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Democrats Hope To Turn Young Protesters Into Voters


Young protesters have taken to the streets across the country, spurred to action by police brutality and frustration with a system that they say isn't working for them. As NPR's Juana Summers reports, it's a moment that could help Democrats galvanize disillusioned young people, but it could also have the effect of further alienating them.



JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: As a steady stream of protesters marched past, Owen Mihavetz in Baltimore was taping the names of victims of police brutality, typed on slips of paper, all over a car. There were more than 100 names.

OWEN MIHAVETZ: We're hearing a lot about George Floyd. In 2015, we had Freddie Gray. But, like, all these ones, like Paul O'Neal, Samuel DuBose, Akai Gurley, Terrence Crutcher - these are cases just as serious, but not as many people know about them just 'cause of the frequency of how much has happened.

SUMMERS: He also spoke to the frustration that a lot of millennial and Gen Z protesters say they are feeling as Democratic leaders are urging them to channel the emotions of this moment into voting.

MIHAVETZ: We've been voting for as long as the country has been a thing, and I don't see anything getting any better. People are still dying. It's - this problem is still here. And these politicians are all telling us that we need to - like, we put them in power. Now it's time for them to do their parts.

SUMMERS: Democrats are concerned that the generational gap in election turnout will continue in November, something that could pose a challenge for former Vice President Joe Biden. He struggled to generate enthusiasm among young voters during the primary, though those same voters strongly disapprove of President Trump.

Sarah Audelo, the executive director for Alliance for Youth Action, says that campaigns have historically failed to engage young voters, many of whom haven't voted before and don't show up in models.

SARAH AUDELO: Campaigns skip engaging them, and then we have a self-fulfilling prophecy of young people not turning out because candidate campaigns are not directly contacting them and making the case for why they should vote for them.

SUMMERS: A number of senior Democrats have been reminding young people that elections matter, too. One of them is former President Barack Obama, who long ago popularized the saying, don't boo; vote.

Joel Payne is a Democratic strategist.

JOEL PAYNE: Don't boo; vote - is fine as a call to action, but that has to be matched with accountability. That has to be matched with, by the way, here are the things we are going to do once you vote.

SUMMERS: Candidates for office are seeing the urgency of these young protesters, and some have joined in with them. Jamaal Bowman is running for Congress in New York, challenging longtime incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel. He says he gets it and that the leaders asking these young people to vote for them have to offer more.

JAMAAL BOWMAN: If people feel that the system doesn't work for them and they not only feel, but there's evidence of disenfranchisement, marginalization, neglect and oppression, how the heck are we going to expect them to now come out and vote?

SUMMERS: Cliff Albright, a founder of the Black Voters Matters Fund, says this is an opportunity for organizers.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: There's no sense in complaining about how young folks aren't going to be active or how young folks aren't engaged because they don't care. They are demonstrating on a daily basis, on a hourly basis that they care, that they care passionately. And they're telling us what it is that they care about.

SUMMERS: Ultimately, Albright says, Democrats need to pay less attention to the techniques young protesters are using and more attention to the issues they are raising and the solutions they're demanding.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.