2016 was a difficult year for almost everyone I know. For me, it started with my girlfriend moving 10,000 miles away, it continued with a new housing situation involving four roommates who fought regularly until one pulled a shotgun on another, resulting in our shady landlord (a Blackwater lawyer as it turns out) deciding to evict all of us without payment of the security deposit. And then, the neon orange icing of Trump winning the election. This year had nowhere to go but up, and upwards it staggered. The Woman’s March in January was such a powerful way to start this year. It provided the energy and momentum to set us on the right path — to keep us going despite the ominous headlines plastering the news day in and day out. My girlfriend and I were reunited in May, traveling for several months before moving back to New York together. Along the way, I found the hope I needed to believe that a whimsical trip down to Alabama might just be worth it.
It did not get off to the most auspicious start. A rare snowstorm swept its way through the south, wreaking havoc on flights into Atlanta and Birmingham just days before the election. With my original flight cancelled, I was finally able to make it on standby on a later flight down to Atlanta, only to find that my connecting flight to Birmingham (the last of the night) had just been cancelled as well. With so many flight cancellations, the next flight they could get me on wasn’t for another two days. After trying to sleep a few restless hours on the floor of the Atlanta airport, I made my way before sunrise to the Greyhound bus station downtown. If any of you are starting a PhD in sociology and are looking for dissertation topics, spend a couple of hours at a Greyhound station. There are few reminders so stark of just how far we have to go.
I watched the early morning snow fall outside the window. Out on the street, a woman walked by in a full-length leopard print fur coat. The tops of her feet were uncovered, her toes sticking out of her bright pink sandals. On three hours of sleep, I thought I might be hallucinating as she turned back around and proceeded to gallop (literally) in diagonal zig zags up the street and through the snow, leaping every so often like a leopard-spotted gazelle with pink paws.
After a two-hour delay, the Birmingham-bound Greyhound bus finally showed up, taking me to Alabama for the first time in my life. Waiting for me at the bus station in Birmingham was my close friend / older brother Bapu, who had just flown in from California the night before. With him was Mark, his lifetime mentor and former professor from UC Davis who had just retired in June, and like so many of us, was searching for meaningful causes to put his energy towards. Bapu and Mark were my partners in progress on this trip. After a quick lunch (and Bapu’s refusal to let me shower: “no time to spare!”), we headed straight to the local field office of Doug Jones’ campaign. We were given a roster that we loaded on an app on our phones, which had a list of addresses and corresponding names of registered democrats who had voted in at least one of the past three elections.
Birmingham has a long history as one of the most segregated cities in the country, so it wasn’t too surprising to find that every single household in the neighborhood we canvassed that afternoon was African American. The neighborhood was a middle-upper class suburb, with winding streets and cul-de-sacs lined with large four-bedroom, three-car garage houses. As we knocked on doors, it became clear that people in the neighborhood were aware of the election, and there wasn’t a doubt in any of their minds who they’d be voting for. “Oh you KNOW I’ll be out there for Doug!” (When potential voters start referring to a candidate on a first-name-basis, you know there’s a shot).
Although the afternoon left me feeling optimistic, it also left me feeling somewhat unproductive. Clearly the suburbs of Birmingham had a pulse on the situation — there had to be more useful places to spend our time. As we strategized the next morning, we came across a post in the Flip Alabama Facebook group mentioning a strong need for volunteers up in Jasper. We drove straight there, with Bapu checking the demographics of the town on the way. “82% white. Looks like 83% of the county voted for Trump last year.” This was going to be interesting.
Bapu and Mark took the car to one side of town, while I set off on foot to another. Walking through the streets of Jasper for the next few hours, I realized I was the only person on foot. Noticing this, and then hearing gunshots followed by a cheer in the distance as someone apparently hit the can the metal object they were aiming for, it sunk in just how far I was from New York City. Looking at my roster, I came up to a house that listed a woman with a Hispanic name. Standing in the driveway instead was a white man in his late 30s.
“How can I help you?” he called out.
“Hi, good afternoon. How’s it going? I just wanted to see if you all had plans to vote on Tuesday?” I said, somewhat hesitantly.
“I’ll be out there alright, votin for Roy Moore” he said, a big smirk on his face.
