is our parents, it is predominantly Black women who are going out to the polls, and that has been the history of this country. And we understand that Black men, for a variety of different reasons, have been barred from the polls, have had their franchise taken away from them because of felony convictions. Right? And have not been able to have access to the ballot box at the level, and that’s a systemic thing.
But we know that, on the other side, that our sisters are going to vote, and then we see, conversely, a leader of a party, I’m not going to even say their name, who is calling out the worst elements of our society, the most hateful, racist, vitriolic, violent aspects of our society to go to the polling places. And so, as Black men, we cannot once again stand aside and know that our people may be weak. That our uncles, that our aunts, that our grandparents, our mothers, that our fathers are going to go to the polls and maybe engage with some of those hateful elements that have been ginned up with this rhetoric from the right and we not be there to protect them.
What we always say is, it’s not protecting the polls, it is protecting our people at the polls. It is saying that no matter what your personal views are about voting—whether you think it’s impactful, important, or you’re buying into a failed system—that our people do believe in voting and we have a responsibility to make sure that they can engage in this democracy in safety and without worry.
It’s not just about that, Julia, there are some neighborhoods… Right? If you’re in Chicago, you’re in Detroit, you’re in Miami, where white supremacists are not coming to the block, we know they’re not coming over there. They talk all that stuff, but they’re not coming over to this side. But there are also people who go and sit in the line. Right? They send people to be in the line and say, “If you have a felony conviction, you can’t vote,” lying to people. We know that there has been a history of them also sending police officers to go and park their cars in front of voting places and shine the lights to deter people from going out to vote or coming to the polls.
And so, we want to be a Black face in the place to say, “Look, we want to make sure you have everything you need to be able to go and do what you need to do at the ballot box, without danger to your body, and also to ensure that you have the information that doesn’t make you get out of line and go home or go to another polling place without doing what you came there to do.”
We have a viewer question from Jacqueline and she wants to know: “How do we encourage Black men to vote when they have frustrations with both parties?” Which is a very good question.
One of my favorite quotes by Amílcar Cabral, he says [something to the effect of]: “Claim no easy victories. Tell the people no lies. Call out lies whenever they are told.” That is the responsibility of true revolutionary leadership. And so I would say, you start there. We do not lie. I have issues with both parties. I don’t like either party. I’m a leftist and I’m not going to, for your audience at Slate, I’m not going to go and tell them how far left I am today, but what I will say is I’m left of Bernie Sanders. I am a leftist. I’m an internationalist, Black feminist. And I’m an anti-capitalist, absolutely. So, what I will say is that I don’t have love for either party. Zero. Absolutely none. Neither one of them have redeeming qualities for me. But as Black people, we have to understand that we are engaged in a long struggle against this country, and what we have to do is make decisions, many of which are compromises—because we’re far from the point of power that we need to be in—that allow us to have favorable terrain to fight on. And the favorable terrain that I’m talking about in the year 2020 in the month of November is to vote Donald Trump out. Right?
And what we also say to brothers is whether you choose to vote or not, you have to stay vigilant and you have to make a decision that is right for your people—and the decision that is right for your people is to vote against a fascist, somebody who has ginned up and who has normalized a level of brazen white supremacy that is put the bodies of our people in danger in cities across the country. We also say we are choosing an opponent, not a champion. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not our champions on any of our policy issues, but we are choosing an opponent, and a favorable opponent at that. Right? And so, someone who we can move and potentially build leverage over, to be able to advance, in some small part, our objectives for our people.
And so, that’s the conversation. I’m standing at real, real, real, real, real, proper because we’re doing this, but if I’m talking to brothers, I’m saying, “Listen, if you’re not voting, are you allowing right-wing rhetoric to be the reason that you’re not voting, or the story that our votes don’t mean anything?” The question is not whether our votes mean anything, it is what are you and I are going to do to make our votes mean something. Right? And what is the powerful infrastructure we’re going to build to make people scared to disappoint Black people? And until we do that, we’re going to be locked in this cycle, and we can’t sit this one out.
This transcript was adapted from In the Know, Slate’s live election show that broadcasts every Monday at 1 p.m. ET on YouTube and Facebook. Watch the full chat in the player below.
Next Monday, Noreen Malone will be joined by Valerie Jarrett, a senior distinguished fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, and a senior advisor to the Obama Foundation. We hope to see you there.
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