It’s been more than a month since a Florida jury of six women acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin–and Zimmerman essentially walked off into the sunset. But for social justice activists all over the country that wasn’t the end of the story. They held protests in the days after the verdict, started Tumblr accounts, and called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to further investigative the case.
Now activists who say the verdict was unjust are trying a new tactic – they are setting up voting booths and creating ballots to hold a referendum that will allow residents in Los Angeles and Chicago to vote on whether President Obama and Holder should investigate and indict not only Zimmerman but the Sanford, Fla., police department for civil rights violations. Though the ballots will have no formal legal standing, the hope is that they can pressure Obama and Holder into taking action.
The program was started by the Labor/Community Strategy Center based in Los Angeles. But locally, the voting referendum is being led by one woman – Mia Henry, a South Shore community activist and onetime aldermanic hopeful – under the banner of Chicago for the People. Henry, along with a group of volunteers she has spent weeks marshaling before the September referendum date takes place, will set up informal polls at key locations around the city.
Henry has also been canvassing for volunteers, and getting the word out, through a series of information sessions held in South Shore, and in partnership with the local community empowerment group CivicLab. Ballots are courtesy of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which will print and distribute them by request. Henry plans to submit the ballots to the U.S. Justice Department.
Henry wants the referendum to be both useful for achieving justice in the Martin case and empowering for Chicagoans dealing with local injustices.
“Chicagoans share the obvious pain people across the U.S. feel about no one being held accountable for the needless death of a child. But more than that, people in Chicago know well that this is bigger than George Zimmerman,” Henry said. “We have a history in this city of systematic oppression of people of color, poor people and young people. This case resonates because so many people in Chicago can personally relate to incidents of harassment due to racial profiling.”
The referendum has a historical precedent. During the civil rights era, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC), along with other civil rights groups, created ballots and polling stations for disenfranchised Mississippi voters. At the time, the vote mobilized around 27,000 unregistered voters to show up at the polls for the gubernatorial primary, Robin D.G. Kelley, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles writes in the Huffington Post.
In Los Angeles, the voting referendum has been ongoing for the entire month of August. Polling places vary – they include various community centers, two stationary polling centers, and a bus that drives around the city offering people the opportunity to vote.
Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chair of the Bus Riders Union at the Labor/Community Strategy Center, said the results of the vote have been “very interesting” so far. What has been particularly important, said Lott-Holland, are the conversations that the act of voting has started. “We have let people know they have power as individuals,” she said.
Henry hopes that if the referendum goes well in Chicago, it will open the door for ballot initiatives on a myriad of other topics, including racism in local police forces. “There is … something about voting wherever we want and a time outside of official ‘Election Days’ that really puts the process in the hands of those participate,” Henry said. “Why not vote in September? Why not vote on a street corner?”
And then there is the question of a big – and real – election coming up in Chicago: the 2015 mayoral election. Henry is a vocal critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and she wants the referendum on Martin to be used to strengthen the progressive vote in Chicago.
“I am hoping that this referendum …will inform a platform that progressives can get behind and use to identify, endorse and hold accountable those seeking public office in this city in 2015 and beyond,” she said.