Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crock Pots for Obama and Other Acts of Citizenship

 I have finally stopped dreaming of walking turf, those artfully selected sets of streets, based on voter data, that we door-knocked in Ohio as we sought to identify Obama voters.  Every night after the election, for over a week I was back in Akron, standing on the sidewalks of North Hill, studying my assignment.  Who had absentee ballots? Who was to be persuaded to vote for Obama?  Who to motivate to vote early?  I didn't dream about the scruffy yards or sometimes pitiable houses or even the terriers that resented my presence.  I dreamt about page after page of details ...  and walking.  Pat says this is kinetic memory, the impact of almost fifty hours of door knocking working its way out of my system.  Probably true, but it was also the dissipation of anxiety. 

The narrative of my dreaming back home was the same as the narrative of my waking state in Ohio -- do I have the right address, literature, words to persuade?  Would people listen to me or close the door in my face?  What if white people were angry?  What if black people indifferent? Of course it was Akron, people for the most part are always friendly; and in spite of the endless campaigning to which they had been subjected, they continued to be friendly and amazingly patient with the process.

My personal apprehension had its source in the previous presidential campaign of John Kerry.  I know I have criticized that campaign at length in this space but my disappointment in that effort was never really from a critique of Kerry's political strategy or organization, abysmal as it was. More importantly,  I felt like we had let a dying man down.

One of the last things my father, Virgil Johnson,  asked me to do before his passing in 2004, was to come back to Akron and work to defeat George Bush.  The war and the utter betrayal that the Bush administration represented deeply upset my father.  When Pat and I reported to America Coming Together (ACT) headquarters to do GOTV for John Kerry they were disorganized, yes.  But they also were utterly unrepresentative of the larger community.  I was one of the only people who knew the area.  

I knew the moment we walked into Obama headquarters this past August that this was going to be a different campaign.  Yes, the staff was young but the volunteer coordinator was a local girl.  I recognized people from my old neighborhood at the long phone banking table (the phone bank coordinator, a local guy, would come up to his 20,000th phone call during our stay later in the campaign).

In October, after one day of door-to-door work, I realized I didn't  want to be any place else. The office was awash in activity -- volunteers arriving early morning to get their neighborhood assignments, mid-morning for phone banking, and at noon to deliver food.

Those who could walked turf and those who couldn't walk, cooked.  There was a continuous stream of hot plates, industrial size aluminum tins, and crock pots coming into the office.  This is where my childhood neighbors, the friends of my father and mother (of happy memory), my elderly aunts and uncles, came to do their service.  One of the rewards of walking was the satisfaction of participating effectively in a well run campaign.  Almost as significant was coming back to headquarters, recognizing we had knocked on 200 doors (there was one volunteer who had knocked 100 doors a day for 30 days!) and celebrating with homemade coconut cake or egg custard pie.

My father needed George Bush to lose in 2004.  We didn't manage to deliver that.  He could not have imagined the campaign of 2008 or the feeling of redemption that I feel for our failures in that past effort.  I wish he was here to share one other experience with me.  Citizenship.  

This is the one that is difficult for some outside the African-American community to understand.  I won't pretend that I can explain it now, except in this small way.  All through the Civil Rights years (arguably from the end of Reconstruction to the Voting Rights Act) my people have organized -- against Jim Crow, for access to education, to end racial discrimination in the military, against the Klan, for the right to vote -- to be recognized as full citizens of this country.    Door knocking, mass meetings, meals for hundreds of hungry volunteers, we know how to do that.

This was the first time that I had the sense that it wasn't just us.  Certainly, a minority of white folks always joined us in these struggles. Those efforts were to regain something that had been taken away, or had never really been ours -- full participation in the American system.  Here was this effort that was exactly what my father and his people before him had longed for.  African-Americans were included, but it went beyond us, an effort that resulted in this improbable man, Barack Obama, reclaiming the Office of President for all of us.

That's the pleasure of citizenship. My father, Virgil Johnson, would have enjoyed it very much.

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