This op-ed was distributed by Trice Edney Newswire.
As I’m writing this, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols has just been laid to rest. The pain and heartbreak we feel over the needless killing of this beloved and loving young man, son and father are overwhelming. While many of the details of his death in police custody are tragically familiar, there is one significant difference. This time, the five officers initially identified as involved with the killing were promptly charged with murder.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump called the timeline of the expedited video release, the firing of the officers involved, and the charges brought against those officers “the Blueprint” for police brutality cases. The man responsible for so swiftly charging the officers was progressive Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, elected by citizens who firmly rejected the right-wing agenda of the prosecutors who preceded him. I believe the decision of the voters to elect a person with Mulroy’s values made most, if not all, the difference when this latest incident of horrific police brutality took place.
Mulroy was among a cohort of progressive prosecutors who ran — and won — on reform platforms in the last election. These are people who are outspoken against racial bias in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline and the egregious institution of cash bail. They are making people’s lives better in measurable ways. And they are a relatively new breed, in large and small cities.
One of the best known is in Philadelphia, where Larry Krasner is described as one of the first to run as a “progressive prosecutor.” Krasner has been elected twice on a platform of ending mass incarceration. Meanwhile in the small city of Portsmouth, Virginia, an outstanding Black progressive prosecutor, Stephanie Morales, is one of very few to win a conviction of a police officer for killing an unarmed Black man. She was recently elected to her third term, by voters who deeply appreciate her values and commitment.
This appreciation often goes ignored in the media because it doesn’t fit the flawed narrative that voters are afraid of criminal justice reform. For example, the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco was covered heavily in national press, while the election of DA Mulroy met with comparative silence — and it certainly didn’t spark a round of essays and think pieces about why criminal justice reform is a winning electoral issue. This, despite the fact that both elections happened in the summer of 2022 and Shelby County has 100,000 more residents than San Francisco.
That’s a shame, because media bias unfairly diminishes the importance of being a criminal justice reform voter: in other words, a voter who makes sure a candidate has a strong commitment to ending racial injustice in our criminal justice system, before they cast their vote.
And now more than ever, it’s critically important for all of us to be criminal justice reform voters.
It’s important because the response to police brutality in Memphis is a powerful affirmation that yes, voting is a useful way to begin to address police violence against Black people. And it’s a little more proof for the cynics who throw up their hands and say nothing can be done and that voting doesn’t matter.
This is not to oversimplify the case. The vivid audio and visual evidence from multiple cameras–plus the race of the officers–all may have contributed to how swifty the officers were fired and charged. That doesn’t mean that the role of prosecutor is any less essential. In this case, the response was shaped by the progressive values of the prosecutor that Shelby County voters were wise to choose. Now we need to ensure that this same swift justice is pursued in every instance of police abuse, no matter what color the officers or the victims are.
And the lesson here isn’t limited to District Attorney races in particular or down-ballot races in general. Becoming a criminal justice reform voter is important at every level. If we want change, we need to know the records of candidates and elected officials on this issue. We need to stop saying “voting won’t fix that.” We need to believe in our hearts that voting matters, that marching matters, that the pain matters, because it does; and that elections matter too. And then go vote, for the change that we now know is possible. Because that’s the best way to get change started.
Svante Myrick is President of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director of People For and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest-ever mayor in New York State history.