It has now been about one month since police killed George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests began sweeping the nation. In the days after Floyd’s death, I spent a lot of my time on Twitter watching brave people put their bodies on the line to support radical change. Clearly and thankfully, this movement turned out not to be just another blip in the 24-hour news cycle. I had to decide how to handle it from a campaign perspective.
This year is perhaps the most difficult in which to conduct a campaign in recent history. Campaign messaging has become an absolute land mine in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the overwhelming number of people demanding real and fast change within their communities. I knew managing two campaigns — both of which are in Leavenworth, Kansas, and neither of which are in majority Democratic districts — would take a lot of careful consideration the whole way through. My previous strategy as a campaign manager was to fight for a chance for my candidates to speak at every possible moment. I could not have imagined that the best thing I could end up doing for my candidates this month was to encourage both of them to take a step back and listen to community leaders rather than fight for a chance to spread their messages, and I encourage other campaigns to follow suit.
Jo Scholtz is a Black woman who is the president of the Leavenworth NAACP chapter. The first thing I did after seeing the movement spread across the country was call her and insist she take a week off from campaigning. Being white and privileged, I knew this was one of the many ways I could try to help. I assured her I would take care of all our social media, volunteer work and campaign meetings. She was grateful for the extra space to work with her NAACP chapter on a response. In the meantime, I had to decide how to conduct the campaign. I wanted to stay truthful to our message, but we could not afford to lose a single vote in June. Our opponent is a far-right conservative. If he wins this race, any hope of progress will be lost. In fact, I’m confident progress would be lost.
I ended up freezing quite a bit of activity from both campaigns until we heard the responses two major organizations in our community were planning. The first was Unity in the Community, an organization with Black leadership focusing on bridging the divide between police and Leavenworth citizens. They worked with the NAACP and came up with our own form of participation in the movement: the Unity Walk. The walk began with community speakers, including Jo in her capacity as president of the NAACP, the leader of Unity in the Community and even the police chiefs of the two major cities in Leavenworth county, and ended with a march downtown, with everyone chanting, “United, stop the silence; no more violence.”
The temptation to make this event about politics was extraordinary. I wanted to call Jo and tell her to mention her campaign in her speech. But as I continued to scroll through Twitter, I realized this event wasn’t an appropriate time. Mike, the mayor of Leavenworth, got to speak, but he also kept his campaign out of his speech. A local state representative wanted some time to push his message and was respectfully rejected. Some people wanted to do a big voter registration push, but that was turned down as well. This event was to honor the memory of George Floyd and move forward. By keeping politics out of the event, the organizers managed to keep the focus on what mattered.
Every statement a politician releases, whether they are local or nationally based, is potentially the product of dozens of discussions and reworkings. White candidates and allies in particular, however, need to learn when it is time to give the microphone to someone else. If the local Democratic party had co-opted this Unity Walk, the original point would have been lost in a sea of politics. George Floyd was killed by police, and therefore his death reflected the need for institutional change that can come by way of legislation. But, politicians did not need to co-opt the Unity Walk to make a political message heard. I encourage all campaigns and politically inclined people to stop and listen to the voices in their community who are affected most by these situations and follow their suggestions on where political influence is best used. If we want to seem genuine, we have to be genuine. We cannot manufacture any part of this movement. It is time to let Black people take the lead, and we need to follow them wherever they go.
Rebecca Hollister is a senior in the College. Political Handprints appears online every other Sunday.