Voter participation and the danger of disenfranchisement were the topics of discussion at this year’s Michael T. Fagin Pan-African Conference. Many elected officials and civil rights advocates came to MNSU to speak to students on the important subject over the weekend.
While 2020 is a very important election year, the conference wanted students to know that the Presidential election isn’t the only election they should care about.
“With this conference we’re not even talking about the presidential election,” Kenneth Reid, the Director of the Center for African American Affairs, said. “We’re talking about senators, council people.”
The goal of the day was teaching students, primarily African American students, that their vote was their voice being heard and that all elections, from the city council to the U.S. Senate, were important.
This lesson was taught early in the day as the opening keynote speaker, Ja’Mal Green, a civil rights activist, Chicago mayoral candidate and at 24 the same age as some of the students he was speaking to Friday went up on stage to speak about his experience dealing with both the aftermath of police brutality against African Americans and a criminal justice system that he says targeted him due to his activism.
“I was at the helm of a movement, my life was in jeopardy every single day, as I was fighting the mayor, the superintendent of police and a state’s attorney, which at the time I didn’t realize had a lot of power,” Green said.
Green spoke about how after getting arrested during a protest, Green was falsely accused of nine felonies. The judge presiding over his bond hearing would take a leave of absence due to “getting sick” and the replacement judge was a friend of then Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Even though Green had no previous convictions or arrests, the judge placed his bond at $350,000. Green’s legal fight would go on until Alvarez’s exit as state attorney in 2016.
“I want to tell you how I became the leader that people look to and that the establishment fear,” Green said before telling the crowd about his childhood and his clashes with authority even at a young age.
“Troublemakers are the change agents of our country,” Green said to applause.
Green spoke about his early entrance into entrepreneurship at the age of 15 doing youth programing around the country.
Before Green stepped onto the podium to give his speech, conference organizers showed clips of Green’s life, media interviews and his candidacy for Chicago mayor in the 2019 Chicago mayoral election.
It was Alvarez’s failed bid for reelection and newly elected state attorney Kim Foxx overturning of Green’s felonies that made Green realize the importance of politics.
“That is how I learned that politics can hurt you and it can also help you,” Green said.
Even with Alvarez gone, Green believed then Mayor Rahm Emmanuel also needed to be beaten in the upcoming election.
Green became the youngest person to run for mayor in Chicago and while he did not win, he cemented himself in the conversation and placed the issues that African Americans have been facing for decades in front of voters.
“When I announced my bid for mayor, people called me crazy, they tore me down and called me a fool. They told me I couldn’t succeed, and I was wasting my time, but I ran anyway,” Green said about his campaign. “I understood the bigger picture. I knew that in order for me to make change in my community I had to make an Impact at the polls. We all know the system was too far align against me, but I also knew that I could drive the conversation for how our city should be.”
After Green’s speech, the first of three concurrent sessions commenced which dealt with African Amerticans both in politics and in the voting booth.
This was then followed up by the elected officials panel. The panel included Black Votes Matter Minnesota founder Anika Robbins, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliot, Yakasah Wehyee and Andrea Jenkins who are members of the Falcon Heights and Minneapolis council respectively.
Also in attendence was Waterloo, Iowa Mayor Quentin Hart who would later in the evening deliever the keynote speech at the closing dinner. Anika Robbins was the moderator for the panel.
Many of the topics the panelists discussed were their expierece running for office, being in office and the difficulites they have expeirenced.
“One big challenge in running was just learning the process, everything that we did we were doing for the very first time,” Mayor Elliot said.
Other topics covered were voter engagement with elected officials, trying to fit the African American community into proposed legislature and their objectives to running for office.
After the panel, conference attendees were immedietly met with back-to-back concurrent sessions each dealing with voter rights and the threat of disenfranchisment.
One of the sessions was presented by Mendoor Smith, an ex-felon turned public speaker who spoke to students about how he went from a 3.2 GPA college student to a drug dealer and how after changing his life around advocates for those who have served their time in the U.S. prison system to get their rights to vote restored.
“This is by far an injustice,” Smith said. “Because to be a citizen of the United States, voting is one of the most important rights and privliges of being an American citizen.”
Smith stated that the clause in the 13th Amendment which states that those “duly convicted of a crime” can be placed unvolintary servitude and slavery and that this clause has been abused to take away the right to vote for African Americans put into the prison system.
“This is the power that gives the state the ability to remove from felons their right to vote because once you create, once you commit the crime, you’re opening the door for them to remove your ability and your right to vote,” Smith said.
The two-day event capped the University’s Black History Month which included a screening of the film “Harriet”, the biographical film about famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the game “Black Card Revoked” which was orchestrated by African American Affairs and the Minnesota Hip Hop Coalition.
Header photo: Keynote speaker Ja’mal Green, an activist and actor, speaks during 44th Pan-African Conference held in the Centennial Student Union Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 in Mankato, Minn. (Prasad Pol/ MSU Reporter)