Black candidates have thrived in recent elections, helping to fuel a blue wave that put reformers at the head of local governments and delivered both houses of Congress to the Democratic Party in 2020, for the first time in a decade. Progressives hoped the wave would bring change on major issues that disproportionately affect Black people: criminal justice, policing, housing, income inequality, and voting rights, among them.
But the blue wave also has sparked a backlash, one that could define the 2022 midterm elections and generate a red wave that washes across the country. Candidates also fear that Black voter turnout could plummet on Nov. 8, driven by apathy, the pandemic, and a flood of state and local policies that erect barriers to voting nationwide.
Ahead of the midterms, Capital B will talk to newsmakers from across the country who are trying to reshape American politics or galvanize Black voices in government. Our “Voices of Change” series will update periodically with insights from the candidates, activists, lawmakers, and political insiders who you should know.
OAKLAND, Calif. – Carroll Fife would be the first person to tell you that she is a reluctant politician. One year after she was voted onto the Oakland City Council the community organizer says, “I was cynical before about our systems and conditions. My fears and concerns have been validated.”
“That just makes me want to organize and fight harder,” she adds. “They got the wrong one.”
Fife, co-founder of advocacy group Moms 4 Housing, made national headlines in early 2020, when Oakland police officers showed up in SWAT gear and armored cars to evict her and a group of mothers from an investor-owned home. Fife and her fellow organizers had occupied the empty house in a symbolic act: A large real estate company had bought the home as an investment, leaving it empty and appreciating in value while a growing number of Black families suffered from housing insecurity and homelessness. The year that the women decided to take over the house, roughly 40% of all homeless families were Black, despite making up just 13% of the population.
Soon after the eviction, Fife decided to run for City Council just five months before Election Day and beat a two-term incumbent in November 2020. Fife, alongside 700 volunteers, knocked on roughly 1,200 doors to make the victory happen, according to local news reports.
Her story mirrors that of many progressives who were voted into office in the wake of the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. Across the nation, voters elected change-makers in their communities in hopes of meaningful reform on policing, housing, criminal justice, and other issues.
Now at the seat of local government, Fife is faced with a different challenge: a nation that has tired of an ongoing pandemic and its repercussions, a growing contingent of voters calling for more policing, and an evermore fractured political landscape with infighting between progressives and moderate Democrats threatening to stymie any change.
Capital B caught up with Fife at the house she once occupied, now used as a shelter for homeless mothers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: You have said that you were a bit of a reluctant politician and that you ran for office mostly because people pleaded with you to do so. How do you feel about that decision now?
Carroll Fife: I feel that way, even more. I’m seeing the way that organizing is stifled through an elected office: I’m not able to raise much money. I’m definitely not allowed to raise the amount of funds necessary to get anything done. So I’m relying on – and am dependent upon – a system that never wanted me to be there in the first place.
So I’m experiencing a lot of obstructions. And I have a lot more restrictions on me as an elected official than as an organizer. While there are definite pros to it, when you’re going into a system that never intended you to be there in the first place … then there’s all these parameters and barriers to getting things done. For anyone that’s thinking about doing that, I would say plan for the backlash, because not only are we seeing the backlash in the streets, to people who are activists and organizers, there is also an internal backlash.
Can you elaborate on the backlash?
I think what we’re seeing on the streets is specifically tied to the organizing that took place because of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor uprising. So all over the world, there’s a call for radical reform, if not abolition of police systems as they exist. I don’t think people expected the consolidation of power by law enforcement agencies to push back on that call for change. And that’s why you’re seeing, even in places where defund never had a base, government officials and law enforcement officials say, because of defund crime, violence is out of control.
Two years into the nation’s “racial reckoning,” a lot of people have moved away from criticizing police and moved towards wanting more police to curb crime. This became an issue in Oakland when anti-Asian attacks gained national attention, and this is currently hotly debated in San Francisco as people are criticizing San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin for being soft on crime. These issues are emblematic of what’s happening nationwide. What can we all learn from that?
That organized systems – often referred to as the state or the status quo – are extremely resilient and adaptive. … We know that everything that we fight for and obtain will have an equal or opposite reaction.
Especially during election years, you start to see this push – and there’s been a push to make the Bay Area more conservative for a while. And so, whenever you talk about really addressing the injustice … you’re going to see that same system circle the wagon around itself and try to protect it, so it continues. And Chesa is trying to do something different and really acknowledge the systemic disparities in the criminal justice system, or the criminal injustice system. And he’s being held accountable for that. And that is the backlash that we’re seeing in San Francisco.
Within your office, how have your expectations changed since you started?
During this time when I was elected, that’s the shift that people wanted to see – and that was just different than what the establishment wanted to see, and especially the Black establishment, the Black middle class and upper-middle class. I’ve been told by many people that I would consider elders to be quiet, to not make so many waves, that they’re going to come for all of us by what I’m trying to push for. And so, it’s sad to me. But a lot of people, especially Black folks have been through some trauma, they don’t want to deal with it. I get it. And that’s why I never would put folks on blast, even folks who are considered sellouts sometimes. I’ll talk to my inner circle about it, but I’m not gonna out folks for just trying to survive, because I know it’s hard. And they make their living getting crumbs, and getting little benefits here, contracts here, to maintain a second-class status to systems of white supremacy. And that’s just not where I want to live.
What is your biggest challenge going forward as a local politician?
Being able to show the people just how bad the conditions are and how much we need to fight, without seeming angry or pessimistic or bitter. And that’s the hard part. I think that’s how people turn into politicians, which is one of my challenges, because I just want to tell the truth: “Y’all, let me tell you what’s going on over here!” But folks, they don’t want conflict. They don’t want the ugly, they just want it fixed. They don’t want to know how the sausage is made. They don’t want to know why things are broken or who’s breaking it. They just want me to fix everything. And that’s not how things are gonna work. That’s not how we’re going to transform our condition.
And it’s also not sustainable.
No, I’m not Superwoman.
So with that said, what do you think is needed to energize Black voters?
Locally, people understand the impact of engaging in electoral politics. They understand that it’s a tool that can be used. And I think that’s why the systems that we know in Oakland are trying to minimize my impact. Because if people can see that by electing Carroll Fife, things changed, then they’ll start to want to elect more Carroll Fifes. But if they can show that I’m not successful — which is what they’re trying to do through the media, through the Democratic process and all these other things, the policing and the conditions of the street — then they won’t want to engage, it creates apathy. And I think that’s what we’re experiencing right now.
I think that’s why there’s such a big push to keep the conditions in the city as they are. It’s filthy. I’m pushing for programs, and they’re sending them everywhere but my district. And so there’s a lot of internal games that are happening. And I think that is to diminish my impact because that’s how you keep people out of the process.
What do you think Black voters want to hear from their national representatives?
I don’t think people want to hear anything. We want to see something different. We want to see the promises realized and manifested because we’re always sold a bill of goods during election season. It’s like, what can you get done?