On 25 May, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The viral video of the horrific slaying became a catalyst for a civil uprising that started in the city. Soon it would spur the largest scale protests in American history.
The nationwide wave quickly racked up a number of incremental victories in police reform, such as chokehold regulations and body cameras mandates. But the most unprecedented change was in Minneapolis itself, where schools cut ties with the police. The city council also promised to put a proposal on November’s ballot that would give voters the power to defund and dismantle the police department and form a new community safety and violence prevention department.
In recent weeks, however, things slowed down. Last month, Minneapolis’s city council backtracked on its proposal. Citizens won’t be able to vote on the proposal until next year, if it all.
For the young people who took to the streets of Minneapolis this summer, policing remains at the forefront. The video of Floyd’s murder was their political awakening and the demonstrations their first political act. But many have also lost faith in the power of representative democracy. Now, a question looms as we approach the presidential election: will these Gen Zers cast a ballot?
We reached out to a few of these young Minnesotans about what they’ll be doing in November.
Dante Malik Fornizy, 21
Twenty-one-year-old Dante Malik Fornizy found out about the murder of Floyd when he was at his girlfriend’s house, listening to MPR (Minnesota Public Radio). The grisly details were familiar as a young black American man who’s lived through the extrajudicial killings of Philando Castile and Eric Garner. It wasn’t until later in the day, when he watched the video, that Fornizy knew this was different. “I couldn’t stop myself from uncontrollably crying,” he told me over the phone.
That night Fornizy joined the memorial gatherings happening at Cup Foods, the site where Floyd was killed. As law enforcement clashed with the demonstrators, he was surprised and angry to see the same “police brutality and the suppression” he was protesting against. The experience left a profound impact on his views of American electoral politics.
“We often boil down our democratic involvement to one action, which is voting,” he said. “But this tragedy caused a whole community to go to the streets and take power for themselves. We need people to be engaged on the ground, picketing striking, boycotting things and protesting to actually make change.”
Fornizy has never voted in a presidential election, though politics have been an important part of his life since he was nine years old, during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. “It was very important for me to see someone who looked like me competing for the highest office in the land,” he said. But during Obama’s presidency, Fornizy became increasingly disappointed by the persistent wars, and the failure to address the concerns of movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. “He was basically a counter-revolutionary figurehead, who co-opted ‘change’.”
He hasn’t given up on voting completely. “There is still a lot that we can get done if we can elect the right leaders,” he said, suggesting that politicians could help to demilitarize the police and end policies like qualified immunity that protect trigger-happy cops. But when it comes to totally reconstituting the system of policing, he believes that can only come from grassroots activism.
“The true abolition of a racist police force that enters into black homes and kills them in their sleep cant be fully abolished unless people do the work themselves. Once we have a community that takes care of itself, then we’ll have the power,” he said.
“But as long as we divest our democratic power into a single day, a single vote, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Nicole Ocansey, 22
Nicole Ocansey grew up in a mixed-race family that takes voting very seriously. “If you don’t have the ‘I Voted’ sticker on election day, you’re not invited to the next [family gathering],” she joked. Out of that sense of duty, she voted in the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton, despite being certain that Donald Trump would win.
But with this coming election, she was not sure she would cast a ballot at all. She and several of her friends had trouble as students registering at their new addresses this summer – leading her to believe that November “is not a fair election”.
“I think it was the best it could be the last time around,” she told us in August. “But this time, with the post office, the blatant lies, the fake news … I just don’t want to [vote]. I don’t see the point.”
A large part of her disillusionment came from the fact that she felt black women were alone in their fight against oppression. She had little faith that the concerns she was marching for in the wake of Floyd’s death were being received by her fellow white Americans – meaning that nothing would change, regardless of who was in office. “If Hillary were president, George Floyd would still be dead,” she said last month. “Everyone would still be dead.”
But her perspective on the power of the upcoming November election has become more optimistic in recent weeks as she’s seen a wider array of people rally for social justice. “Seeing more protests and the way things have progressed, I’ve realized that there might be a chance that everyone is on the same page,” she said.
The turning point for her was hearing from white classmates from her more conservative high school reach out to her to get a better understanding of the issues.
“Their consciousness has been raised, their awareness has been raised,” she said. Once they joined the effort, she felt inspired to fulfill her duty as a citizen and cast her ballot early. “How could I say I was fighting too if I didn’t do the most fundamental thing, which is to vote.”
Anna Andresen, 22
November won’t be Anne’s first presidential election. She cast her ballot in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. “I really did not anticipate the other side winning,” she said. “I was sitting in the lobby of my dorm. And there was a guy from my high school who was super Republican who was there. And even he offered me a hug because he knew how hard that result hit me.”
The white “super senior” got active in protests, regularly demonstrating for women’s rights and against police brutality. She found out about George Floyd’s murder when she got a text the morning after he died calling for people to hit the streets. She headed to the South Side of Minneapolis to join in the collective mourning.
“I honestly didn’t think politicians would care about Floyd. I thought our best hope was just to make it more inconvenient for them not to care.”
This shifted for her in June when she saw how the protests were able to force the city council to commit to putting the abolition of the Minneapolis police department up for a vote. “That felt really powerful … But then they turned around and didn’t do it! […] And that’s horseshit!” she said.
To get so close but be stymied hasn’t caused her to stop engaging with politics. Instead, it’s shown her, “how incompetent our current leadership is and it’s motivating me to go in and vote for the people I’ve seen on the ground”.
She plans to vote in the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but she describes national politics as a “dumpster fire”. Unlike 2016, though, her focus this time around is on local politics. “It’s like when you and your friends try to sneak into an after-party. If you’re with a big group, it’s not going to work. But when you’re with a really small group, you can move faster and more effectively,” she said.
Indi Koonce, 17
For 17-year-old Indi Koonce, what stood out to her after watching the video of the murder of George Floyd was the fact that it happened in her home state. “I realized that not only could he die like this, I could die like this,” she said. In support of the uprising, she transformed her personal Instagram page into Revolution Radio, a public account dedicated to “keeping everyday people informed and active in the movement”.
The young Black woman sees the protests as her “political awakening”, because it has caused her to connect with passionate people and radical ideas. Watching fellow protestors confront Minneapolis’ mayor, Jacob Frey, in June, when he said he did not support abolishing the police, helped show her the power of activism. “We’ve been able to equalize the political playing field,” she told me.
She also met young people on the streets who are angry about policing, but disillusioned by electoral politics. “Of the people I’ve met who don’t vote, a large percentage are from the Black community. And that’s because the two party system, the American system, has been harmful to them.”
While she agrees that, “racism and prejudice has been built up for centuries and will not be destroyed under the next presidency”, she thinks presidents have the power to set the national dialogue. And she believes Trump has made that conversation far worse – making police brutality feel “acceptable”. So her experience has only strengthened her desire to vote.
“I feel like a double agent, destroying the harmful characteristics of the system by first participating in it and learning how it works,” she said.