Another name on the roster brought me to the door of a man who, when asked whether or not he’d be voting on Tuesday, promptly slammed the door on my face. The optimism I’d felt in the suburbs of Birmingham started to wane a little. The previous afternoon, the roster we used brought us to just about every house in the neighborhood — a sign of how heavily democratic the neighborhood was. Here in Jasper, I would often walk several blocks before coming to the next house on my list.As I proceeded down the roster, I saw the name of a 99-year old woman who had voted in all three of the past elections. As I walked up to her house, I saw a man in his late sixties standing next to his car in the driveway. He wore blue jeans with a collared shirt loosely tucked in.
“Good afternoon, sorry to bother you, I’m looking for Mary Taylor..” I said hesitantly, unsure if I had the right address. “She’s inside, but she’s taking a nap.” he replied. “Is it true that she’s 99, and she still gets out there to vote at every election?” “You betcha, and she’ll be out there on Tuesday.” “That’s pretty incredible. What an inspiration…” “She’s a strong woman, my mom.”
An awkward silence then filled the air, as I debated in my mind whether or not to ask him what his plans were for Tuesday, given that he wasn’t on the roster (and of course the fact that he was a white man in his sixties in rural Alabama). I decided I hadn’t come all this way just to make small talk, so I asked him: “How about you, are you planning to get out there and vote on Tuesday?” “I sure am,” he grinned, fully aware of the position he was putting me in. I smiled in return, and then went for it. “So, will you be voting for Doug Jones?” He took a moment to respond, gazing off into the setting winter sun, the grin on his face gone. “Let me tell you something. I’ve voted Republican my entire life from the time I was 18 years old. But on Tuesday, I’m going to head to my polling station down at the school, and I’m going to vote for Doug Jones.”
We then proceeded to discuss all kinds of issues, including the tax bill (which he mostly supported), Trump’s presidency (which he has been disappointed with), and our respective visions for the future of the country. He knew I wasn’t from Jasper, so I offered that I’d driven up from Birmingham that morning. He was very respectful, and even expressed gratitude that “the younger generation” was becoming more politically engaged. My hope for this election was restored.
I met up with Bapu and Mark, and we drove together to a few final houses before it got too dark. We passed a trailer park, filled with dozens of beaten down mobile homes that immediately brought to mind Matthew Desmond’s chilling account of the lives of Milwaukee’s poorest communities in his exhaustively researched book Evicted. It turns out Jasper is at the epicenter of the opioid crisis. Optimism for the outcome of an election is one thing, but hope for a country is a much more fragile notion, clouded with constant storms.
Some people are natural optimists. Others use optimism in order to survive. There are optimists who are so because they have never bothered to look outside the shelter and comfort of their privileged bubbles. Barack Obama often liked to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He even had it inscribed on a rug in the Oval Office. Ta Nehisi-Coates does not share this vision; in fact, he does not believe there is any arc to speak of. Nikole Hannah-Jones sees the arc as more of a circle — where any progress is followed by a dismantling of this progress. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon, nor is it a uniquely black-white phenomenon. Take South Africa, for example, where Nelson Mandela was followed years later by Jacob Zuma. You get the EU, and you get Brexit. Solidarność, and then the rise of the extreme-right in Poland.
Whatever your view on progress may be, one thing is clear — it does not happen on its own. It is not a given. In order to see progress, people have bled. They have been beaten by police clubs. They have endured dogs tearing out chunks of their flesh, the stinging blasts of water canons, and the piercing of bullets. When many of us picture historical movements, we think of iconic figures, whose images have been abstracted and commercialized to the point of dehumanizing them, making the suffering less tangible. For every Che Guevara and Angela Davis, thousands of children and elderly have also risked their lives in these movements. There is no natural wind behind the moral arc that MLK described, nothing that will miraculously transport us further on down the road to a place of greater justice, greater peace, greater equality. The vehicle of progress does not slide on Magic Grease over the moral arc of the universe. The only coating on that moral arc is blood, and sweat. And if we’re being optimistic, perhaps a bit of ink from the pens of journalists and muckrakers along the way, depending on who you ask.
Monday morning, the day before the election, we set out for Selma. Bapu’s alarm went off at 5:30, so that we could get to Selma by 9. We had heard there was a need for volunteers down there, but when we arrived, we quickly remembered how different the pace is down south. Directions to the local field office involved keeping an eye out for “a big blue sign on Broad Street”. The office was still closed when we arrived. We called the phone number posted on the door, and were told to wait until 11 for the office to open. (Did I mention this is the day before the election!? Paciencia...)
