FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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:
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail