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Hunger strikes for voting rights have ended but pressure on Biden and Dems cannot

If Biden cannot energize Black religious voters, Democrats will suffer severe losses.
Photo Illustration: ??A coalition of two dozen faith leaders has begun a hunger strike with the intent of pressuring Democrats in the Senate and President Joe Biden to pass voting rights legislation this month
About two dozen, mostly African American pastors engaged in a one-week hunger strike for voting rights that ended on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.MSNBC / Getty Images

The day after Senate Republicans, assisted by two Democrats, voted against changing filibuster rules to allow the passage of a new voting rights bill, radio host and civil rights activist Joe Madison ended the hunger strike he’d been on for an incredible 74 days. On Nov. 8, he had announced, “I am beginning a hunger strike today by abstaining from eating until Congress passes, and President Biden signs, the Freedom to Vote Act or the J.L. Voting Rights Advancement Act.”

About two dozen, mostly African American pastors engaged in a one-week hunger strike for voting rights that ended on Jan. 17.

Madison, who’s called Republican attempts to suppress the vote “politically and morally wrong,” hadn’t been the only one putting personal well-being on the line for voting rights.

About two dozen, mostly African American pastors engaged in a one-week hunger strike for voting rights that ended Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and students in Arizona — in an unsuccessful attempt to pressure Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from that state, to vote down the filibuster and vote for voting rights — had also gone without food.

Imagine how it must have felt for these protesters to hear White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who appeared on ABC’s "The View" on Friday to discuss the failure of the voting rights bill in the Senate, say, “My advice to everyone out there who's frustrated, sad, angry, pissed off, feel those emotions: Go to a kickboxing class, have a margarita, do whatever you need to do this weekend, and then wake up on Monday morning, we gotta keep fighting."

Wow. Maybe John Lewis, instead of getting his skull cracked by Alabama troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 should have just had a margarita instead.

Psaki’s flippant, arrogant suggestion that kickboxing and margaritas are going to help assuage the anger and disgust at the lack of movement on voting rights is tone deaf. At the same time, the efforts of hunger strikers and activists who have been advocating for the passage of the voting rights act have been largely overlooked in a nonstop media environment that gives readers and viewers so many options. More attention was paid to the absence of prominent voting rights activists at President Joe Biden’s voting rights speech in Georgia than to the less well-known activists who were going without food in an attempt to bring attention to the cause.

Biden faces declining poll numbers and Black voters on the ground losing hope about voting rights. It will be up to organizers to bring the Democratic Party to its senses. But how can they do this? While I appreciate the efforts of those who waged hunger strikes, desperate times call for even more.

To move the needle on voting rights, it’s time for other kinds of walkouts and strikes like the ones we saw in the 1960s. Student-led protests, economic boycotts, sit-in protests, and even refusing to organize for the Democratic Party will wake up the Democratic National Committee and the Biden administration, as well as create the organizing energy to grab the media narrative more forcefully. In states such as Texas, Georgia and others that have cut back voting rights, economic boycotts could help energize a disgusted Democratic base and cut through Republican intransigence and strategy. Economic boycotts talk.

Maybe John Lewis, instead of getting his skull cracked by Alabama troopers should have just had a margarita.

Biden has not paid sufficient attention to one of the biggest sources of organizing and voting: Black churches. More than 800 clergy and faith leaders of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a letter to the administration in December outlining their concerns about the fate of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. Then-President Donald Trump had many meetings with faith leaders that were mere photo ops, but Biden hasn’t been any better in that he has not openly consulted faith leaders on voting rights and organizing. That makes no sense given that such leaders are key to Democratic survival.

If Biden cannot energize Black religious voters, Democrats will suffer severe losses. Attempts to alter programs like Souls to the Polls are backfiring, but that is not to say that Republicans will stop fighting programs designed to get Black religious voters to the polls.

While Biden supporters and surrogates tout his first-year accomplishments, polls suggest an emerging enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. Black voters in South Carolina, home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, are giving Biden’s presidency mixed reviews. With the suspension of the child tax credit, the short extension in the deferment of student loan payments, inflation, Covid-19 confusion, all of these coupled with the administration's dallying about voting rights are creating a perfect storm for Democratic losses in November. Add in the efforts of Republican statehouses in restructuring voting maps, and you have a recipe for disaster.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, organizers spoke of the White House belief that Democrats can “out-organize” Republicans. Biden and Democrats appear to be resting on their laurels and hoping that disappointed organizers do the same kind of work they did in 2020 when they had more optimism. That may not be the case. Now would be the time for Biden and his administration to admit to those organizers that they slept on voting rights. Democrats need to provide a prominent platform for activists to coordinate their work across states in anticipation of a brutal fight for the two houses of Congress. What we don’t need is advice to try kickboxing and margaritas.

It is disheartening to hear the press secretary talk about such frivolities when so many Americans are angry at seeing Republicans erode voting rights and seeing Democrats fail to mount a real response.

In announcing the end of his protest on his Sirius XM radio show, Madison said, “People will ask, ‘Was the 70+ days of my hunger strike worth the effort?’ The answer is, yes. Today an entire generation now knows more about the Senate filibuster. They now know more about how their vote or their votes are. They now know the major differences between Republicans and Democrats. They also now know that just as how food is essential to maintaining life, the right to vote is essential to maintaining our democracy.”

Watching democratic rights being eroded by Republicans on the national and state levels raises so many alarms for people who know a healthy democracy can’t exist if voting rights don’t. Margaritas aren’t going to make the Democratic Party healthy and viable in the 2022 election cycle, and it’s time for the Biden administration and the DNC to serve their constituents more than an empty plate of unmet promises.