For the first time in decades, the New York State primary could matter.
And one of the first community efforts to draw attention to the race in Buffalo was inspired by Black Lives Matter.
“I liken it, to some extent, to the mass civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Erie Community College professor Tom Grace at Saturday’s forum. “It forced the Democratic Party in particular to pass legislation they did not otherwise want to pass.”
“But we all know that what’s won is never permanent,” he added. “And the rights one has been given someone else will try to take away.”
In the coming weeks, presidential candidates will descend on the state and political activists will escalate efforts to sway voters heading into the April 19 primary.
Among the first was Young Black Democrats of Western New York, which organized Saturday’s event at the Pratt Community Center to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and encourage participants to vote for candidates that support policy changes that promote social justice.
The event underscored growing frustrations among black and Hispanic voters about police brutality, racial discrimination and social injustice. The forum, though, drew a diverse crowd of about 100 community members from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. That included some of Buffalo’s most vocal community leaders and social justice activists, such as County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, Charley Fisher of B.U.I.L.D. and Willie Green, an anti-violence community activist. The event also drew participants from Niagara Falls and Rochester.
The political forum also marked the city’s most significant support yet for the Black Lives Matter movement, which started as a discussion on social media and ultimately morphed into a national political campaign fueled by the high profile killings of young black men and women by police officers. The movement has expanded beyond the police killings to address broader issues, including the incarceration of black men, educational inequities and discrimination through public policy.
Some of the speakers argued that those issues are especially relevant in Buffalo because of the city’s history of segregation and institutional racism.
“Last I was told this is the fourth most segregated city in the country,” speaker Brian Nowak said. “What makes us any better than Atlanta, Georgia or Birmingham, Alabama?”
Speakers implored participants to have their voices heard at the polls, and representatives from the Erie County Board of Elections were on site to collect voter registrations.
Some encouraged voters to select candidates who represent their interests and will work to reverse the system of inequities that discriminates against people of color.
“We have to make sure we’re voting our interests,” said Lion Blyden, president of the local chapter of the United Negro Improvement Association.
Many of the participants at the forum showed support for Bernie Sanders, who identifies himself as a Democratic socialist and has been outspoken on issues of racial injustice.
Community leaders also emphasized that swelling activism efforts can not end with the presidential election, noting that representatives in local and state offices can have much greater impact on policy in the community.
“Regardless of what happens in this election, our movement must stay together,” said Alberto Cappas of the Puerto Rican Committee for Community Justice. “We cannot go our separate ways when we leave this meeting.”