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Shayla Turner BLM activist

How BLM activist Shayla Turner is using her first ever vote

‘It wasn’t my ideal election’ – The 18-year-old has been at the forefront of protests in Chicago, for Black lives and climate action. Here, Shayla speaks on the power of community organising and what she believes her vote can and can’t do

First Time Voters is an editorial series spotlighting a fervent new generation of voters and their intentions, hopes, and dreams for the future, and the work and rallying they do beyond the ballot

This year has witnessed perhaps the largest mobilisation in national history, and Shayla Turner has been at the forefront in the streets of Chicago. Shayla, 18, is a student based in the Chicago area, who spent her summer organising in the streets against racism and police brutality. Now, in this pivotal year, Shayla has just voted in her first presidential election. Shayla makes no bones about her reasons for voting, however, and what she believes her vote can and can’t do.

On the frontlines of the uprising for Black lives, Shayla is part of a generation of young people who have had to spend their youth organising against the same government enshrined to protect her. “It wasn’t really my ideal election,” Shayla says. “But I just felt like I had to do it.”

Shayla, who uses she and they pronouns, protested for climate justice while still in high school, speaking out at a youth climate action while in her junior year. She spent part of her high school graduation week campaigning to improve her local public school system. Shayla feels disillusioned and skeptical of the American electoral system, not to mention the options left for voters.

“We really need climate justice. We really need reproductive rights – that’s the only reason I chose to vote,” she affirms.

Reproductive rights are on the chopping block this election. Just this week, the Supreme Court spot left behind by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw Trump’s pick Amy Coney Barrett chosen to ascend. It has created a frenzy of fear that Roe V Wade, which enshrines abortion rights in the US, will be overturned. Meanwhile, while Biden has been pushed to the left on his climate policy by grassroots movements like youth climate activist group the Sunrise Movement, Trump is frequently, vocally skeptical that climate change is even real.

As someone who believes in the movement for Black lives, Shayla can’t help but criticise the people she voted for. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are quite literally the reason why a lot of Black and brown people’s families are rotting in jail because of the crime bills and mass incarceration,” she says. Biden was a proponent of the War on Drugs during the 80s and 90s, and supported policies that later grew mass incarceration. Harris was notably a “tough on crime” prosecutor in California throughout the last two decades. “I’m not a big fan of them at all.”

“I don't think voting is the key thing,” she says resolutely. “I don't think it's going to do as much as we think it is. I think the grassroots movements and the community organising is actually important, because the root is capitalism” – Shayla Turner

Nonetheless, she voted, in part to vote out Trump. While Biden’s platform isn’t nearly where Shayla believes it would need to be to actually begin undoing the harm created by our current context, Trump’s is even further from it. The ‘Settle for Biden’ Instagram account has amassed a following of over 273,000 followers in a short space of time, highlighting a significant proportion of Generation Z’s disillusionment with America’s political sphere, and who stands for what.

And still, Shayla emphasises that real change happens in the streets. “I don't think voting is the key thing,” she says resolutely. “I don’t think it's going to do as much as we think it is. I think the grassroots movements and the community organising is actually important, because the root is capitalism.”

“People are really surprised that I don’t wanna vote, but I did it anyway,” Shayla shares. She’s not the only one: pollsters are expecting this election to have a once-in-a-century turnout. because of how many otherwise apathetic voters have taken the opportunity.

While Shayla did choose to vote, she knows others in her community who chose not to. “I feel like they have the right to not vote because they’re on the frontlines of grassroots movements and the actual change, and they’re Black and brown queer kids in Chicago.”

Many who believe in the forces of social justice share these concerns: that to vote is merely to participate in upholding the systems that currently oppress them. “Whoever gets elected, nothing’s gonna change for me,” says Shayla. “But I think community organising and the grassroots movements are the ones that can do the actual change, rather than these white capitalists who keep making decisions for us.”