On June 9, a few minutes before midnight, Justin Bieber’s Instagram account went live. “Justin asked me to use his platform to go live with someone,” Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager, told the audience, linked from a nondescript room inside his apartment in Los Angeles. Bieber, who was on the road across the US, was stuck with poor reception and couldn’t connect to the feed. “He wants you guys to see something that is going on live,” Braun added, stoking anticipation as thousands of fans flocked in.
About a minute later, the screen split to a surprising scene. The livestream was joined by LaTosha Brown,1 co-founder and activist for Black Voters Matter Fund, a fundraising group that helps grassroot organizations fight voter suppression in the American South.2 “It’s 11:30 at night y’all, here in Georgia, and there are still people in line that are waiting to vote!” she called out as she joined the livestream, her voice muffled by her face mask.3 She was standing in the middle of a parking lot, under a street light next to Cliff Albright, her partner and co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. They had joined the livestream to denounce what was happening during Georgia’s primary.
Brown had spent the entire day with her team in Atlanta monitoring polls and distributing hand-sanitizers and water bottles to voters lining up for hours. A new voting technology that required each ballot to be printed out added even more complexity to a process already encumbered by the pandemic.4 A few minutes before midnight, at the moment when Brown joined the livestream, almost three hundred people, the majority Black, were still waiting in line at polling stations that were supposed to close at 7 P.M. “I’ve been waiting here since about six o’clock,” a woman just outside the door said during the livestream. “We had problems all day. We ran out of paper, we lost power. People were tripping because there was no light.”
Long waiting times are nothing new as a subtle tactic for voter suppression—they occur most often in predominantly Black districts—but this time the situation approached the reckless. “And the site that we’re voting in?” Brown went on in disbelief, “Guess what! In the middle of a pandemic, we are at a nursing home!”
The parking lot from which Brown was streaming belonged to the Christian City Senior Community in Atlanta, Georgia, where, reportedly, more than one hundred people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and about sixty were still infected at the time. The site had been a polling place for many years, and, despite the pandemic, local authorities did not reassign it. The polling place is physically disconnected from the main facility where seniors reside, but in several similar instances in other states, officials have moved polling places to avoid putting both voters and guests at risk.
As the livestream progressed, the audience was able to witness the long lines of voters inside and outside the polling station. “The beauty is that the spirit of the people is still high,” Brown said. “Share this information!” she urged. The livestream was viewed by more than ten-thousand people.
Fewer than fifty days before the 2020 election, technology is both a threat and a tool for democracy. Booth malfunctions, potential security breaches at the polling stations, and the persistent diffusion of online disinformation leave democracy in danger. Yet, in an unprecedented election season where most political action has been restricted to cyberspace, social media platforms also represent a lifeline to fairness, an ever more promising way in which to express dissent and denounce injustice. Black Voters Matter is leveraging this potential to empower Black voters.
During the previous presidential electoral cycle, in 2016, social media platforms mostly functioned as a storm center. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the accusation that officials did not investigate Russian meddling properly dragged social media into the center of a controversy. In particular, critics questioned their content moderation practices and their failure to suppress targeted disinformation.
In fact, not all social groups were affected in the same numbers. The Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford calculated in December 2018 that the Black community was the primary target of Russian intervention.5 Most of the Russian advertisements and disinformation posts were explicitly aimed at demoralizing Black voters by stoking racial tensions and fomenting disaffection for Hillary Clinton. For example, that September, the Blacktivist account–in reality a branch of the Russian state sponsored Internet Research Agency–posted on Twitter: “NO LIVES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON. ONLY VOTES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON.” Such efforts to disenchant the Black electorate preyed on a popular belief among these voters that politicians’ efforts to engage with their community is often more symbolic than substantial.6
It is difficult to judge whether these tactics were effective, but according to Mutale Nkonde, a non-resident fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University, it seems likely. During a virtual event at Stanford PACS in June, Nkonde described how such efforts, paired with others to encourage Black voters to boycott the election altogether, may have impacted Blacks voting for president.7 In Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine percent Black, eighty thousand people did not vote at the top of the ticket. “The material consequence of that was flipping that seat from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016,” Nkonde said. Trump won Michigan by ten thousand votes. Such sophisticated voter suppression tactics took social media giants by surprise then, and they now monitor and antagonize such tactics more aggressively. In the past four years, several IRA accounts have been closed by Twitter and Facebook. Still, misinformation has not disappeared, and, according to Nkonde, efforts to demobilize and demotivate Black voters remain widespread.
Faced with all these challenges, Black Voters Matter wants to invigorate political activism within the Black community by giving support to and interconnecting relevant political groups. “We think of ourselves as some kind of Special Ops,” Brown said during the virtual event at Stanford PACS in June, “We invest, and we build out the capacity of existing grassroot organizations.” In 2018, her team funded one-hundred-and-twenty Black-led organizations, with almost a million dollars. “We support them with technical tools,” she explained, “from being able to do text messaging campaigns, to be able to do phone banks, to develop their social media platforms online around messaging.” She continued: “With COVID-19 technology has been the way we have been able to communicate and continue to stay in touch with our base, and we are actually expanding the use of it right now.”
