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To remember Juneteenth, USA TODAY staff members read an excerpt of the Emancipation Proclamation. USA TODAY

There's plenty of focus on Trump in November. But what about prosecutorial and other local and state elections?

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On a day that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, consider this: Right now, there are more Black men under the control of the American criminal justice system than the number of those in bondage before the Civil War.

Chattel slavery may have ended, but the racial injustice underpinning our country’s history is ever present, most dramatically in the systems we rely on for safety. Public discourse about reform has largely revolved around the police, prisons and federal initiatives, but if we are to reach a place of true progress, it will take the sustained efforts of local elected prosecutors across the country to rectify and reimagine their role in the criminal legal system — not just as gatekeepers, but as active catalysts for change.

Black people have long celebrated Juneteenth since the end of legal slavery in 1865. Yet the legal system still runs against us: Black men are seven times more likely to be battered by police officers; 1 in every 1,000 may be killed by law enforcement in their lifetime. Racially motivated hate crimes are on the rise, and at the highest levels of the federal government, violence against Black and brown communities is being normalized, rationalized, even encouraged. 

Today, a day that has come to be associated with Black emancipation, was President Donald Trump’s intended date for a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the bloodiest race massacres in American history.

Now, he’s set to deliver a convention speech in Jacksonville, Fla., on the anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, which marks 60 years since Black civil rights demonstrators were run down and beaten by white attackers wielding bats and ax handles while the police stood by and did nothing. Nobody believes that Trump’s strategists chose those cities, on those dates, unaware of their historical significance. As has always been the case, the cruelty is the point. 

Black people were enslaved in America for longer than we’ve been legally emancipated. And in many ways we remain unfree. While a wave of police violence is now waking some to the injustices that many of us have long known through generations of lived experience, it remains possible that — despite our fiercest efforts — Trump will win reelection in November.

Should that happen, we will be facing a deeper descent into the harsh reality of militarized policing; mass incarceration and criminalization; hostile law enforcement unions; government surveillance; a weakened press; and the erosion of our most basic rights, including the rights to speak, assemble and vote.

The presidential election, however, is not the only one that matters. It is the outcomes of local races that stand to redefine what justice, fairness and public safety look like in communities across the nation.

Local votes determine how cities are governed, how taxpayer dollars are invested and who sits in office—from mayors to sheriffs to district attorneys. When it comes to keeping the police off our bodies, it is these local races that matter most, which is why we must continue to ground our efforts in local politics and community organizing.

Earlier this month, former President Barack Obama wrote about the need to channel the momentum of the current moment into policies that create lasting impact at the state and local level, along with electing government officials who are responsive to the demands of the people who elected them. From a social justice standpoint, this is critical.

We have the power to choose state and local leaders who share our history, understand our trauma, are accountable to us and are committed to doing everything they can to transform the criminal justice system. 

Those who believe in a radical reimagining of criminal justice are far more numerous and powerful than opponents would have us think.

Since 2015, the Justice & Public Safety PAC, created through the support of George Soros, has invested tens of millions of dollars in local races, campaigns and political challenges. Victories have helped usher in a new wave of prosecutors who clearly see the profound impact of systemic racism, and recognize both the power of their position and the weight of their responsibility to achieve justice and safety for everyone.

With each successive win, voters are changing what law enforcement looks like in communities across the country. The local prosecutors they elect are establishing new rules that hold police officers accountable for wrongdoing: policies that decline to criminalize people for poverty and addiction; new investments in services and resources that heal and help; and new standards that raise the bar for what people expect of prosecutors.

On this special day, and in November, remember: There isn’t just one race, there are many. We will fight and win, and we will keep winning if we stay engaged, organized and committed to electing bold, visionary leaders in local races. They have the greatest immediate impact on social justice issues, policy and criminal justice.

If power is a river, then it has flowed in a single direction for far too long. It is time to change the course of history and create the tributaries that will grow our communities and make us strong, safe and free at last, by our own vision and might.

Whitney Tymas is the president of the Justice & Public Safety PAC, which was created with support from George Soros to elect progressive prosecutors and advance their efforts to transform the criminal justice system.

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