Monday, November 8, 2010

Become an Iron-Jawed Angel, Don't Vote for One

There’s a letter that made the rounds on email and feminist blogs a few weeks ago. It read in part:

“Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie ‘Iron Jawed Angels.’ It is a graphic depiction of the battle [the woman suffragists] waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder. … So, refresh my memory. Some women won’t vote this year because why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn’t matter? It’s raining?”

On election day, I read something very similar on Daily Kos (I can’t find it now) invoking the spirit of the African American civil rights movement to exhort people to go out and vote.

It’s true, many people fought and died at many different times for the rights of disenfranchised groups to vote. But they didn’t fight for the vote as a symbol of equality. Voting was supposed to bring actual equality. Which is a greater betrayal of the suffragists and the martyrs of Freedom Summer? Not voting, or voting for someone who will use my vote to give more money to billionaires? Not voting, or voting for a progressive woman Speaker of the House who was willing to trade away our reproductive rights for a health care plan that delivered millions of our hard-earned dollars to the insurance industry? Not voting, or voting for the man who imprisoned eight sixty- and seventy-year-old former Black Panthers for a 36-year-old murder they didn’t commit?

Sure, I went to the polls. I mostly voted for people that had no chance to win. Sadder than that, I probably wouldn’t even have liked their policies if they did win. I did cast my second-choice vote for Oakland mayor for Jean Quan, and it looks like all those second-place votes may actually propel her over Don Perata, which would be a victory for actual democracy. Maybe it will convince other progressive cities to try ranked-choice voting which, despite dire predictions, has yet to bring down the power grid or cause a volcano to erupt in Oakland (which has no volcanoes, in case you were wondering). I voted for legalized marijuana, which we didn’t get, and for implementing California’s Clean Air Act, which we did. We voted to drop the two-thirds majority requirement for passing a state budget, but two-thirds is still needed to raise any taxes so it’s not worth much.

In the end, voting will not turn around the despair that I feel around and within me. It won’t put money back into our bankrupt community college and university system, or find jobs for the millions who have been out of work so long they’ve stopped looking. It won’t provide childcare or job training for single mothers trying to squirm their way out of poverty; it won’t provide restorative justice for survivors of sexual assault.

If anything reminds us how little the Voting Rights Act has actually done to increase racial equality, it’s the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle in Los Angeles last Friday, before the final election results in our state were even known. Mehserle is the white transit cop who killed 20-year-old Oscar Grant last New Year’s morning with one shot to the back while Oscar was pinned on the ground. On Friday he was sentenced to two years (including four months already served) for involuntary manslaughter. On Friday night, Oakland police, led by African American police chief Anthony Batts, herded protesters into a trap where 152 were arrested, ostensibly because a very few people broke a few windows. I am not condoning breaking windows of small businesses or cars. But the chief made it clear that the plan to break up the march was crafted long before a single window was broken, and executed as soon as the marchers deviated from an agreed-upon route. They didn’t arrest the few vandals, they arrested everyone they considered part of an “illegal assembly.” The story I heard from people who were there was that when the vandalism started, the crowd chanted for it to stop and it did.

Yes, we should be inspired by the suffragists and the civil rights movement. But the lesson we need to take from them is not that we must vote even if there is nothing we want to vote for, but that we can and must organize for the change we truly need.

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