For better or worse, Memphis has a way of making a difference. Think: 14th amendment; Ida B. Wells; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we head into the Oct. 3 municipal election and lurch toward the 2020 presidential election with the rest of the nation, the People’s Convention will amplify why Memphis matters more than ever.
Recently, UpTheVote901 set out to find out what issues would drive everyday Memphians to the polls if they could chose candidates for mayor and other city offices committed to make a difference in everyone’s lives, not just some.
In a matter of weeks, nearly 2,000 responses to the People’s Survey reveal folks are concerned about the state’s new school voucher plan, the city’s economic infrastructure, and basic human rights associated with earning a living wage and access to healthcare.
Our survey responses reflect the racial demographics of Memphis (65 percent black and 30 percent white). People ages 35–54 were more likely to participate in the survey, which suggests an opportunity to increase engagement with underrepresented age groups because only 7 percent of respondents are 18–24 years old.
Now, we head to the People’s Convention at 11 a.m. June 8 at Paradise Entertainment Center to work it all out. The function of this convention is threefold:
- To produce a democratically constructed people’s agenda that articulates the will of the majority of the citizens of Memphis.
- To organize and mobilize 2,500 people for increased political transparency, accountability and civic engagement.
- To produce a slate of consensus candidates to minimize the potential of vote splitting along racial lines and otherwise.
Current survey findings accent the need for our collective voices to be heard and our bodies to be brought to the center of the political infrastructure. This means, as real as apathy is, there remains a longing for more political engagement and a hope that educating the electorate will empower people to create the type of communities they truly want.
Our survey responses also stand in contrast to what the Nashville Tennessean’s David Plazas calls a “backward voter registration bill.” Plazas, the paper’s opinion and engagement director, highlights that despite voter registration and engagement efforts that “took the Volunteer State from second-worst in 2014 to 44th in 2018 … lawmakers want to punish registration efforts for their success.”
People want easier and more equitable access to the ballot box, not less.
We have also found that some of the most tense and complex issues in our community require comprehensive, robust responses. For example, the state’s school voucher bill, headed to Gov. Bill Lee’s, desk does the opposite. Somehow, the controversial bill that shape-shifted at the 11th hour to only apply to metro Nashville and Shelby County, has some lawmakers lauding what they promise will be increased opportunity for low-income families.
Others contend vouchers will take necessary resources away from public schools — effectively killing public education in this state. Practically speaking, some of the so-called better opportunities involve sending black and brown children to schools founded to avoid school integration in the first place, as Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism have reported.
Our survey results on the voucher question are far from a majority: When asked if school vouchers will provide poor families with better educational options, 18 percent strongly agree, and 24 percent strongly disagree.
Another complex issue that gets couched in the political buzzwords of “public safety” is the relationship between police officers and crime rates. A recent report of first quarter 2019 crime trends released by the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission and University of Memphis reflects a drop in rape, down 4.8 percent in Memphis and 7.5 percent countywide, and robbery, which fell 20.7 percent in Memphis and 20.4 percent countywide. However, aggravated assaults (up 6.6 percent in Memphis) and murders (up 12.5 percent in Memphis) increased. Memphis has experienced these results despite a concerted effort to hire more police officers.
Community sentiment on this matter is rather convoluted: When asked if the size of the police force directly affects the amount of crime in our city, 16 percent strongly agree, and 11 percent strongly disagree. Again, no majority.
These results trend in ways that demand our attention, calling forth a more textured approach to political engagement. We find ourselves at an impasse; vacillating between political expediency and bipartisan pseudo-progress. As Memphis enters nonpartisan municipal elections, the danger of not having party primaries that could allow citizens to thoroughly vet the incumbent and aspiring elected officials creates too much space for wishing upon political superstars and waiting for political saviors.
The Memphis People’s Convention 2019 is a necessity. Everyone who sincerely cares about a community that adequately reflects the will of the people; who cares about the sanctity of our republic and the integrity of our democracy; who dares to dream of a city whose next 200 years can be more equitable, just and progressive than our past two centuries should extend their unyielding support and partnership.
The remedy to the encroachment upon our educational institutions, economic infrastructure and basic human rights (which is happening at the federal, state and local level) is to organize and et more political power to more people.
Where do we go from here?
Please take the survey. Share it with everyone in your network.
Join the conversation at the UpTheVote901 Facebook group.
Commit to the process of political engagement, and join us at our monthly planning meetings at 6 p.m. the last Monday of every month at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Make plans to attend the People’s Convention 2019 on June 8 at the Paradise Entertainment Center, 645 E. Georgia Ave, 38126.
Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D., is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and founder of UpTheVote901, a Memphis-based voter engagement and education project.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.