The same day police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Department of Public Safety Trooper George Cervantes shot and killed Dion Johnson in Phoenix. In the weeks that followed, protesters in Phoenix and other Arizona cities joined those across the United States to demand the abolition of the system that killed the two men. Arizona has one of the highest rates of police violence nationwide; in 2018, Phoenix police fired their guns at more people than officers in any other department in the nation. Now, the movements to counter that violence are gaining in numbers—so much so, they played a significant role in mobilizing voters, activists say, and helped turn the state blue in this year’s election.
On November 13, Arizona finally finished counting its ballots, giving its 11 electoral votes to Joe Biden. It was the first time the famously conservative state had voted for the Democrat in a presidential election in nearly a quarter-century. In the weeks since, wonks and pundits have published a number of think pieces analyzing how the state finally flipped, with most pointing to increased voter turnout in crucial but long-disenfranchised communities. In two of the larger voting precincts of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, for instance, turnout increased by 12 and 13 percent, largely in support of Biden. Also this year, 60 percent of Arizona’s Black registered voters participated, compared to 47 percent four years ago and 44 percent eight years ago.
These are important and fundamentally correct analyses, but they often fail to acknowledge that this voter turnout was neither sudden nor rooted in simple identity-based politics. Rather, these communities have been organizing for years, long before Biden was on the scene. Moreover, they have been organizing around often-progressive issues, not just broad notions of identity or group allegiance.
Mass Liberation Arizona is one organization that exemplifies this dynamic. Based in South Phoenix, in the heart of Maricopa County, where Biden’s 50.3 percent of the vote helped push him over the edge statewide, the organization is dedicated to transforming the “criminal (in)justice system” and has been building power to fight mass incarceration for years. More recently, it has combined these organizing efforts with an electoral strategy that focused not only on the presidential election but also on critical local issues like voting against the conservative Maricopa County Attorney and pushing for marijuana decriminalization.
The Nation spoke to MLA’s executive director, Lola N’Sangou, about the group’s role in helping flip Arizona from red to blue as well as what she sees next for the abolition movement in one of the country’s most carceral states. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
— Jessica Suriano
We’re the fifth-highest incarcerator in the country. Where we organize at Mass Liberation is in South Phoenix. South Phoenix is where we have the most million-dollar blocks. If you’re not familiar with million-dollar blocks, those are blocks that we spend an excess of $1 million a year incarcerating the residents of a single city block. So not only is it known to be hyper-conservative; it’s also just a terribly carceral state.
It has been an uphill battle, particularly because we’re about 6 percent Black as a state, and we are a Black-liberation-centered organization. It was a jagged little pill to swallow in 2016 when we found out later that [the state] was 3.5 percent away in votes from flipping blue; that’s the Black vote right there.
So, we really did the work from then on to figure out, how are we going to energize Black people? And how are we going to reclaim our power at the polls? That’s really what the work has been like, just going inward to our communities, zeroing in on what matters. A lot of that work has been through mutual aid. We found that mutual aid is one of the best possible ways to engage the community.
We are also organizers from that community. We’re a Black-liberation-centered and led organization, so the people who lead our organization are Black folks who have been formerly incarcerated. So, we know what we need. Going into our community, doing that mutual aid work, lends itself to the opportunity to have a conversation, to do the narrative shifting. Then we do the base building, and then we just go after power shifting. That’s how we were able to turn out Black voters, even though we are in this really conservative landscape.
JS: I was hoping you could expand on how Black, Indigenous, and voters and organizers of color in Arizona were behind the state flipping blue for a presidential candidate for the first time in decades.
LN: Yeah, that is true, and even just talking about Black people, because Black voters have been invisibilized historically. Black people turned out in record numbers this year for us on the ground. That was really due to the work that we’ve been doing for years around narrative shifting and around growing out the base.
I will say that we weren’t really happy about the options: Biden and Harris are incredibly problematic. But we didn’t focus only on the top of the ballot. We saw Black people turning out because we got involved in down-ballot, local races, as well.
I do think it’s really important that we talk about Black organizing because this is the first time Black-led organizing in South Phoenix set a precedent on how to take care of community. It was mutual aid. We really connected with people. For the first time, we got ballots to people in jail. We gave rides to the polls. We pushed candidates to represent our demands. We even stayed at the polls all the way through the hours to make sure people in South Phoenix—when cops roll to the polling stations—we’re holding space, that we were there to meet that. To be honest with you, had more folks, more organizations really focused on those down-ballot issues, we would have been a more pronounced turnout and maybe we would have seen some of that recognition, maybe not.
