Voters wait in line to vote at Washington High School on April 7. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
I think we can all agree that this has been the longest election cycle ever, and an even longer year. 2020 has brought a tremendous amount of trauma and tragedy. Some of the most marginalized people are some of the most vulnerable in this pandemic. Those same people tend to be targets for voter suppression. The pandemic, this country’s racial reckoning, and voter suppression have all made it harder for Black, brown and Indigenous communities to exercise their right to vote. Yet at the same time, our willingness to turn out and vote in the last election and our voices are under intense scrutiny.
This year, organizations like mine had to drastically change our tactics in order to keep our teams safe, while fighting to overcome the voter suppression tactics that our communities face. In April, we saw the pandemic weaponized as a tool for voter suppression. We know that the pandemic has been extra tough on our communities, and we know that our communities can make the difference in the margin of victory in an election.
Now, with the election practically over (despite the outgoing president’s attempt to litigate himself into a second term), Black, brown and Indigenous folks have to defend ourselves yet again. When Wisconsin turned blue again, folks were giving our communities credit for the work we had done. Many of our organizations faced security concerns and suffered rightwing attacks this year.
Many of our organizations changed our organizing tactics and strategies on a dime. Knowing how incredibly difficult this year was for us personally and as an organization, it felt good to be acknowledged for our work. But then, just days after Wisconsin went blue, I found myself answering questions from reporters about why our community didn’t turn out in larger numbers and feeling like we had to defend our work.
Everything our community was going through, our ambassadors went though. Our ambassadors are the ones who texted, phonebanked, organized their personal networks, and yet a lot of them were suffering the same things our broader community was suffering from. Mental health challenges, economic concerns for their family members, racism from the police (even on Election Day) increased domestic violence, etc. Every issue that has touched our broader community, our ambassadors have personally faced. I heard their gut-wrenching stories day in and day out. I saw our team moved to tears talking about showing up and engaging our community day-in and day-out because it gave them an escape from the constant trauma of the world. To know how quickly the narrative turned, so that somehow Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) people didn’t do enough to come out. I’ve said this after the 2016 election, BIPOC folks are some of the most disenfranchised and least engaged by politicians, yet always are blamed for not doing enough for Democrats at election time, even when the state flips blue.
We always talk about wanting more people to be civically engaged. We’ve done our best to reframe civic engagement as more than just voting. Calling legislators, testifying around the city budget, and even protesting are all forms of civic engagement. This summer we saw a wave of protests sweep the country as a means for demanding accountability, long term policy reforms, and reimagining safety as something that supports our community and is sustainable. When Democrats asked how to electoralize a movement, I remember thinking, that that wasn’t the point of the protests.
There can be an intersection between the protests and the elections but electoral politics wasn’t the point. People pressured us to register voters at the marches, to bring people to a point of engagement that they may not have been ready for. Protests are a referendum on the status quo; protesters don’t always show up because they are seeking an electoral outcome. Some were. Others were crying out because the status quo was not working for us. Just a few short months later, after everyone was “inspired” by this wave of activism and protests, the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement were blamed by centrist Democrats who lost Congressional seats in other states.
A few months ago, Black Lives Matter was an accessory for white folks who wanted to prove that they weren’t racist. Some donated money to Black-led orgs, others bought books and showed them off on Instagram that they were “doing the work on themselves”. Now, we are to blame for not doing enough and singled out as the reason Democrats lost down-ballot races. It’s amazing how quickly white supremacy emerges from performative allyship.
With all of the challenges of 2020, the knee-jerk reaction was to blame us. There are so many narratives to explore. Trump got more votes in Wisconsin than he did in 2016 and 3% more white women voted for Trump this time around compared to last time. So why is the dominant narrative what BIPOC people didn’t do? It’s because we center the feelings and voices of white America. Yet again, white people get to escape accountability for allowing white supremacy to run rampant while our communities are blamed.
Recently I saw a tweet that mentioned that Black people have to deal with voter suppression both before and now after we vote. Trump has demanded a recount in Milwaukee and Dane County. Milwaukee is the most diverse county in the state, and after a tumultuous election year, we still have to defend our votes. Not only do we have to defend our votes and participation to the political consultant class, but we have to keep on fighting voter suppression by the GOP after the election is over. BIPOC communities can’t win this year. We have taken beating after beating, and yet people want to question our involvement.
Our community has endured so much. We showed up for democracy when it didn’t show up for us. We continue to show up against incredible odds. Everyone claims they want more civic participation, but what this year has shown is that, yet again, people want our communities’ votes and participation under certain conditions. This year has woken up a lot of us. Our communities are educated on the issues and on the political systems that have consistently excluded us.
If BIPOC folks continue to be the scapegoats of democratic gatekeeping and performative allyship, then the future of democracy is grim. Instead of scapegoating the hardest hit communities who are the backbone of democracy, white folks need to be held accountable for allowing these systems to continue to exist. BIPOC voices aren’t here to exist in the manner in which you want them to. If we want to have increased civic participation, then we need to be prepared to have tough conversations and center the issues of our communities, no matter how hard it is to take responsibility.
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