Finding justice on racial issues through the ballot

The eyes of America remain focused on Ferguson, Missouri, gripped by the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. The anguish of Ferguson — from the murder of an unarmed young person of color, to the lack of accountability fueled by a sheer disregard for black lives — is all too familiar for Florida.

Our state has been the backdrop for a number of high-profile stories that have similarly illuminated America’s tragic legacy of killing unarmed people of color. There was Trayvon Martin, 17, who was walking down the street in Sanford in 2012 when he was followed and killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Police made no arrest until six weeks later.

Fast forward several months to when Jordan Davis, also 17, was gunned down in a Jacksonville parking lot by Michael Dunn. In the media attention that followed, it was Davis who was put on a trial with the focus on his refusal to lower the volume of his music. And last year, 18-year-old Israel Hernandez was tasered to death by a police officer after spray-painting graffiti on an abandoned McDonald’s in Miami Beach. The officer involved, Jorge Mercado, was briefly placed on leave before returning to the force.

Florida’s communities of color are speaking out. For years, we have engaged in anti-racist community building, organizing against police brutality, officer misconduct and other justice issues. Yet — as further evidenced by the low turnout rate in last week’s primary elections, in which only 17.55 percent of registered Florida voters participated — we are not harnessing our full power at the ballot box.

Michael Brown’s shooting has jarringly underscored the critical role of voting. The lack of black representation in Ferguson’s political structure is directly connected to the city’s lack of political participation — with the city’s poverty rate, the timing of municipal elections in off-numbered years (a method that has been shown to reduce participation), as well as a highly transient population all cited as reasons for low voter turnout.

The current mayor was first elected in 2011 with 46 percent of the vote, and in the most recent city council election, voter turnout stood at a mere 12 percent. Meanwhile, Ferguson, which is 67 percent black, has never had a black mayor and has only one black city council member.

Only three out of the police force’s 53 officers are black. As the crowds that have taken to the streets over the past few weeks see little of themselves represented in the city’s power structure, there is understandably little confidence that this same power structure will deliver justice. Voting matters.

The power of the ballot is especially vital for young voters of color in Florida. With just a 12-percent increase in turnout from black and Latino voters between the ages of 18 and 35, for example, we could have decided the 2010 election that altered Florida’s political landscape.

The result of low participation has been a public policy agenda that is negatively impacting us.

It’s not only that the criminal-justice system repeatedly devalues our lives. Youth of color in Florida also face systemic criminalization from a school-to-prison pipeline that funnels students out of classrooms for minor infractions and into a flourishing juvenile-justice system that is run entirely by for-profit corporations.

We can change this through casting our ballots for leaders who represent our issues, values and principles. While we may not have turned out on Tuesday for the primary elections, voting time will be upon us again this November for the midterms.

When we vote — whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, black, white, Latino or Asian — we all have the same say.

I invite young voters of color across the state of Florida to get registered and get out to the polls to let our elected officials know that our lives matter, and our voices will be heard.

Ebynn Hanna is the state coordinator of Florida Black Youth Vote.