The mission of Black Voters Matter is to empower Black voters by fostering their political engagement and bolstering their support network. “We are centered around the people because we believe that there are a lot of folks that care about Black votes, but don’t care about Black voters,” Brown said during the virtual event at Stanford, underlining her organization’s commitment to improving the lives of Black people, and not just drumming up turn out.
To achieve such a goal, Black Voters Matter funds a vast range of organizations, including some that provide assistance to the Black population without reference to a specific electoral goal. Such an expansive approach is testified also by the variety of events that the group promotes within their social network. At the end of July, Black Voters Matters promoted a hat competition hosted by Bay Co. NAACP “for style, fun & review of all voting methods!!!”
In a time in which activism is necessarily weakened by the pandemic, Brown’s role is also to motivate and animate. “We need to collect people together — organize, organize, organize!” she urged during a live stream show on YouTube in July. The most exemplary effort to pursue such a goal is a monthly town hall hosted on Zoom and livestreamed on Facebook.
Black Voters Matter sees virtual town halls, which are often full, not just as a way to promote the organization’s many initiatives at once, but also to cultivate a sense of community during a time of isolation. The atmosphere during such events tends to be uplifting and invigorating. “Even on the day of the memorial of George Floyd, we need to center on Black love, and Black joy,” urged Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director Black Voters Matter at the beginning of a virtual town hall in South Carolina in early June. A few minutes earlier, the audience had been greeted by DJ Preach Jacobs, a staple of South Carolina Black music life who mixed classics from Marvin Gaye and Public Enemy, to Kendrick Lamar.
During town halls, grassroot organizations get the chance to educate the audience about their efforts to fight the often intersecting struggles affecting the Black community. Speaking in turn, they lay down their initiatives. In a recent town hall in South Carolina, these included combating the pandemic, income inequality, and systemic racism in its many forms. “We got the three Cs: COVID-19, Crooked Cops and the Census,” Brown declared at the beginning of the one in South Carolina in June, setting the agenda for the meeting. Of these three, the 2020 Census is the most unexpected challenge. In 2015, the New York Times reported how official US statistics undercounted Black Americans, leaving a staggering 1.5 million Black men absent from official statistics.8 According to some studies, much of this failure is due to the distinctive economic and housing conditions that make some Black citizens unreachable by enumerators. Since federal funding levels and many other programs are based on official figures derived from the Census, such undercounts perpetuate an inequitable allocation of resources from all levels of government.
In response, the National Action Network of Columbia, a civil rights organization supported by, among others, by Black Voters Matter, spoke about their initiatives to deliver food to people in need. In describing such efforts during the town hall, Tiffany James, a community organizer for the Network of Columbia, underscored how their support could only mitigate the immediate effect of such inequities perpetrated through the Census, while many other more structural consequences could not be addressed. “Black and Brown people, we often live with a lot of family members, and sometimes we have smaller homes, and it is harder for us to self-isolate” she said in reference to the other C, COVID-19.
The virtual room that day in early June was especially taken by one other story. Vivian Anderson, the founder of Every Black Girl,9 a community organization to help Black girls combat violence and discrimination at school, recounted an episode, which had occurred just the previous day, in which Dynasia Clark, a senior in Lamar, South Carolina, was excluded from her class’s graduation exercises, because she had worn trousers under her gown in violation of the school dress code. An article in the local newspaper clumsily reported the incident, including, unncessarily, her sexual orientation.
The incident echoed another this year, from Gladewater, Texas, where a Black girl was denied participation in her graduation ceremony for wearing braids. As Anderson was speaking, the audience and the other panelists audibly expressed their outrage, many commenting on the live stream, while others called in their family members by phone to exceed the capacity limit. A community was generated online by the memory of lived experiences—the border between virtual and physical erased by the recounting of trauma.
Yet, even in the face of such injustices, the town hall stayed true to its commitment to go beyond commiseration to real-life change. “[They] didn’t let [Dynasia] walk because there are policies put in place,” Anderson reminded the audience toward the end of her speech. “And the only people that can put those policies in place are those that we vote [into] the school board, so [vote!]” she added. “Elections! We gotta wrap it all together.” Voting and what can be achieved by the ballot are the constant focus of these Black Voters Matter livestreams, as they are of the organization’s efforts in general.
Such motivation and commitment is brought to any Black Voters Matter event especially by Brown. Being also a soul singer, she knows how to energize an audience and to bring hopes up with her words, on stage and on camera. Live stream is a medium meant for her. “I got unshakable faith,” she said at the end of the town hall in June. ‘This is a moment for us to get activated,” she proclaimed during an interview on YouTube in July. “Black turnout is our own making, and it’s about work, and definitely not because elections have been free or fair.” And empowered by a sense that we are in a historic moment, Brown is optimistic about the future. She added: “We’ve seen the largest, multi-racial, multi-generational movement in all 50 states in this country. We gotta lean into that. Do you know how much possibility, how much potential, comes with that? That’s America!”