JS: Why was the Maricopa County Attorney (MCA) race this election season so important?
LN: What we see is so often, people are focused on police violence, and rightfully so. There are so many videos of police just killing Black people in the streets. But what’s not often talked about is the role of prosecutors and how prosecutors are killing people in courtrooms: By signing the pleas that are going to take people through the rest of their lives and then some; by executing people [by pursuing the death penalty]; by stacking sentences and essentially destroying lives. If you’re outraged by police killing people, you should definitely be outraged by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and how it’s killing people. That office has a history going back to Andrew Thomas [the MCA from 2005–10 who was later disbarred for ethics and abuse of power violations] and his partnership with [Sheriff] Joe Arpaio, and goes on to Bill Montgomery [the MCA from 2010–19 who purchased $400,000 worth of rifles and ammunition through the attorney’s office and is now a judge for the state Supreme Court]. It’s a legacy of brutality that comes out of that office. It was super-important for us to be involved in that race.
JS: Allister Adel, the incumbent Maricopa County Attorney, won again this year. How do you see her role in this?
LN: It’s important to acknowledge, Allister Adel has been dealing with a very serious medical condition, and so the critique of her work is not intended to dehumanize her as a person.
Allister Adel was appointed when Bill Montgomery took a position at the Supreme Court in Arizona, but she hasn’t done anything to subsequently change the culture of that office. One of the very first things she did was she created the First Responders Bureau, which essentially is a bureau that prosecutes people who have some sort of involvement with police. So it represents the police as a prosecuting agency. That First Responders Bureau responded against protesters on the street in the summer to slap the most serious charges on people. That bureau is an example of the relationship and the collusion that happens between [the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office] office and police.
It’s just very tight there, so there’s really no evidence that she’s going to change that legacy at all.
JS: I wanted to talk about Prop 207, which legalizes recreational marijuana in the state and may offer a way for people with related marijuana charges to expunge records. It seems pretty important considering similar measures were voted down in the past. But it’s also unclear what’s going to happen with the enforcement of it because offices such as the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) will still be overseeing it. How do you think this will play out?
LN: Prop 207, while it does some good for the community, it definitely left a lot to be desired with arbitrary possession amounts, with the ways that it puts money in the hands of police. It absolutely was not an abolitionist piece of legislation. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get what we really need, which is to decriminalize marijuana altogether. This is what we got, and we do not expect MCAO to honor it in any way shape or form. We don’t expect the police to either. They’re the most deadly police force in the country, and we just handed them a whole lot of money.
JS: Anti-police protesters in Phoenix are now facing “street gang” charges from the MCAO. How were these protesters given “street gang” charges?
LN: We heard that it was because folks were wearing the same clothes and chanting the same mantras in the streets. But it’s so interesting because the same thing is true of the pro-Trump supporters. They’re wearing MAGA hats. They’re screaming the pledge of allegiance. They’re shouting the same mantra. The law is written so loosely that really you can convict a ham sandwich of being in a gang.
At Mass Liberation Arizona, we don’t believe that the system is broken; it was designed to do exactly what it’s doing. When you have a broad legal definition, it’s able to convict as many people as possible. What we’re seeing is unequal application, which is very clear, then, as to why they’re prosecuting some and not others.
JS: Is there anything else that people outside the state or in media are missing when they talk about political and social justice movements in Arizona?
LN: Specifically, in Arizona, but it’s also a national thing: We need to recognize the power of Black-directly-impacted leadership in this movement. We need to look at the way that the state retaliates against folks, like protesters, as an expression of anti-Blackness.
[And when] we talk about police killing Black people in the streets, it’s not that there was a bad apple acting separately from a bunch of good apples. Policing in this country began from slave patrols. It’s an institution that was designed to treat Black people as property, to engage Black people—always violently—to kill Black people. It’s also designed to do all of that with impunity. So, to abolish slavery, we have to abolish policing because police killing Black folks isn’t just because the system is broken. It was designed to do exactly what it’s doing. It was designed to return runaway slaves, and so it’s doing exactly what it was set up to do. It means it can’t be reformed, and the same is true for prosecutors and prisons. They operate as the afterlife of slavery, not in the afterlife, but as the afterlife of slavery. Black Lives Matter isn’t a slogan. It’s not a hashtag. It’s a theory of change. That’s what I think people need to know—not only about Arizona, but they need to know that across the board in this country.