With two hours to spare, we took a walk over the historic Edmund Pettus bridge. Fifty-two years after MLK led the march to Montgomery over the bridge, the bridge’s name remains a tribute to a former Ku Klux Klan leader. It’s impossible not to feel the weight of history as you walk across. The National Voting Rights Museum stands just on the other side of the river, as a strong reminder as any of why we were down here in Alabama.
Organization at the local field office in Selma was frustratingly absent. Given the tendency of the Democratic Party to take African American votes for granted, I started to worry we might be witnessing more of the same in Alabama’s Blackbelt. It was 1 pm before we finally got our marching orders, so we skipped lunch and went straight to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The afternoon was made interesting by the fact that, for the first time on the trip, we didn’t have a roster — meaning we had to knock on every door, without knowing anything about the household, or their voting tendencies. Luckily, people tended to be pretty friendly. Selma is about 80% African American, and this neighborhood followed those demographics pretty closely.
Of the roughly 1 in 5 houses occupied by white families in this neighborhood, about half said they supported Doug Jones. The other half were somewhat polite, and often rather bewildered to see the level of outreach and enthusiasm behind Jones’ campaign — a harbinger of the eventual election result. One of the houses I passed had eight full-size pickup trucks parked out front. Standing next to the trucks out on the front lawn stood a group of older white men chatting with each other. I didn’t get very far up the driveway before one of them noticed the Doug Jones lawn signs I was carrying and called out: “I think you got the wrong house pal!”
From the way he said it, I could tell he was mostly serious, and that he was uninterested in having a conversation about the candidates. But he also seemed nonthreatening.
“You sure? I got plenty of these, so we could decorate that lawn real nice if you’d like!” I offered back.
“I see that, but we’re all set here, thank you,” he replied.
“Alright, well just let me know if you change your mind, I’d be happy to come back!” I said, making my way on down the street.
Mark had a similar experience, where a white lady in her 70s cited her religious beliefs for why she’d be voting for Roy Moore tomorrow. “Okay then. God save us,” Mark quipped in reply. She didn’t smile.
On this trip, I spoke with hundreds of black families, and not a single one had any intention of voting for Roy Moore. This makes me skeptical of the results of the exit polls, which showed 7% of black voters supporting Moore. About 10% of people I spoke with either couldn’t vote, or were too cynical to do so. Another 20% wanted to know more about the election — and it was this 20% where I really felt my time being put to good use. Many families I spoke with were enthusiastic — some asking for one of the lawn signs I was carrying, others asking for information about where their polling location was. Some people had received a text message or phone call in relation to the election, but mentioned how it meant a lot more to them to see someone show up at their door in support.
We got back to our motel around 7 pm. With only twelve hours left before the polls opened, I felt like I hadn’t been productive enough that day, having only canvassed in the afternoon. When we were driving back to the motel along an ugly stretch of strip malls, I had noticed a Walmart that seemed to be where all the activity was at on a Monday night in Selma. It was really sad to see all the empty boarded up storefronts in downtown Selma, as has been the case in so many towns across America. Putting my frustrations aside regarding the awful urban planning policies of the 20th century in this country, I grabbed a stack of Doug Jones flyers, and headed to Walmart. Things were indeed hopping, and I ran out of flyers after just 30 minutes of handing them out in the parking lot as people entered and exited the store (probably in clear violation of Walmart policies, but this is Roy Moore and Walmart we’re talking about, so the ends justify the means). I went back to the motel and grabbed an even larger stack to hand out, before calling it a night around 9pm.
Bapu, Mark and I debated extensively about what the most productive way to contribute on election day would be. Originally, we had been given lists of about 10 people around Birmingham who needed rides to the polls, but when we reached out to them, everyone had already managed to arrange for a ride from a family or friends in their community. In Selma, we were told that the biggest need was to report vote count numbers from key polling locations at specific times, which campaign HQ used to determine last minute resource mobilization on the day of the election. We were dubious as to whether or not this was the most productive way to spend election day, but alternative ideas such as canvassing in Montgomery ended up fizzling out, so we stuck to the field office’s request. I had resisted renting an additional car, but when the reality sank in of spending the entire day at the rural polling site I was assigned to, where 99.9% of voters would have already made their decision, I caved (in large part thanks to Bapu’s wise and insistent advice). It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
When I arrived at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, the woman took a look at the reservation I had just made online 10-minutes prior on the drive over. “Looks like you made this reservation for the wrong date. You made it for the following Tuesday.” My heart sped up, worried they would be out of cars. “We don’t have any cars left,” she informed me. My heart sped faster. Yet for some reason, she was smiling. I followed her gaze down to the Doug Jones sticker on my jacket. “Don’t worry hun, we got you. We don’t have any cars, but would a pickup truck be alright?”
