A protester in favor of the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board makes a sign that reads “Who Polices the Policemen” at a Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission meeting on Nov. 2, 2021 in Athens, Georgia. Citizens of ACC lined up in City Hall to speak to the Mayor and Commission about their thoughts for or against the oversight board. (Photo/Julia Walkup, jwalkup@randb.com)

Those following this past month’s elections could be forgiven if they thought only a few races were on the ballot. As is typical for off-year elections, the national media focused intensely on a small number of statewide races to divine the political state of the country. This is not entirely without reason, but misses a much broader picture.

Along with the closely monitored gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Nov. 2 also hosted a slew of crucial municipal elections across many of America’s largest cities. The next day, the Athens-Clarke County Commission unanimously passed a Public Safety Oversight Board designed to monitor police activity in the city.

Held in the most overwhelmingly Democratic and strongly left-wing parts of the country, the races in Virginia and New Jersey did not do much to illustrate the national mood. What they did do was illustrate the state of the Democratic base, showing what kinds of policies, candidates and wings of the party appeal to them in the current moment.

What made these races especially important was their use as the first test of an entirely new political faction: the new, more radical wing of the Black Lives Matter movement that arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, famously represented in their calls to “defund” or “abolish the police.”

While never a centrally organized group, supporters of this approach have been defined by their skepticism if not outright hostility towards traditional police reform and the adoption of hardline attitudes towards law enforcement as a concept.

These activists did not all have the same intentions. Some supported modest reductions to police budgets, while others sought the full abolition of public police services as a concept. But in the months since the protests, they have organized as a political bloc and entered the electoral scene, allying with traditional progressive organizations, starting ballot measures and even running their own candidates.

It is hard to overstate the importance of these races to this wing. Symbolically, electoral success in just one major American city would have made them even more impossible for mainstream Democrats to ignore. Being able to bring up examples of real popular support for their positions and approaches would have given a potent rebuttal to claims that their wing is completely unelectable. And most important of all, winning control of municipal government would finally give them the chance to demonstrate proof-of-concept of their ideas

They had three opportunities. One was in Buffalo, New York, where a self-described socialist named India Walton was running as the Democratic nominee for mayor after promising to cut the city’s police department by millions of dollars. With no Republican opponent filing for the race, she was the only candidate listed on the ballot.

The second was in Seattle, where a self-described police abolitionist running for city attorney finished with a plurality of the vote in the city’s open primary system, winning a spot in the runoff.

The third was in Minneapolis itself, the heart of 2020’s protests, which held a referendum on abolishing the city’s police department and replacing it with a “Department of Public Safety.” These were three golden opportunities where the wing had significant electoral advantages. They only needed to win one of them.

They lost every single race. Minneapolis voters rejected the bid to replace the police force 56-44%. India Walton lost by 18 points to a write-in campaign orchestrated by the incumbent mayor after Walton beat him in the primary. In Seattle, voters elected Republican Ann Davison as the city’s first Republican official in decades, with a 52-48% margin over her abolitionist opponent.

Some may respond to these results by concluding that criminal justice reform will always be doomed politically. This would be wrong as well. These losses did not occur because voters love police brutality. Most Americans, especially urban Democrats, are open to police reform. In fact, of the most notable political developments in America’s cities in the past decade has been the rise of progressive views on criminal justice and crime as a whole. This has been in the form of refromism, which focuses on changing the practices of institutions.

This is the exact approach that the radical wing has explicitly rejected as wholly inadequate, a conviction that is core to their entire belief system. This question is still up for debate. However, there is one thing that is undeniable: reformists have been leagues more successful electorally.

From Philadelphia to Los Angeles, to South Fulton and even here in Athens, reformist candidates have run against the police-backed establishment for local offices. They promised to fight against mass incarceration, stop the prosecution of low level offenses, and prioritize criminal justice while in office. And they won. While not perfect, their work has improved the lives of thousands, and those up for re-election were rewarded by voters with clear mandates this year.

Going into the future, the message for the radical wing is clear. Their current approach is not only failing, but arguably causing more harm than good by holding back approaches that could directly benefit people’s lives today. A new approach has to be taken, or a once-in-a-generation opportunity for criminal justice reform could end up being squandered entirely.

Josh Cohen is a sophomore at UGA majoring in political science. He is the assistant opinion editor.

Recommended for you