TampaVote 2004: Dispatches from the Ground

Thirty years ago, I fled the state after graduating from law school, vowing never to return to this treacherous terrain. After ten years total practicing law in Boston and Dallas, I quit law altogether with another vow, this time about lawyering: Never again.

Yet, here I am at the end of Election Day 2004: fist cocked, ready to clock a Florida cracker who, despite being stooped by age, just body-slammed me. In Tampa, Florida. Where I am as a legal volunteer.

“What’re you doing in line if you’re not here to vote?” he demands, still pressed against me. I shove him away.

“You know who I am and why I’m here,” I say calmly and quietly. “You’ve been looking at me all day. But more importantly than that, right now, you need to step the fuck away from me. And whatever else you do, don’t ever touch me again.”

A black woman poll worker with a Caribbean accent appears. She watches us silently. Their Anglo female supervisor, designer-clad from head to toe, stands nearby. She, too, is silent. I walk over to her and repeat my warning.

“You’d better tell him. He’ll be sorry if he touches me again.”

He strolls over, openly gloating. “Let her write that down in her little report,” he says to the supervisor as though I’m invisible, referring to the election violations reports we have been recording and phoning in all day. “I don’t know why she thinks I know who she is. They all look alike to me. Hee hee.”

* * * *

Just twenty-four hours earlier, I had such noble intentions. Our massive coalition of volunteers gathered to stop one group of Americans—white—from denying other Americans—African American and Latino—their right to vote.
But as soon as my feet hit Florida ground, I knew I was in trouble. Going back on my word set off my surefire sign of terror, the coiled muscle in my lower back that spiraled off into continuous spasms. Before long, waves of shooting pain drove me from Election Protection headquarters to a masseuse’s table back in my hotel room.

“Honey, I don’t think you’re the one responsible for this voting mess,” she admonished when I confessed what I believed was the source of my distress. She tapped my back. “You’re doing this to yourself, you know. You got a lot of power, but you just let it get away from you.”

It is her voice I hear as I square off against the grizzled geezer who just pushed up on me. Her voice is what saves me from stomping this creaking vessel of oppression and landing my ass in jail.

This day—Election Day—did not start out like this. On my own dime and my own time, I came one thousand miles for this?

* * * *

I.
Gladys* is our first voter challenge of the day. An ex-felon whose civil rights have been restored, under Florida law she is legally entitled to vote a regular ballot. She is furious and crying when Alex* and I walk up.

Here’s her story: Ancient white-haired Anglo poll workers have not simply turned Gladys back. Rather, to reinforce their oppression, they have called the Elections Board in Tallahassee and put Gladys on the phone. The voice on the other end has threatened that if she votes, “It might even be a criminal act."

Alex*, my volunteer lawyer partner, is a born and bred southerner like me. Like Gladys, I am black; Alex is not. He lives in Europe and the US and has flown in from Rome,* as I have from Texas, to personally help save votes of Americans like Gladys.

Together, Gladys and Alex wrench a provisional ballot from the naysayers. Transformed by this voting victory, she throws her arms around us. “I already helped 200 people early vote,” she explains, flicking away huge tears of relief. “I wasn’t about to go out like that.”

Twelve hours later, Gladys is back. She double parks, hustles her carload of passengers up the sidewalk, and shoves them past the scowling white male sentry seconds before he bolts the door to the polling place.

* * * *

II.
A mile away, at another precinct, an elderly woman—la Señora—frustrated and forlorn, beckons me. Speaking only Spanish and gesturing, eventually she grabs my arm and leads me inside the polling place.

Another face-off with another set of tight-faced old white folks determined to deny another American her vote. Señora’s determination, pulsating and palpable, pins me to her side. We wait.

Florida law requires Spanish-speaking poll workers in this precinct. There are two Latina women present, but I can’t get their attention. Señora hunches me in the side and shakes her head at my efforts. When I say they will help us, she nearly spits her disgust. No, she says, they are the same ones who refused to help her before.

“Ellas estan como los otros (waving at the whites seated at the table). No quieren los negros, (pointing to me) y los moreños (pointing to herself) a votar!” They are like the others. They don’t want blacks and browns voting.

Our waiting finally pays off when Señora exchanges her absentee ballot for a voting card. I hold her place in line while pushing her towards the Latina poll worker who has spent more than fifteen minutes repeating voting instructions to an old white man.

An hour after we first entered, Señora has finished voting. Rejoining elderly Latino and Asian friends waiting outside in the bright sunshine, she thrusts her fist skyward and shouts, "I been in this line for three hours and I voted!"

* * * *

III.

They stream steadily throughout the day: pressed, permed youngsters, people of color, poor folks, old folks, laborers, mamas with babies, brothas slinging bling, sistas rocking the spandex. Vote warriors.

A trio of 18-year old black girls races up. “We just voted for the first time,” one breathlessly proclaims. “Aw, she saw you way back there and she picked you to say that to because she knew it would make you happy,” her friend chimes in. “We just made history!” the third one shouts. They prance off the curb.

I fantasize that it is Warrior me, fierce guardian of the vote, emitting the scent of protection—not me of the beleaguered spirit and bent back of the day before—that drew the girls to me.

Around 6PM, back at the precinct where our day started, I spy a weary young woman leaving the polling place.

“Did you vote without a problem?” I ask. No, she’s been in line for forty-five minutes and just can’t take it anymore. “If I had voted, though, this would’ve been my first time,” she offers sadly.

Pointing to her beautifully round belly, I ask, “So, when are you due?”
“December 5th.”

“Oh, please, y’all have to vote! Do you want a sandwich? Water? Want me to stand in line for you?”

She hesitates. Nearly nine months pregnant, after working all day, she is visibly exhausted. Then her chocolate face loosens into a smile and she trudges back to her place in line. More than an hour later, she votes.

* * * *

IV.
Inside the door, I take my place behind the last voter to mark the end of Election Day in this precinct. This is when the old white man rolls up on me. I am there to make sure that everyone in line gets to vote. He’s there for something different.

The Latina is pretty and spirited. She, too, has witnessed my exchange with the old man vote blocker. She smiles knowingly when I return to my place in line behind her. Accompanied by three grandchildren she is “raising alone,” she points to her own “baby” across the room, an 18-year old son bent over a voting screen.

“They tried to send him way across town to some place that was gonna be closed by the time we got there. I told them, ‘No way. This is his first time voting and he’s doing it right here where I vote. Ask us those questions again. Now we know the right answers.’” A quick study, in an instant, she has outsmarted the would-be vote suppressors.

* * * *

Up since 4:30AM, twelve hours moving nonstop among three precincts, my job is finally over. In the balmy darkness, I am aswirl with teary emotion. Thirty years. Never again. Yet, here I am, standing in history.

A stir lifts my head. Two black boys strut from the polling place, grinning. Immaculate in razor-creased jeans and gleaming white t-shirts, these brothas break stride, face each other, and leap into the air. Backlit by reflected light, outlined against the sky, without saying a word, they slap high five.