Wow… Would a pickup truck be alright… What a beautiful combination of words. She charged me the compact rate, less than half the actual cost for the full-size truck. When she handed me the keys, she winked and said “Go Doug!” I took notice of the Alabama plates on the big red Chevy. This would allow me to plaster the Jones mobile with campaign signs, without fueling discussions of “outsiders” in this election. I turned the radio up.
The truck gave me the flexibility I needed to report vote count numbers from the polling site at 10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm, while getting back to town and talking to every potential voter I could in-between. I pulled up to the polling site just before 10 am, rolled down the windows with the radio still on, grabbed a Doug Jones sign, and stood in the back of the truck to do my best “teach me how to (vote for) Dougie” dance to pass the time. This elicited the occasional thumbs down sign from drivers approaching the polls, but also a lot of positive honks. One (white) woman in her 80s approached the truck and asked if she could have a lawn sign. “My neighbors probably won’t be too happy with me, but if things go the right way tonight, I want to show everyone I stood on the right side of this.” When 10 am hit, I removed my jacket with the Doug Jones sticker, and made my way inside to request the vote totals. This is public information, and is clearly visible on the voting machine. I called in the total to campaign headquarters.
I drove straight back to town, where I decided to add a new element to my Walmart parking lot strategy: helping people load their groceries! One man I helped was in an electric wheel chair with a shopping basket on the front. Elderly people with bad backs tried to load 12-packs of water bottles into their cars. This being election day, a lot of people had already voted (as evidenced by the stickers they wore proudly on their jackets). Others, when I asked them if they’d had the chance to vote yet, said things like: “Not yet, but I’ve been meaning to. And it’s nice seeing what the Doug Jones campaign stands for.” I helped some people to check their polling locations.
An interesting thing happens when you climb into a large pickup truck and suddenly find yourself several feet above the rest of traffic. Being somewhat anti-car myself, and having never owned a vehicle, I was amazed by how quickly I was transformed into a feeling of power and importance in this big red Chevy Silverado. My girlfriend, with her dual background in sociology and urban planning, was well aware of this phenomenon when I mentioned it to her, and she pointed me to research on the issue. Obviously it goes both ways — people with larger egos to begin with would be more likely to purchase a large truck than, say, a compact 2-door Honda civic. The automotive lobby tries to pitch car size as a question of your personal safety. Unfortunately, your safety comes at the expense of the lives of others. I tried to be conscious of this newfound feeling of power, and to actively channel it into positive energy to get around town to help Doug Jones get elected, while also being aware of the image conveyed by a shiny vehicle with campaign signs on it; (I’m a volunteer, I swear).
I drove over to a local apartment complex and knocked on all 78 doors of the complex. Christmas decorations were in full display. Two women I talked to had heard a lot more press about Roy Moore than they had Doug Jones. “Which one is you supporting?” they asked dubiously. “The other one.” I said. “The one who didn’t do the things you just listed. The one who genuinely cares about our health care options, about women’s health, about education opportunities in this country.” They relaxed. I handed them the Doug Jones flyers, and helped them look up their polling locations. “Alright let’s do this,” they agreed, nodding to each other.
The final stretch of the afternoon was also the one that left the biggest mark on me. As I drove across the train tracks into a neighborhood I hadn’t been to yet in Selma, I started noticing an increasingly higher rate of empty, boarded up, condemned houses. I parked the truck on the outskirts of the neighborhood, not wanting to draw attention. I had seen a lot of poverty on this trip, but nothing on this level. To be honest, the poverty I felt in this neighborhood went beyond anything I have ever been around. The Brownsville Projects, the southside of Chicago, the slums of Maputo, rural subsistence farming communities, nowhere felt as destitute as this part of Selma, in every sense of the word. Dealers pushed drugs in plain sight. The houses and shacks that were still occupied stood on their last legs. This Daily News video captures the side of Selma they don’t teach you about.
