ST. PETERSBURG — Clutching a speaker and a homemade sign, Claudia Roebuck marched Saturday night through downtown St. Petersburg as demonstrators cycled through chants for justice, for action and one rebuking President Donald Trump.
No Trump. No KKK. No racist U-S-A.
Roebuck will not be voting for Trump in November, she said. But nor is she ready to get behind former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee and the alternative on the ballot to another four years of Trump.
“I think he’s better than Trump,” Roebuck, a 22-year-old hospitality aide, said of Biden, “but I still don’t think he’s good.”
Young, black activists like Roebuck pose a problem for Biden. In communities across Tampa Bay and the country, protesters are leading conversations on race and reforms in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They are engaged and clamoring for change.
They are also the voters Biden struggled most to connect with during the Democratic primary, even as he campaigned as the heir to the legacy of President Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president. Black voters under 30 have not swung toward Biden since he secured the nomination like their parents and grandparents, according to Morning Consult national tracking poll. Roughly the same amount of young people, 69 percent, support Biden as they did in April, compared to more than 85 percent of older black voters.
In a state like Florida, where elections are won and lost on razor thin margins, Biden’s success may hinge on whether he can convince thousands of young people demonstrating from Miami to Tallahassee to show up in November. Young black voters came out in historic numbers during the 2018 mid-term elections — 31 percent of them voted compared to 19 percent in 2014. In Florida, they almost pushed Democrat Andrew Gillum, the first African American nominee for governor from a major party, over the top.
Despite the undeniable anti-Trump rhetoric of the protests and the president’s low standing among black voters, it remains to be seen whether young voters will replicate that turnout for Biden.
“They feel that they have been ignored by the party and this is their way of getting attention,” said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, one of the first black lawmakers in Florida to endorse Biden. “The VP can’t call them out; he has to call them in in this moment.”
Biden’s campaign said its candidate is listening. The former vice president met with Floyd’s family and was invited to attend his funeral. Biden has also sat down with black leaders in his home state of Delaware and delivered an address on race relations in a Philadelphia that his campaign has since cut into ads now airing in swing states, including Florida.
“I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate,” Biden said in Philadelphia. “I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country, not use them for political gain.”
The policy solutions Biden has offered include familiar calls for more police training on racial bias and increased investments in minority communities. But they also include more progressive ideas like ending cash bail. He has proposed a ban on choke holds by police, uniform use-of-force guidelines and independent review of police-involved deaths. He has promised to use the executive branch to root out racism in police departments and to go after discriminatory lending practices that keep many black families from owning a home.
“The campaign recognizes the importance of working together with activists to take advantage of this moment and share ideas around police reform and combating systemic racism,” spokesman Kevin Munoz said.
But activists, like Florida’s Dream Defenders, have bristled at Biden’s idea to give more money to police departments for training at a time when demonstrations are aggressively pushing for local communities to defund the police.
The Dream Defenders, an organization that formed in response to the killing of black teen Trayvon Martin, endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, when Biden struggled to defend past positions on race and policing. In debates, Biden’s opponents targeted his past opposition to school desegregation and his authorship of the 1994 crime bill that expanded police departments.
Nevertheless, Biden staved off Sanders and a litany of other candidates thanks in large part to the support he received from middle-age and older black voters. Many credited the African American vote in South Carolina for turning around his campaign in late February.
At the time, few anticipated the country was headed toward a public health crisis that would disproportionately affect communities of color, or an unprecedented era of civil unrest.
Though Trump has made passing attempts to court black voters, including a Super Bowl ad highlighting his work on federal drug sentencing reform, his response to Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests have created new tensions with the black community. Trump threatened to sic dogs on protesters, a statement that evoked images of bloody civil rights protests, and taunted protesters with a racially-loaded warning, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Michelle Bitcher, a 23-year-old St. Petersburg resident, has never voted before but plans to register for the upcoming election with the sole goal of ousting Trump. She knows little about Biden, but said, “I don’t want Trump to be our president.”
The dynamic has put black activist groups in a difficult position. They also want to see Trump defeated and some, like Dream Defenders, are partnered with other organizations working to elect Biden.
“Our leadership is clear that we need Trump out. But how do you do that without endorsing the other option?” Dream Defenders spokeswoman and co-founder Nailah Summers said. “People always say, ‘well it’s the lesser of two evils.' When do we get to stop picking the evil?”
Locally and nationally, Democrats are working to convince young black voters that the party is eager to include their voices in its platform. They have encouraged this new generation of activists to turn their anger into action. “If we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both,” Obama wrote earlier this month in response to the demonstrations.
The Florida Democratic Party held two virtual town halls in recent weeks called “Preserving Black Lives” featuring black leaders, party operatives and elected official. It has spent half a million dollars to enroll black and Hispanic Democrats in vote by mail.
Chevaneze Small, a 25-year-old St. Petersburg nurse, is skeptical of the outreach. She said young people like herself don’t trust that Biden or Democrats will be there for black people after November.
“I’ve been seeing it since Occupy Wall Street,” Small said as she walked on the edges of Saturday’s march down Central Avenue, referring to the movement that formed during the Great Recession more than a decade ago. “Nobody wanted to support that back then and it has just been getting worse.”