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Black Lives Matter organizers look to convert their popularity to political power

Last year, they marched on City Hall. Now, a handful of organizers of the 2020 protests are hoping to march into City Hall as members of City Council.

The foursome of Democrats, who dub themselves “The People’s Slate,” is comprised of Free the People organizer Stanley Martin; VOCAL-NY organizer Kim Smith; Brittan Hardgers, a barber and staple of local Black Lives Matter protests, and Kevin Stewart, a quiet fixture at the protests who did much of his organizing behind the scenes.

The members are looking to convert their popularity and ability to galvanize people into political power by taking four of the city’s five Council seats “at-large,” meaning offices that represent the entire city as opposed to a district defined by boundaries.

In the process, they will have to wage primaries against at least three incumbents in Council members Mitch Gruber, Willie Lightfoot, and Miguel Meléndez, all of whom are seeking re-election. The remaining at-large seats are currently occupied by Malik Evans, who is running for mayor, and the Council’s president, Loretta Scott announced in late January she would not seek re-election.

The slate is betting on a belief held by many of the thousands of people who took to the streets last year that Rochester’s elected leaders have failed to address basic needs of everyday city residents, and that the only way to address their shortcomings is to oust them and rebuild.

Martin cast their candidacies as both a duty and desire to affect change.

“If we felt they have done enough, I don’t think we would feel the burden to fill these positions with community members and people who have witnessed and experienced what it feels like when they haven’t done enough,” Martin said.


The People’s Slate was forged over months of protests, first following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, then again in September, after news of the March killing of Daniel Prude by Rochester police officers.

Prude’s death and the lack of transparency about it at City Hall, coupled with the perception that the police’s response to demonstrations was extreme, fueled a movement that had for some time considered a sea change in the city’s halls of power was long overdue and simultaneously exposed a vacuum in potential leadership.

“What you are seeing in the streets are a result of numerous meetings where there has been no follow through, numerous requests for meetings that have not been followed through,” Smith said. “When we say our voices are not being heard, that is not a figurative statement.”

Stewart and Hardgers are political newcomers.

Smith has dipped a toe in political waters. She most recently vied to fill the vacancy on City Council left behind by Jackie Ortiz, who resigned her seat in August upon being appointed the Monroe County Democratic elections commissioner. That seat was ultimately filled by Meléndez. Earlier in 2020, Smith lost a Democratic primary for the 61st Senate District.

Martin previously ran unsuccessfully for City Council’s East District seat in 2019, which was ultimately won by another progressive in Mary Lupien. Martin said she had no plans to run for office again before joining the slate, seeing her role as an activist as more her speed.

But she said building the slate and running for office was a begrudging last resort after months of calls for change were met with little action from city leadership. Namely, protest organizers sought a large cut in RPD’s budget to fund crisis response teams and the passage of “Daniel’s Law,” a bill which would forbid police from responding to mental health crises.

In June, the city did reduce the police budget by about 5 percent, including halving the incoming recruit class. In September, the city announced the opening of the Office of Crisis Intervention Services, which includes the Person in Crisis (PIC) team. That 14-member team…

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