Little by Little

The day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I hid under the sheets. I seriously considered giving up my US passport. Then I got mad. I went to my first demonstration and my first march. Meanwhile, I threw money at causes. It was my first taste of activism.

But as the chaos of the Trump Administration grew, I got lost. Which fire deserved to be put out first? Where could I apply myself to the greatest effect? I cycled through all five stages of grief. Then Parkland happened. You remember. On 14 February 2018, nineteen year old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on his fellow students and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

natural disasters

When I was a kid, you had school drills for fires and earthquakes. Either way, the alarm went off and we hotfooted it into the schoolyard where we baked in the Southern California sun until all souls were accounted for.

By the time my mother started teaching math at the local public high school, things had already changed. Mom found a switchblade embedded into a desk in her math class. Kids were bringing their fights and their weapons into school. Administrators decided they needed metal detectors.

gun control activism

The first US mass school shooting was in 1966. For a long time, the Texas Tower shooting held the record for the most dead. Then came Columbine (15), Virginia Tech (33), Sandy Hook (28) and Parkland (17). Wikipedia records 35 US school shootings in the first nine months of 2018 alone.

Nowadays, school drills prepare students for live shooters and lock-downs. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from fearing natural disasters to fearing each other. After Parkland, donating money no longer felt like enough. I needed to do something.

local activism

Voter registration is my form of activism. I love first-time voters but I want them all. The apathetic voters, the ones who voted so long ago they can’t remember the last time, the Americans who never knew they could vote from abroad.

No one knows exactly how many US voters live outside the country. In 2016, The Economist gave a range between one million (overseas tax filers) and nine million (State Department estimate). The Federal Voter Assistance Program puts the number at 5.7 million. If all of us voted as a bloc, we’d be the 21st largest state of the union, equal in size to Colorado, Alabama and Minnesota.

But we don’t vote. In the 2012 elections (Obama v Romney), an estimated 15% of overseas voters took the trouble to cast their ballots. And it is quite a lot of trouble. Overseas voters must, of course, register like our domestic counterparts. But we also have to request our ballot for each election year. And if you’re late, your ballot may not make it back in time to be counted.

Each state has different requirements, applies its own timetable and has varying degrees of tolerance for ballot delivery by email or fax. In short, you have to really want to vote in order to jump through all the hoops.

That’s why, since August of this year, Democrats Abroad volunteers like me staff a voter assistance desk in Amsterdam and The Hague. November 1 will be our last chance to help voters work out whether they’re registered, where their ballot is and how to vote even if the ballot hasn’t arrived yet.

voter activism

hope vs despair

Will it make a difference? Maybe not. A couple hundred votes one way or the other. Is that effective activism? But suppose each one of those new voters talks to a friend, who then talks to her friend and so on and so forth. It’s possible to create a ripple effect. The optimist in me likes to think so. Or, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien:

Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.

You cynics will now say, how appropriate to quote from fantasy fiction. This is the real world, baby. Wake up and smell the napalm.

To all you cynics, I say three words: Christine Blasey Ford. A woman who came forward, knowing she would be torn to shreds. Who offered up for global consumption her most shameful private moment. She had no hope of changing minds but she spoke up anyway. And because she did, Brett Kavanaugh demonstrated with his own words and actions how unfit he is to be the newest United States Supreme Court justice.

The point is not always to win. The point is to try.

small steps

Patrick Sharkey is a sociologist at NYU. His book, Uneasy Peace, studies the Great Crime Decline. Yes, it’s true, folks. Crime in the US has been steadily declining since the 1990s. As Adam Gopnik notes in his review of Sharkey’s book:

it’s hard for those who didn’t live through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand the scale or the horror of it, or the improbability of its end. Every set of blocks had its detours; a new arrival in New York was told always to carry a ten-dollar bill in case of a mugging.

The crime wave that surged through big American cities drove the white flight to the suburbs and fueled the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It continues to function as a crowdpleaser at Trump rallies

largely in places where crime never happened much but where, having long been molded to preëxisting bigotry, the spectre of violence still occupies a fetishistic role.

Sharkey attributes the great crime decline to four factors: local community organizing, technology, incarceration and aggressive policing. The latter two factors, however, have spawned monsters of their own: police violence and mass incarceration. Our challenge now and

for the decades to come is to take advantage of the decline in crime to engineer a parallel decline in incarceration, sending noncareer criminals back to safer streets.

community activism

How do we accomplish this? Community activism is one key to the solution. When a community comes together, its social fabric strengthens. When people feel safe, they venture out into the streets and parks which, in turn, brings out ever more people, more eyes, keeping those same streets and parks safe for all.

I’m not alone in my quest. There are thousands of volunteers all around the world working hard to get out the vote. I have a friend in California texting messages to Texas and another one in Hawaii working on Arizona. My son is helping students right here in Amsterdam. If we can get people to vote, one by one, maybe we can turn the tide.

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