FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Dispatches from the Gound

Thirty years ago, I fled the state after graduating from the University of Florida law school. I vowed never to return to this treacherous terrain. After ten years total practicing law in Boston and Dallas, I quit law altogether. Then came another vow, this time about lawyering: Never again.

Yet, here I am at the end of Election Day, fist cocked, ready to clock a Florida cracker who, despite being stooped by age, just body-slammed me. In Florida. Where I am as a legal volunteer.

“What’re you doing in line if you’re not here to vote?” he demands, still pressed against me.

I shove him away.

“You know who I am and why I’m here,” I say calmly and quietly. “You’ve been looking at me all day. But more importantly than that, right now, you need to step the f__k away from me. And whatever else you do, don’t ever touch me again.”

A black woman poll worker with a Caribbean accent appears. She watches us silently. Their Anglo female supervisor, designer-clad from head to toe, stands nearby. She, too, is silent. I walk over to her and repeat my warning.

“You’d better tell him. He’ll be sorry if he touches me again.”

He strolls over, openly gloating. “Let her write that down in her little report,” he says to the supervisor as though I’m invisible, referring to the election violations reports we have been recording and phoning in all day. “I don’t know why she thinks I know who she is. They all look alike to me. Hee hee.”
* * * *

Just twenty-four hours earlier, I had such noble intentions. Our massive coalition of volunteers gathered to stop one group of Americans white — from denying other Americans — African American and Latino — their right to vote.

But as soon as my feet hit Florida ground, I knew I was in trouble. Going back on my word set off my surefire sign of terror, the coiled muscle in my lower back that spiraled off into continuous spasms. Before long, waves of shooting pain drove me from Election Protection headquarters to a masseuse’s table back in my hotel room.

“Honey, I don’t think you’re the one responsible for this voting mess,” she admonished when I confessed what I believed was the source of my distress. She tapped my back.

“You’re doing this to yourself, you know. You got a lot of power, but you just let it get away from you.”

It is her voice I hear as I square off against the grizzled geezer who just pushed up on me. Her voice is what saves me from stomping this creaking vessel of oppression and landing my ass in jail.

This day — Election Day — did not start out like this. On my own dime and my own time, I came 1,000 miles for this?

 

* * * *

I.

Gladys* is our first voter challenge of the day. An ex-felon whose civil rights have been restored, under Florida law she is legally entitled to vote a regular ballot. She is furious and crying when Alex* and I walk up.

Here’s her story: Ancient white-haired Anglo poll workers have not simply turned Gladys back. Rather, to reinforce their oppression, they have called the Elections Board in Tallahassee and put Gladys on the phone. The voice on the other end has threatened that if she votes, “It might even be a criminal act.”

Alex*, my volunteer lawyer partner, is a born and bred southerner like me. Like Gladys, I am black; Alex is not. He lives in Europe and the US and has flown in from Rome,* as I have from Texas, to personally help save votes of Americans like Gladys.

Together, Gladys and Alex wrench a provisional ballot from the naysayers. Transformed by this voting victory, she throws her arms around us. “I already helped 200 people early vote,” she explains, flicking away huge tears of relief. “I wasn’t about to go out like that.”

Twelve hours later, Gladys is back. She double parks, hustles her carload of passengers up the sidewalk, and shoves them past the scowling white male sentry seconds before he bolts the door to the polling place.

* * * *

II.

A mile away, at another precinct, an elderly woman — la Señora — frustrated and forlorn, beckons me. Speaking only Spanish and gesturing, eventually she grabs my arm and leads me inside the polling place.

Another face-off with another set of tight-faced old white folks determined to deny another American her vote. Señora’s determination, pulsating and palpable, pins me to her side. We wait.

Florida law requires Spanish-speaking poll workers in this precinct. There are two Latina women present, but I can’t get their attention. Señora hunches me in the side and shakes her head at my efforts. When I say they will help us, she nearly spits her disgust. No, she says, they are the same ones who refused to help her before.

“Ellas estan como los otros (waving at the whites seated at the table). No quieren los negros, (pointing to me) y los moreños (pointing to herself) a votar! They are like the others. They don’t want blacks and browns voting.”

Our waiting finally pays off when Señora exchanges her absentee ballot for a voting card. I hold her place in line while pushing her towards the Latina poll worker who has spent more than fifteen minutes repeating voting instructions to an old white man.

An hour after we first entered, Señora has finished voting. Rejoining elderly Latino and Asian friends waiting outside in the bright sunshine, she thrusts her fist skyward and shouts, “I been in this line for three hours and I voted!”
* * * *

III.

