Aramis Ayala made history last November when she was elected State Attorney in Florida. Not only is she the first Black woman to hold the post in the state’s history, she is the first Black person to hold the job ever.
With massive support from the Orlando area’s Black community, she stepped into office with plans to improve the criminal justice system and protect the safety and well-being of everyone in the community.
But recently, Governor Rick Scott — acting against the will of voters — is moving to strip power away from Ayala, denying not just her authority, but the political power of all the Black people who voted for her.
After Ayala pledged not to pursue the death penalty in new cases last month—a decision entirely within her power—Scott took the unprecedented step of removing her from a key case and assigning it to a White, male prosecutor from another county. Then he decided to go even further and re-assign an additional 21 of her cases.
And it didn’t even stop there; Republicans in the state legislature are now joining the fray and moving to slash funds to Ayala’s office, showing they are more than willing to sacrifice people’s safety and the pursuit of justice to settle a political score.
The coup-mongering has now escalated to the point that Scott said he was “reviewing options” for removing Ayala from her elected post entirely.
It’s hardly surprising to see yet another qualified Black woman be told by a White man that she isn’t capable of doing her job. In just the past two months, we’ve seen this play out on the national stage multiple times. From Bill O’Reilly denigrating Congresswoman Maxine Waters on-air to Sean Spicer admonishing veteran reporter April Ryan in the White House briefing room, these incidents are all too familiar for Black women.
But what’s at stake in Scott’s dismissal of Ayala is bigger than just one person; it’s the political power of all Black women—to vote for candidates to represent us and our communities, and to be those candidates ourselves.
We know it’s been a slow march for Black women to gain the right to vote at all, let alone for a candidate like Aramis Ayala who truly shares our values. But 96 years after women won the franchise with the 19th Amendment, and 51 years after the Voting Rights Act helped us overcome barriers to the ballot, our voices continue to be silenced by the political establishment. This has been particularly acute in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott has spent his six years in office using every possible tool to disenfranchise Black communities. From illegally stripping voters from the registration lists to imposing restrictions that have taken away the right to vote from one-in-five Black Floridians, he has shown little respect for people of color.
So when the Governor moved so swiftly to remove the state’s first Black prosecutor — a woman who was democratically elected — from nearly two dozen cases, it sent a dangerous and intentional message; the establishment will stop at nothing to silence our community. This was a direct insult to everyone who made phone calls, knocked on doors, and showed up at the polls to get Aramis Ayala elected.
Governor Scott is decimating not only our right to vote, but also our power to lift ourselves up by running for and holding elected office. Despite some progress over the years, Black women remain shamefully underrepresented in politics. Among head prosecutors like Aramis Ayala, less than one percent are women of color.
This is a real problem for our communities: prosecutors wield wide powers over our criminal justice system, from deciding what crimes to charge to the terms of plea deals and the sentences to recommend to judges. Ayala is one of the few prosecutors in the entire country who reflects the values of our communities and uses her discretion to bolster, rather than hinder, justice.
So when the Governor uses his power to publicly vilify and reprimand Ayala, he does so to all Black women who aspire to be leaders in our communities. He continues a decades old campaign by the white establishment to deny Black women’s political power.
But we can fight back. In March, Color Of Change — where I serve as Managing Director of Campaigns — helped lead a rally with over 300 Floridians from across the state who traveled to Tallahassee to show their support for Ayala. And last month, Color Of Change signed onto an amicus brief in support of Ayala’s lawsuit against Rick Scott, which challenges the legality of his reassignment of her cases.
But that’s just the beginning—we can seize the power back right now by organizing the same way that Black voters did to get Ayala elected in November to help defend her right to do her job.
Whether it’s calling Rick Scott’s office or signing a petition demanding Ayala be reinstated to her case—we’re at 130,000 signatures and counting—or going to an action in person (if you text ARAMIS to 225568 we can send you the latest ways to get involved) we need to send a clear message to Rick Scott and to all the other politicians like him across the country, including his long-time ally, Donald Trump: Black communities are woke and have a powerful political voice. Don’t sleep on us because we intend to use it.
Hard as Rick Scott and others like him may try to silence us, Black women are here to stay in politics—from the polls to the prosecutor’s office. By standing up for Aramis Ayala, we stand up for our own political power.
Arisha Hatch is Managing Director of Campaigns at Color Of Change.