Dontaye Carter pauses to think what he would want George Floyd to know.
He takes a long breath before growing emotional as he lists what he wishes he could apologize for: that Floyd’s life wasn’t valued, that an officer didn’t think enough to “take that knee off your neck.”
And then there is the deep pain as Carter speaks of Floyd’s daughter, and his three-year-old daughter Kyleigh.
“He’s not going to be here for his little girl,” Carter says, with tears rolling down his face. “That’s the part that hit me the hardest.”
Carter was one of many activists protesting in the wake of Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of police. And now a year later, Floyd’s death is a big part of the reason why many activists are running for local office across the country.
Carter decided to run for mayor in Sandy Springs, Georgia, after he said he grew emotionally exhausted from attending what felt like unending protests for Black people killed during police encounters and other racists attacks.
“Everything that you’re fighting for you can change,” he recalls telling himself.
Videos capturing the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot and killed while running in a Georgia neighborhood, and George Floyd gave him something to point out the inequalities Carter knew, but perhaps others hadn’t seen.
For Carter, it’s about more than just social justice movements. He believes his city’s leadership, especially the executive office, should reflect the population. Sandy Springs is the second-largest city in the metro Atlanta area. The once predominantly White community, criticized by some for a history rooted in segregation, is now made up of more than 40% racial minorities.
For Carter and other activists-turned-political candidates, making the decision to run felt like an actionable step after a year of such frustration and anger. Their runs, channeling that pain into political power, mirror the path of activists who ran for office after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Or the throngs of women who ran for office after the election of President Donald Trump.
“I’ll be honest, that was the first time I’ve ever felt like I had control over my life, like I made a decision that I control that decision from top to bottom, Carter said, describing the moment he filed paperwork to run for office.
He says it was a welcome feeling after the hopelessness of watching the more than nine-minute video that captured Floyd’s death.
Twenty-three-year-old Chi Ossé says he cannot shake how he felt after watching the video.
“It filled me with anger, and it filled me with this passion to stand up and do something about it,” Ossé said. “I wish no Black person was killed by law enforcement, but what (Floyd) started is something that’s going to create some everlasting change for individuals that look like him, and look like me.”
Ossé is running for a seat on the city council representing his district in Brooklyn, New York. If elected, he would become one of the youngest, and one of the first self-described queer city council members in New York City.
He created a name for himself while leading marches and protests following the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
Isolation due to Covid-19 quarantine, combined with the Floyd video helped elevate the young man’s push for social justice and systemic reform.
“I think this one hit differently because of the quarantine and isolation that I was in.
You know I was unable to look away from these videos, and these images that many of us were seeing,” Osse explains.
LaTonya Tate is not new to the fight to make the justice system more just. As a Black woman in the South and part of a family with a history of activism, it has been ever-present. And as a retired parole officer, she knows a good deal about the justice system and its failures.
In the video of Floyd’s death, she saw those failures play out in agonizing detail.
“I wasn’t taught that in our academy,” Tate says. “If a threat is not there, and the person is in handcuffs, you have policies and procedures that you have to follow.”
She believes she can lead desperately needed and uncomfortable conversations if she is elected to the city council in Birmingham, Alabama.
“We can no longer ignore what is going on. Now, we’ve got to have these hard conversations whether people want to have them or not,” Tate says.
Tate took on criminal justice reform years before protests for Floyd took over streets across the country. After her own son was incarcerated, she experienced the justice system’s complexities, and was inspired to create the Alabama Justice Initiative, a social justice group pushing to end mass incarceration.
As Tate campaigns for office, she walks through Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, a historic gathering point, whose walkways are lined with statues dedicated to civil rights icons, including Martin Luther King Jr. The park served as a place for demonstrations in the 1960s and again for George Floyd in 2020.
Those demonstrations in the 1960s, and others throughout the South, helped propel many prominent activists to move into politics, including Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted advisers who later became mayor of Atlanta. The late Rep. John Lewis, who survived a brutal beating by state troopers during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, became a towering figure of the civil rights movement before being elected to Atlanta’s City Council and later to Congress. Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist in Ferguson, won a House seat in Missouri, becoming the state’s first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
The park, and the movement it pays tribute to, reminds Tate of the history of segregation and racism, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham as well as her own family’s activism in the movement.
Tate is advocating for community policing. She believes in reallocating funds from police to invest in the community with mental health training, health care, education, youth programs and social services.
Francois Alexandre believes that a community policing role is crucial for accountability. It’s what he’d like to change when it comes to law enforcement in his district in Miami if he wins a seat on the Miami City Commission.
For Alexandre, 35, Floyd’s murder took him back to June 2013.
After the Miami Heat won the NBA championship, Alexandre found himself among a crowd gathered near his apartment. According to the police report, police received reports of the crowd overturning cars. Police formed a line in front of the crowd. Alexandre began filming on his cell phone and can be heard shouting at police as they stood in formation. As the tension escalated and police moved in, cell phone and surveillance video show an officer grab Alexandre in a chokehold.
“They just started pounding on me,” Alexandre says.
Alexandre says he woke up in the hospital with a bruised face, a broken eye socket and an injured shoulder. In a court order, a federal judge indicated the officers’ “use of force was excessive” in an order saying the case should go to trial for violating fourth amendment rights. The Miami Police Department said they would not comment on the case because of pending litigation.
Alexandre says he doesn’t talk about that night often. He was 27 years old then and says he was worried about getting arrested and kicked out of school. Seven years later, the video of George Floyd reignited his desire to fight for social justice. He points out he got to come home, but Floyd didn’t.
“George Floyd’s life didn’t have to be taken,” he said. “Nor did I have to be beaten.”
Charlotte, North Carolina City Council member Braxton Winston knows the path these activists are taking well. He was the subject of an iconic photo depicting the tension between police and protesters after an officer shot and killed Keith Scott, a Black Charlotte resident in 2016. The photo captures a shirtless Winston displaying a raised fist as he faced baton-holding police officers. Shortly after, he says he decided to run for office to “disrupt the status quo” and was elected in 2017.
“We’ve had a long history of electing Black, and brown, and women,” Winston says. “It’s not just good enough to get people elected, but it’s learning how to use the tools of the system, to understand how to use the budget and budget processes, to learn how to understand the land use processes that control what gets developed and what doesn’t. It’s understanding how to ask the right questions.”
Winston’s gained victories to defund chemical agents for crowd control, which he says led to a broader conversation about the overall role of government in ensuring public safety. He says he has learned that support and political will are essential and in ways he is not set up to succeed.
“The most difficult thing is that this game is not set up for people like me to serve. It’s set up so rich, wealthy older people can do it,” Winston says. “When you pay somebody $20,000 a year to do a job that you can spend every hour of the day on, then you prohibit the working person.”
The Black Voters Matter organization, which aims to increase power in the black community through voter outreach and advocacy, says efforts are underway to engage black voters and to build voting power.
In June, the organization plans to launch a bus campaign to engage Black voters while commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides movement, bus tours taken by civil rights activists in the ’60s to fight segregation in the South.
While much has changed since the civil rights movement, there is still so much work to do, the activists say.
Carter hopes this can be a moment where the country looks deep into its soul and reckons with its past.
“We’ve got work to do,” he says. “And we can’t ignore the history of racism and the impact that it’s had on this country. And I think it’s not until we face these things, until we face these demons that we’re able to make this a more equitable society.”