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Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown on mobilizing Black voters

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The last time I talked to activist LaTosha Brown, she was celebrating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LATOSHA BROWN: (Singing) Well, the first thing I did right was the day I started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on. Hold on.

KELLY: LaTosha Brown was singing because Democrat Raphael Warnock had just been elected as the first Black senator from Georgia in a runoff election that came two months after Black voters helped to turn the state blue for Joe Biden. Warnock's victory, along with that of Jon Ossoff, handed control of the Senate to Democrats. And it was due, in no small part, to the efforts of organizations like Black Voters Matter, of which Brown is a co-founder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BROWN: We wanted people - we wanted Black voters, in particular - to feel a sense of their power and their agency and, in spite of all odds, what we could do in pushing this country forward.

KELLY: Now, almost two years later and facing another election, I wanted to check back in with Brown - see if she thinks the promise of that moment has paid off for those Black voters who turned out in 2020 and 2021 - see if she thinks they'll turn out for Democrats this year. LaTosha Brown, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BROWN: Thank you for having me on.

KELLY: We're going to get to that big-picture question that I just laid out. But first, just tell me, in terms of issues that you're focused on or that the voters you're reaching out to are focused on, what's the message?

BROWN: You know, there's been three kind of core issues that come up over and over again. There's a lot of concern around economic security...

KELLY: Sure.

BROWN: ...And where the economy is going. And people are feeling the pinch. They're feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks. They're feeling the pinch around housing and housing insecurity. They're feeling it in a variety of ways - from gas prices to food prices.

We also hear around criminal justice reform. There is continuing to be this desire, particularly with young people we talk to, that they want real criminal justice reform, and we've not seen that yet. You know, when we saw the George Floyd uprisings that happened in 2020, you know, you've got the largest group of people who entered the process, but they entered the process in hopes that we would actually move this conversation forward and policy forward to give criminal justice reform.

You know, and a third thing that constantly comes up is around voting rights - that people have been witnessing over the last two years the voter suppression that has just ravaged this country. And there's a real genuine concern around - how are we going to combat voter suppression, and what do we need to do to make sure that we're protecting our democratic rights?

KELLY: So let me bring us up to the big-picture question that we want to focus on, which is the voters you're talking to, many of whom helped to deliver President Biden's win in 2020 and then helped to deliver Democratic control of the Senate - are they feeling like it worked out - like the Democrats delivered? Because it sounds like these are a lot of the same issues that were on the table back in 2020.

BROWN: You know, I think that's a great question because, when we talk to voters, there's a mixed bag. I think, on some level - you know, I always talk about - I think that Black voters are very nuanced and sophisticated voters, in terms of we recognize that many of the things that we want and we desire for our communities - that it is going to require real structural change. It's not just going to be enough at having a particular political party in power or a particular candidate, but that we need fundamental structural change. And I think that there is an understanding of that. But there's also a frustration around things that people want and what they voted for - that some of those things have not panned out. And there's a certain level of discontent around that. But then I do...

KELLY: Well, and let me hold you on that point of discontent and frustration that you're talking about because I know, earlier this year, President Biden was down in Georgia. He gave a big voting rights speech. You skipped it, and it was reported that this was because you're frustrated with what you see as inaction on things like voting rights legislation.

BROWN: You know, what we saw coming right after the 2020 election - immediately, the next legislative session, we saw Republican legislature pass the SB 202 bill. That's basically the blueprint for voter suppression in this country. It does the three things that I often talk about. One - it has - it restricts access to the ballot, from drop-off sites to shortening the time that people can vote absentee. Secondly, it weaponizes the administrative process, essentially giving the Republicans - even the governor - power, where they can actually overturn results if they're not satisfied with those results. The third thing is to create this culture of fear. And so you saw within that law where it criminalizes groups like ours and others that give comfort care for voters in line - something as simple as giving them water or pizza - people who may stand in line for hours.

And so in the midst of that, what we recognized early on was that voting rights was a central, core issue among all of the issues 'cause it would impact how voters are able to freely and fairly engage in the political process. And so we wanted to send a message loud and clear to the president, to the administration, that voting rights should have been and should continue to be a priority because all other rights - all other policy issues are going to be impacted by people's ability to freely and fairly vote.

KELLY: So let me turn you to a practical question. How are you getting people motivated to show up and vote this time around, when there's frustration - and it sounds like you feel it personally - that everything they showed up to vote about last time around hasn't gotten done and when, in a lot of places around the country, the mechanics of voting have gotten harder?

BROWN: Well, let me say this. The administration has actually done some really progressive, powerful things. When you look at when we had the extension of the child tax credit - you know, that had an impact on our community. When we see, just recently, people who have convictions around marijuana - that affects thousands of people. You know, when we see the Inflation Act. When we see - there have been many things that have passed, but there is a nuance that we're helping voters to understand that, yes, there are some elements that are part of the agenda that we want that have not been addressed - that we want to see movement on.

But there have been good things that have happened - that this administration and having a Democratic Senate - how that has made a difference in our lives, but also saying that we have to continue to push forward so that we can get the other things that we want as well. And in order to do that, we've got to have people in office that will respond to our needs. And at the end of the day, if our faith was based on us being disappointed in one election, I mean, where would I be as a Black Southerner in this nation? And so ultimately, what we're moving people to start thinking about is that it's not just about participation, it's about building power.

KELLY: Before I let you go, we heard you at the beginning singing, and you were singing about keeping your eyes on the prize. What is the prize in 2022?

BROWN: Oh, excellent question. You know, I think that the prize is - we literally have to make sure that people are engaged to see what is happening - that there is a full-fledged attack on our democratic rights in this country. There is a party that is aligning itself with white nationalism, and that has to be stopped at all costs. And so the eyes on the prize for me is having an America and a nation that has a democratic process, that supports pluralism, that every single voter has equal and fair access to the ballot and that we start seeing policies that are not driven by profit, but are focused on centering people. And so ultimately, keeping the eyes on the prize for me is for us to continue to move forward so we can have the America that we reimagine - an America that is inclusive, that is fair, that is democratic.

KELLY: LaTosha Brown - she is co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.