They stream steadily throughout the day: pressed, permed youngsters, people of color, poor folks, old folks, laborers, mamas with babies, brothas slinging bling, sistas rocking the spandex. Vote warriors.

A trio of 18-year old black girls races up. “We just voted for the first time,” one breathlessly proclaims. “Aw, she saw you way back there and she picked you to say that to because she knew it would make you happy,” her friend chimes in. “We just made history!” the third one shouts. They prance off the curb.

I fantasize that it is Warrior me, fierce guardian of the vote, emitting the scent of protection — not me of the beleaguered spirit and bent back of the day before — that drew the girls to me.

Around 6 p.m., back at the precinct where our day started, I spy a weary young woman leaving the polling place.

“Did you vote without a problem?” I ask.

No, she’s been in line for 45 minutes and just can’t take it anymore. “If I had voted, though, this would’ve been my first time,” she offers sadly.

Pointing to her beautifully round belly, I ask, “So, when are you due?”
“December 5th.”

“Oh, please, y,all have to vote! Do you want a sandwich? Water? Want me to stand in line for you?

She hesitates. Nearly nine months pregnant, after working all day, she is visibly exhausted. Then her chocolate face loosens into a smile and she trudges back to her place in line. More than an hour later, she votes.
* * * *

IV.

Inside the door, I take my place behind the last voter to mark the end of Election Day in this precinct. This is when the old white man rolls up on me. I am there to make sure that everyone in line gets to vote. He’s there for something different.

The Latina is pretty and spirited. She, too, has witnessed my exchange with the old man vote blocker. She smiles knowingly when I return to my place in line behind her. Accompanied by three grandchildren she is raising alone, she points to her own baby across the room, an 18-year old son bent over a voting screen.

“They tried to send him way across town to some place that was gonna be closed by the time we got there. I told them, No way. This is his first time voting and he’s doing it right here where I vote. Ask us those questions again. Now we know the right answers.”

A quick study, in an instant, she has outsmarted the would-be vote suppressors.
* * * *

Up since 4:30 a.m., 12 hours moving nonstop among three precincts, my job is finally over. In the balmy darkness, I am aswirl with teary emotion. Thirty years. Never again. Yet, here I am, standing in history.

A stir lifts my head. Two black boys strut from the polling place, grinning. Immaculate in razor-creased jeans and gleaming white t-shirts, these brothas break stride, face each other, and leap into the air. Backlit by reflected light, outlined against the sky, without saying a word, they slap high five.

*The names of people and places have been changed.

BERNESTINE SINGLEY, volunteered as a Mobile Field Attorney with Election Protection in Tampa, Florida, to help combat wide-scale vote suppression in communities of color. She is the editor of the award-winning anthology, When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories. She can be reached at: Straightlk@yahoo.com

 

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
Nyla Ali Khan
Spectacles of the Demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh and the Revocation of the Autonomous Status of Kashmir
Stansfield Smith
Celebrating 50 Years of Venceremos Brigade solidarity with the Cuban Revolution
Tim Butterworth
Socialism Made America Great
Nick Licata
Profiles in Courage: the Tories Have It, the Republicans Don’t
Abel Prieto
Cubanness and Cuban Identity: the Importance of Fernando Ortiz
Robert Koehler
Altruists of the World Unite!
Mel Gurtov
Farewell, John Bolton
Weekend Edition
September 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Age of Constitutional Coups
Rob Urie
Bernie Sanders and the Realignment of the American Left
Anthony DiMaggio
Teaching the “War on Terror”: Lessons for Contemporary Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: They Are the Walrus
T.J. Coles
Jeremy Corbyn: Electoral “Chicken” or Political Mastermind?
Joseph Natoli
The Vox Populi
Sasan Fayazmanesh
The Pirates of Gibraltar
John Feffer
Hong Kong and the Future of China
David Rosen
The Likely End to Roe v. Wade?
Ishmael Reed
When You Mess With Creation Myths, the Knives Come Out
Michael Hudson
Break Up the Democratic Party?
Paul Tritschler
What If This is as Good as It Gets?
Jonah Raskin
Uncensored Tony Serra: Consummate Criminal Defense Lawyer
Ryan Gunderson
Here’s to the Last Philosophes, the Frankfurt School
Michael T. Klare
The Pompeo Doctrine: How to Seize the Arctic’s Resources, Now Accessible Due to Climate Change (Just Don’t Mention Those Words!)
Luke O'Neil
I Would Want To Drink Their Blood: God Will Punish Them
Louis Proyect
The Intellectual Development of Karl Marx
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail