By SVANTE MYRIC
People For the American Way
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.
But 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. That action was taken by the progressive Shelby County District Attorney, Steve Mulroy, elected by citizens who firmly rejected the agenda of the right-wing prosecutors who preceded him. And 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. While in office, he has turned away from prosecuting low-level offenses and from cash bail. His office claims that he has imposed over 29,000 fewer years of incarceration than his predecessor.
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 is also the only prosecutor nationwide to have successfully indicted more than one police officer in an on-duty shooting. She was recently elected to her third term, by voters who deeply appreciate her values and commitment.
This appreciation is not always reflected in media. For example, the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco was covered heavily in the last election season, while at the same time Mulroy and fellow progressive DAs were succeeding with openly progressive platforms.
That’s a shame, because media apathy 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 making our criminal justice system more equitable, 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 what is happening with the response to police brutality in Memphis is the latest powerful affirmation that democracy really can fix things for people. It’s a powerful affirmation that yes, voting is a useful way to address violence against Black people. And it’s a slap in the face to the cynicism that makes people throw up their hands and say nothing can be done and that voting doesn’t matter.
This is not to oversimplify the case. There are multiple factors in any criminal case, and we don’t know everything. As a Black man myself, it hurts me deeply that most of the officers as well as the victim, Tyre Nichols, are Black. But I still believe that the response was unquestionably shaped by the progressive values of the prosecutor that Shelby County voters were wise to choose.
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 all the marches mattered, because they did; and that the pain mattered, because it did; and that elections matter too. And then go vote, for the change that we now know is possible.
Svante Myrick is president of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest mayor in New York State history.