social change

Disillusioned by the Ballot: I Did Not Storm the Polls



Over the past few weeks, I have heard ongoing rants suggesting abstainers and independent voters bear primary responsibility for the results of the 2016 election. It’s as if the masses are unwilling to critique how choosing the “lesser of two evils” supports the maintenance of our flawed two-party system. It ensures our uninterrupted participation in binary thinking and limits our ability to imagine radical alternatives for the people. I am not interested in limiting my thinking. I believe we can think up new possibilities when we aren’t forced to choose between two problematic options.

In school, I was taught to trust in the greatness of America. I was taught to believe I lived in a democracy, that the option to vote granted me access to a democratic society. For years, I questioned the legitimacy of this widely accepted fallacy. I never heard a president espouse viewpoints that, at the very least, offered long-term solutions to reconcile the vast needs of America’s most vulnerable citizenry (here citizenry refers to any and everyone that lives in the U.S.). I never saw a president that looked like me. I was led to believe my apprehensions were naïve, a consequence of my youthfulness. I would come to learn that this was a common excuse offered by adults unwilling to explore historical realities.

But I was still hopeful. And in 2008, I took my hope to the voting booth.

The first time I voted, I was filled with inherited pride. Finally, I had the opportunity to contribute to the political landscape in the nation of my birth, and I was thrilled. I was in my senior year of college and was engaging in discussions daily that challenged me to decode and deconstruct messages in televised news, newspapers, radio, and classrooms. As I prepared to cast my first vote ever in the 2008 presidential election, I felt the faint footsteps of my ancestors beating within me. This was an obligation, I thought. My ancestors have stained the streets, trees, and fields with the blood of their bodies for my right to vote. So I must cast it intentionally. I must not let their collective struggle be in vain.

At the same time, through my coursework, I was beginning to learn about the striking similarities between both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and what I learned was alarming. Both parties have been responsible for: restricting educational funding; defunding welfare initiatives; pushing standardized assessments; high rates of deportation; mass incarceration of Black and Brown peoples; supporting zero tolerance policies that disproportionately suspend and expel youth of color; aggressively increasing defense spending; remaining in a perpetual state of war and unrest; backing the militarization of law enforcement agencies; overlooking the importance of free universal healthcare; monitoring Americans’ private lives; and refusing to redress historical and ongoing injustices systems of oppression have imposed on Black people and other people of color in the United States. When examining our so-called democratic, two-party system from this lens the parties don’t seem so distinct.

Unable to stomach the political implications of abstaining, I continued to associate the voting process with ancestral responsibility. Images of slavery, auction blocks, beatings, lynchings, uprisings, Jim Crow, marches, burning buildings, arrests, water hoses, and sit-ins swarmed my mind. Voting had been impressed upon my consciousness as the most instrumental civic engagement tool in a free society. And I shared this sentiment with any friend that voiced their reluctance to continue participating in electoral politics.

In 2016 an inner shift occurred.

This year, I did not go to the poll booth, and I didn’t fill in my absentee ballot. I exercised my right not to vote. I wrestled with my decision for months following Bernie Sanders’ failed democratic nomination. To choose not to vote felt like historical dismissal. I wanted to support a presidential candidate that had a history of prioritizing progressive social justice initiatives and inspired me to vote with a clear conscience. I discovered Dr. Jill Stein. I introduced her name to friends who were oblivious of her political platform and resisted reductive reasoning that declared a vote in her support as a vote for the Republican Party.

If we truly live in a democratic society, how could that be? How could voting for someone you believe best represents the issues that impact your day-to-day life, and the lives of millions more, be the equivalent of a wasted vote? It seems obvious that the likelihood of electing a presidential candidate outside of our current two-party system would significantly increase if more people would abandon two-party politics that more closely resembles a single-party agenda. With deficit-based thinking—the nation’s prevailing ideological framework—shaping the bulk of our public imagination, I wondered how a Stein administration would convince a largely homogenous Congress to grapple with police brutality, anti-Black racism and other forms of structural oppression, economic disparities, environmental degradation, restorative justice, education as the practice of freedom, etc. Ultimately, I was dissuaded by historical evidence.