The line between occupied and vacant houses was blurry. A boarded up house revealed its true nature with six shiny cars parked out front. I walked up to one of the cars in front of the trap house, where a man in his 30s was sitting in the front seat. (Jesus I must have looked ridiculous).
“Good afternoon. Just wanted to see if you had the chance to vote yet today?” “Can’t vote,” he replied.
He watched as I searched my mind for a reply, and then he offered: “It’s good that you be out here though. Lotta times they ain’t even bother comin through here.”
Responses in the neighborhood ranged from complete indifference to mild support. Seeing some people in the neighborhood wearing an “I voted” sticker, I thought to myself how f***ing strong a resolve it would take for someone in this community to get out there and vote, despite a lifetime of neglect from politicians of all sides. It left me without words. I sincerely hope Doug Jones remembers every single day, who got him into office.
I received several subtle suggestions that this wasn’t the safest place for me to be knocking on doors. “I wouldn’t go any further down this block,” one man warned. I took heed eventually, and headed back to the truck, but not before talking with a couple OGs sitting out on their stoop. We chatted about Charles Barkley, and how the Auburn alum (aka the Round Mound of Rebound) had come back to Alabama to campaign for Doug Jones. We then went on to discuss the positive trend of increased activism by athletes over the last couple years. One of the guys had been to vote that morning. Together, he and I were able to convince his friend to get out to the polls before closing.
When the polls closed that night at 7 pm, Bapu, Mark and I drove on back to Birmingham, feeling all kinds of tangled emotions. Mark started checking the early returns, which, tending to come from the most rural parts of the state, gave Roy Moore a pretty large lead. Bapu was dubious, as only 15% of total precincts were reporting. “Still way too early guys.” By the time we got to Birmingham, about 50% of precincts were reporting, with Moore up by 15,000 votes. Bapu was optimistic though, as Jefferson County (where Birmingham is) — which is by far the largest and one of the most liberal counties in the state, only had 3 out of 97 precincts reporting. “Ooooh I think Jones might have this!” Bapu declared. I didn’t allow myself to get excited.
We pulled up to a packed, tense bar in downtown Birmingham. No network had called it, and Moore was still in the lead. I checked the returns from Dallas county (where Selma is), and saw that not a single vote had been reported yet from there. As the tallies from a few more Jefferson and Montgomery precincts trickled in, Doug Jones took his first lead of the night, to loud whoops and hollers in the bar. And then more waiting. It seemed like hours before the unthinkable finally happened.
When the networks finally called the race, I ran out into the middle of the street in downtown Birmingham, and I screamed. I screamed until my lungs burned, until I felt the final ounces of rage and disappointment from 2016 leave my body. The faces of all of the people we had met on this incredible trip flashed across my mind. The Iranian couple at the cafe who saw Bapu’s Doug Jones sticker and wanted to believe there was a chance. The hopeful woman at Enterprise car rental. The man I met in Jasper who was going to vote democrat for the first time in his life. And all those resolute women and men who left me no doubt where they’d be headed on this special Tuesday.
Back in the bar, people were singing victory songs. I hugged Bapu, hugged Mark, hugged the strangers. Despite Birmingham’s liberal bent, this was still Alabama; several people shook their heads in disappointment and disbelief as they hurried by on the street. We headed to the Doug Jones victory party at the Sheraton. The media was out in full force. I noticed Charles Barkley over in the corner, giving an interview. Music played, people danced, smiled, and looked very, very relieved. Before going to sleep that night, I learned that it was Selma and its surrounding county that finally put Jones over the top in the statistical modeling, leading the AP and the networks to call the race. That felt fitting.
On my way to the airport the next morning, we stopped by Kelly Ingram Park, ground zero for the civil rights movement where the sit-ins, boycotts, and marches were organized. Statues of water cannons, metal dogs, and children in prison cells provided forceful reminders of this city’s history.
Across the street from the park stands 16th St. Baptist Church. I walked over, touched the wall to the entrance, and cried. Coltrane’s beautiful dedication to the four girls who were killed in the bombing played in my head. That Doug Jones had successfully prosecuted the Klansmen responsible for the bombing, with his closing argument that “it is never too late for the truth to be told,” brought the whole trip full circle for me.