Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators are expected to march in Washington, DC, to demand criminal justice reform in what may be the largest protest in the nation’s capital since George Floyd died at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
In the two weeks since his death, a national civil rights movement has blossomed. Though there have been some instances of looting and violence, by and large, the peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protests have shaken the conscience of the nation by forcing a conversation about racism and policing that was long overdue. The scale and scope of the protests are huge, and rallies have sprung up in both big cities and rural towns across America in a show of solidarity that is unlike anything else we have seen in recent decades.
There have been some early signs of progress. On Friday, Minneapolis issued a temporary measure that would ban police chokeholds, require other officers to report their use, and call for the police chief to authorize any crowd control weapons, like rubber bullets and tear gas.
But the path to reform is always long and winding. Ultimately, changing our institutions will require robust federal legislation to make sure that no states are violating the civil rights of Americans. The current moment harkens back to the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson and Congress seemed to understand it was no longer a viable option to depend on individual states to do the right thing and passed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To affect decision-making at the national level, protests will not be enough. The vote in November will be a crucial first step to usher in lasting change. Even if the protests achieve immense progress at the state and local level, federal legislation and enforcement of the law will be essential.
With President Donald Trump in the Oval Office and Republicans in control of the Senate, the short-term prospects for meaningful change are slim. The President made this clear when he announced that his response to racism would center on economic recovery — not tough measures to dismantle a criminal justice system that perpetuates racial inequality and too often allows for illegitimate violence against African Americans. Other than touting economic growth, Trump has only issued violent threats and Nixonian calls for law and order.
Change comes via the ballot box
This means that voting matters. To achieve the goals of criminal justice reform, supporters will first have to clear the way by voting Democrats into the White House and Senate. Otherwise, the movement could face the harsh reality of conservative power and find itself in the throes of a fierce backlash. And while the grip on power that President Trump and Senate Republicans have appears to be slipping, the Democratic path to victory remains difficult.
Economic recovery in the fall could easily boost the standing of the GOP, particularly coming out of the bleak months in lockdown. The President’s ability to cause chaos through social media and launch investigations through the Justice Department will pose huge challenges to Joe Biden and Democratic congressional candidates. To top it off, we don’t really know what Election Day will look like in the middle of a pandemic.
To ensure that voters make it to the ballot box without fear that it will jeopardize their health, Democrats must advocate for universal mail-in voting. The push for voting by mail — which would require federal support to states so that they can make this transition in time for November — has slowed dramatically as President Trump continues to make misleading statements about voter fraud while his Republican allies are fighting voting-by-mail initiatives with lawsuits.
Unless there is progress in the next month, it is unlikely that all 50 states will have functioning systems up and running to ensure mail-in voting. In March, Trump vocalized what most Republicans have skirted around for decades. In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump referred to legislation put forward by House Democrats to increase funding for mail-in-voting and said, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Democrats also must keep working on efforts to register young Americans — known for their low turnout rates — and make sure they are committed to voting in November. Many young people are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington and are not confident that voting really makes a difference, given that in their lifetimes, vital issues like racism, climate change and gun control have gone largely unaddressed by lawmakers.
But they need to remember President Barack’s Obama’s mantra: “Don’t boo, vote.” Whether Democrats or Republicans control the White House and Senate in 2021 will make an enormous difference in the direction of public policy on criminal justice issues.
A potential watershed moment in US history
Now that this movement has inspired and engaged many young Americans, local activists would do well to capture the moment by making Election Day preparation a central part of the mission. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams wrote, “Voting is a first step in a long and complex process, tedious but vital. You can have a car with all the bells and whistles, but if it doesn’t have wheels, you can’t move forward.”
During the early 1960s, civil rights leaders were cognizant of the connection between their agenda and the ballot box. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. and others were so committed to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal protection to all Americans to exercise their right to vote. Without the power to vote, King once said, “I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”
We are on the cusp of a potential watershed moment in American history. Although it is always hard to believe meaningful change will occur, we must remember that breakthroughs can take place — this is exactly what happened in 1964 and 1965. Social movements have the power to change the status quo. Marches, rallies and media coverage have the capacity to transform politics. We are seeing that right now.
However, without political power in Washington, there is less hope for lasting change. For the #BlackLivesMatter movement to fully succeed, it will have to continue demanding changes to the criminal justice system while mobilizing voters to make an impact in November.