Voting has not shielded us from death. It has not protected us from political loopholes that attempt to stomp the life out of us long before we die physically. Even with anti-discrimination laws in place, we haven’t been able to sidestep disparate treatment. We’ve placed too much weight in the vote. We’ve accepted that voting is the primary means to amplify our voices, to stimulate change. But what exactly are we voting for? Both the Democratic and Republican Parties offer limited, if any, solutions to the type of challenges that impact my everyday life, and the everyday lives of many people of color from working class and lower income households. And as Tricia Rose correctly observes in Longing to Tell, “The kinds of [narratives] that have worked to marginalize, pathologize, and condense the lives of [B]lack women, [and Black people as a whole] cannot simply be legislated out of circulation.” Often, the only suggested recourse presented to Black folks is the ballot.

But is the ballot enough? What can we be doing on the periphery of election years? What can we do in our respective workplaces and industries on a regular basis to disrupt systems of domination? What can we do to address the particular needs of our communities? What can we be doing to interrupt dominator discourse in our homes, in our relationships, in every facet of our lives? What can we do across socioeconomic backgrounds to lift each other up and lean on one another throughout the year? What else can we be doing to think more imaginatively? These are the questions we have to contend with as we commit ourselves to grassroots activism.

And to some extent, I understand the emphasis on electoral politics and legislation. If elected officials are going through such lengths to institutionalize voter suppression laws, there must be some power in our vote. This observation cannot be understated. My choice not to vote does not justify external efforts to strip me, and historically disenfranchised people, of that right. As a sexually fluid Black woman, I also have the right to marry, but ultimately I decide whether marriage is the right path for me. It isn’t. Until there is more promise in electoral politics shifting the United States’ foundational practices of domination, exploitation, and profit-generation, I will disengage from this charade and redirect my energies elsewhere.

While the implications of voting are far-reaching, we can’t expect the same system that was erected to negate and exclude us to turn on itself and topple. We have to think differently. We have to organize differently. We have to open ourselves up to new forms of resistance.

We need to change shit substantially before we continue to stress voting as the most instrumental civic engagement tool in a free society, especially when that so-called free society in which we live is entrenched in imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Re-Imagining Community

My proclivity for reimagining community as the site of connectedness, imaginative expansion, and reaffirmation of our beings typically thrusts me into the very isolation I am attempting to flee because we have been lured into accepting community as the locale of superficial similarities.

Community is the unseen thread that binds us together. As we share in our suffering, as we disclose our frustrations, as we resist reductive reasoning, as we work toward dismantling systems of subjugation, as we reimagine alternative ways of living, as we protect ourselves against psychological assaults, as we stand in solidarity, as we champion connectedness, as we decolonize our minds, as we challenge injustice, as we reject recycled myths, as we brainstorm solutions, as we laugh in unison, as we affirm each other, and express the wholeness of our beings we move closer to creating a loving community that is transcendent…that is incapable of destruction.

Before we ever step foot in communities as advocates and organizers, we have to reimagine the purpose of community. We have to consider which communities we belong to, examine whether we feel like a true member of these communities, and explore what is preventing us from feeling that deep sense of connectedness to others. We have to be willing to ask ourselves what we would like to see more or less of in order to actualize our visions of rebuilding tight-knit communities, and we must be willing to make substantial contributions in the form of time and energy to realize these visions. If you truly feel connected to the communities in which you belong, what encourages that connectedness? What factors consistently promote connection and support? What foundational values bind you to one another? It is through this reflection and interrogation that we can begin to understand how to create a new standard of community that delves beneath superficial similarities.

While it is true that we are born into communities, form communities, join communities, thrive in communities, and embrace the need for community, we sometimes fail to participate in communion. If community is the unseen thread that binds us together, communion is the needle purposely weaving together our souls creating a binding effect. In Communion: The Female Search for Love, bell hooks speaks candidly about the importance of women unabashedly sharing our personal stories. The transformative power of sharing should not be overlooked. As we begin to open ourselves up, we bond through the rebellious and courageous act of sharing. Openly discussing our lived experiences is a rebellious act because we are taught to withhold our truths, to disguise our truths, to stick to small talk, to suck it up, to mask any semblance of pain, racial injustice, or disappointment we encounter. But who does that serve?  It keeps us in a cycle of silence where uplifting stories remain unheard even as we yearn to know that someone else understands exactly what it’s like to walk ten miles in our shoes. In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander stresses the importance of dialogue stating that “…dialogue, a conversation that fosters a critical consciousness [is a] key prerequisite to effective social action.”

We cannot effect change in our communities if we are unwilling to converse and undergo metamorphosis ourselves.