Black Lives Matter activists turn attention to statehouses

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2015 file photo, a man wears a hoodie which reads, "Black Lives Matter" as stands on the lawn of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. A new poll shows a majority of American young adults, including white youth, support the Black Lives Matter movement. The support from young white adults is an increase from the beginning of the summer and the first time in the poll a majority of black, white, Hispanic and Asian young adults expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

A new initiative launched by Black Lives Matter activists seeks to re-focus the movement’s efforts on state capitols, building on momentum at the national level to push back against President Donald Trump’s political agenda on issues such as policing and immigration.

The online platform OurStates.org is the latest indication that Democrats and left-leaning groups are turning their attention to statehouses after concluding that many of the policies they oppose are being enacted at the state level, since Congress has passed few major laws in recent years.

Despite the movement’s national presence, it has not concentrated “on engaging and resisting what state legislatures are doing to essentially implement the same agenda,” said Sam Sinyangwe, a data scientist with the project. “If we don’t engage on the state level, many of the same rights we’re fighting to protect will be restricted at the local level anyway.”

Users visiting the site can choose categories and click on states to learn more about pending legislation. It has a guide for influencing lawmakers, directing people to ask for in-person meetings, present specific demands and track the progress of legislation. The site also suggests conducting protests in lawmakers’ offices to apply pressure and get their attention.

Black Lives Matter grew largely out of the protests over the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Activists DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett — who met during Ferguson and co-founded Campaign Zero, a national campaign to end police violence — are behind the OurStates.org project and have created other online organizing tools to connect people to ways to continue the movement.

In the years since Brown’s death, Black Lives Matter groups have sprung up in cities across the country, organizing and challenging officials on the local level. But this latest effort is a 50-state strategy.

Organizers say people looking to get more politically active can have more influence at the state level, since state districts are smaller than congressional districts. Also, state lawmakers often run unopposed and legislating isn’t their full-time job.

Republicans now hold 33 governors’ offices and have majorities in 33 legislatures. They control the governor’s office and legislature in 25 states — the most since 1952. Democrats control the governor’s office and legislature in only about a half-dozen states.

The imbalance of power gives state Republicans greater ability to shape laws as they pursue an agenda that includes proposals on abortion, unions, taxes, gun rights and school choice. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, GOP lawmakers in several states want to crack down on protesters and challenge “sanctuary cities” that have resisted efforts to step up enforcement of immigration laws.

Black Lives Matter supporters are also being encouraged to back legislation in line with their personal agendas and that of the movement, including requiring police departments to report data on hate crimes, requiring officers to undergo bias training and preventing police unions from making it harder to investigate officer misconduct.

Republican strategist Brian Robinson said Black Lives Matter activists could make inroads with GOP lawmakers, depending on their approach. As potential areas of common ground, he pointed to legislation that would fund law enforcement training to deal with mental health crises or outfit officers with body cameras.

“If the goals are partisan, hot-button issues, the outcome is going to be … no political or policy progress,” said Robinson, former assistant chief of staff for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “If Republicans are approached in a respectable manner on issues that could have bipartisan consensus, they can make headway, but they’ve got to be civil.

Activists must “be serious and have doable, incremental goals,” Robinson said. “If what they want to do is demonize Republican leaders … they’ll be ignored.”

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