Placards urging visitors to vote surround George Floyd Square, a reminder that the nationwide racial reckoning that emanated from this south Minneapolis intersection in May has reverberated through this year’s election.
Black voters in South Carolina helped propel Joe Biden to the Democratic presidential nomination, and polls show that former President Barack Obama’s vice president is overwhelmingly favored by African Americans nationwide over President Donald Trump.
But while many Black activists see a president who is running with the backing of self-styled white supremacist groups, some younger activists holding vigils at Chicago Avenue and 38th Street remain unconvinced that the outcome of the presidential contest will help achieve the racial equality they seek.
“I know we fought for our right to vote, but if we’re given two clowns to vote for, that’s not really giving us a choice, it’s a Catch-22,” said Andrew Jackson, who was part of a group that was helping to winterize the memorial the day after a record October snowfall.
Jackson said he would never vote for Trump, whom he views as a white supremacist. But Biden hasn’t won his support, either; Jackson said he won’t check a box in the presidential race. Like many of the activists at the site where Minneapolis police officers killed Floyd on May 25, Jackson said he’s more focused on local elections.
He illustrates the challenge facing Biden and Democrats as they push to hold Minnesota against a concerted effort by Trump to turn the state red in a presidential election for the first time since 1972.
Trump nearly won Minnesota in 2016, an election that saw turnout by Black voters fall significantly in Minnesota and other states that were previously reliable for Democrats in presidential elections. For decades a vital part of the Democratic coalition, Black voters turned out in lower numbers in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — contributing to Hillary Clinton’s losses in the battleground states that helped install Trump in the White House.
Minnesota’s Black population is smaller compared with the total population of those three states, but a similar drop in turnout was a likely factor in Clinton’s close call in Minnesota, which retains the longest unbroken string of backing Democrats for president.
A Star Tribune analysis of voting patterns in Minnesota precincts with a majority or plurality of Black voters shows a drop in registered voter turnout from 75% in 2012 to 70% in 2016. At the same time, statewide registered voter turnout hovered around 82% in both of those elections.
The analysis draws from 32 precincts in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center where census figures show Black residents either comprise over half the population, are the largest racial or ethnic group, or are about tied for the largest group.
Facing the possibility of another close election, the Biden campaign’s organizing efforts in Minnesota, like in other battleground states, is focused on turning out Black voters. Any uptick in votes from those precincts, all reliably Democratic, would be a solid insurance policy to offset Trump’s efforts to boost turnout in the vast rural regions where he’s shown lopsided support.
“I’ve been really proud of this campaign for saying this is a community that we’re going to make sure we give its proper attention, the proper resourcing, and do everything we can to get that vote out,” said Corey Day, the Biden campaign’s senior adviser for Minnesota. “These are voters that can make a big difference on our margins in this state.”
In Minnesota, the Biden campaign has several staff members responsible for getting out the Black vote: an African American community engagement director, two organizers focused on the Black community, and a coordinator that works with Black churches and faith groups. They’ve targeted phone banks, community meetings, virtual events, and voter education and registration drives at Black beauty salons and barber shops.
The Trump campaign also has a strategy to make inroads with Black voters. The riots and destruction that followed Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis quickly became the impetus for a “law and order” message that Trump has led with for much of the campaign. Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to north Minneapolis in September as part of a Midwest tour to highlight what Republicans say is growing lawlessness in Democratic-controlled cities. There he met with Flora Westbrooks, a Black woman whose salon burned down in the riots in May.
“We see inroads we can make with community members due to things that have transpired,” said Paris Dennard, senior adviser to the Republican National Committee on Black community affairs. “It resonates with you if you feel like you can’t walk outside, your child can’t walk outside in your neighborhood without getting shot, if you’re a Black business owner worried that your building is going to burn.”
Dennard said the Trump campaign has established field offices in some states aimed at engaging Black voters for Trump, but that Minnesota is not one of them.
Brian Herron, a former Minneapolis City Council member and the pastor at Zion Baptist Church on the city’s North Side, said he’s seen evidence of the Biden campaign’s organizing efforts though he’d like to see more. But he said any efforts he’s seen from the Trump campaign are “disingenuous at best.”
Last week, some North Side residents reported receiving food boxes that were part of a coronavirus assistance program, complete with a letter from the White House signed by Trump. “I hope people aren’t fooled by that,” Herron said.
Under any scenario, winning large numbers of Black voters is an uphill battle for the president: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in September found Biden leading Trump among Black Americans 90 to 5%.
Still, it’s not impossible to find Black Trump supporters in Minnesota. “I am real with someone exposing our government for what they are,” said Victor Gaten, a 31-year-old who cast his ballot for Trump last week at an early voting site in Minneapolis.
Walter Hudson, an Albertville City Council member, considered himself a “Never Trump” Republican in 2016 but said he’s since come around to the president. “Nasty thoughts don’t harm me,” Hudson said. “I’m less concerned with whether or not Donald Trump is racist than whether his policies are racially discriminatory, and I’ve seen no evidence of that.”
Polling has suggested that Biden’s two terms as vice president under Obama and his selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate have left him in good standing with many Black voters.
“I figure he might be on that same platform, to get everything back to where it was,” said Antoine Thornton, 54, who was also voting early last week. Thornton particularly cited Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his treatment of women.
Some prominent Black leaders in Minnesota — even those uncomfortable with past positions of both Biden and Harris on issues of criminal justice and mass incarceration — say they still feel powerfully compelled to vote for the Democratic ticket.
“I’m biting the bullet and voting for Biden and Harris,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and activist. “Any harm they’re responsible for pales in comparison to the actions of Donald Trump and the havoc he’d wreak on our society if he gets another four years.”
Angela Myers, the second vice president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, said she thinks the 77-year-old Biden is particularly well situated to win over older Black voters. That demographic helped carry him to victory in the Democratic primaries earlier this year, even as younger Black voters gravitated toward candidates like Harris and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“For the young folks, I think they’re ready to vote for Joe,” said Myers, who’s 25 and is running unopposed for the local NAACP presidency. “I think it’s kind of just like, ‘Of course, this is who we got?’ ”
Younger Black voters also seem likely to be the most animated by the wave of activism that followed Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement. Biden has promised to get behind stronger police accountability measures at the federal level, though he has not joined activists’ calls to defund police departments.
At the Floyd memorial site last week, some questioned whether their cause was actually any better served with Democrats in charge.
“George Floyd was killed with a Democratic governor, with a Democratic mayor and with a seemingly Democratic City Council,” said Toussaint Morrison, a community organizer. “Black liberation and anti-white supremacy are not on the ballot, unfortunately.”
Marcia Howard, a 47-year-old English teacher, had been standing watch at the snowy intersection for nearly 12 hours. She said she understands too well why so many in her community are disenchanted with voting. Democrats and Republicans alike have failed Black people, she said.
As she left the memorial, Howard said she was headed to an early voting site.
“I vote because people did what we’re doing at George Floyd Square for our right to vote,” Howard said. “However flawed that process is, the moment that they convince us that we shouldn’t do it, they’re winning.”