Too many of the policies we develop and adopt are driven by a desire not to create community, but instead to exclude, marginalize, stigmatize and disempower. Such policies are the seeds that ripen into alienation and hatred. They may even lead some to believe that violence is the only means by which they can be heard and participate in the political process. Policies that marginalize and exclude, therefore, have no place in a nonviolent democracy.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its stunning Shelby v. Holder decision, many politicians and state officials (particularly those in the south) have rushed to restrict citizens’ access to the ballot. Burdensome voter identification requirements, shortened early voting hours, closure of offices that issue driver’s licenses – these are just a few of the measures officials have adopted to exclude from the franchise the poor generally, and African American and Hispanic communities specifically. To those who question whether or not such exclusion is intended by these new voter restrictions, we simply answer with the words of former North Carolina GOP Precinct Chair Don Yelton: if the restrictions hurt “the [poor] whites so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”
What is not often recognized, however, is that state officials’ rush to exclude citizens from the polls also betrays their hostility toward women’s exercise of political power. In 2012, women constituted the majority of voters. They also determined the outcome of the presidential election. And as was true for previous elections, African American and Hispanic women voted in larger numbers than their male counterparts. Viewed in light of these facts, the new voter restrictions will harm women’s participation in the political process, and will disproportionately harm the participation of African American and Hispanic women.
Disenfranchisement must be understood as political violence because it renders vulnerable to economic, social, and political exploitation, repression and violence those who are denied the voting power. This was the lesson of Jim Crow racial segregation in the south, and this is the lesson today of repressive regimes the world over.
Disenfranchisement, too, ensures that power remains “in the hands of our nation’s most reactionary politicians,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed during his Selma campaign for voting rights. In their hands, legislation that would provide for citizens’ most critical needs – employment, affordable health care, education, environmental protection, freedom from gun violence, and fair immigration policies, for example – would either die in committee or pass in a form so watered down that it would barely touch the problem it was meant to address. Ordinary citizens would simply have to fend for themselves and would continue to suffer unemployment, poor health, and a number of other harms.
Without the vote, many more people would also be subjected, in Ferguson, Missouri-like fashion, to unaccountable public officials too willing to criminalize citizens in order to shore up city and county coffers – not to mention officials’ own salaries and thus their own private wealth.
And without the franchise, citizens stigmatized because denied access to the ballot would increasingly face hostility from those who benefit from a system that does not interfere with their right to vote.
Thus, “so be it,” as spoken by Don Yelton, must be answered with “never again,” as well as with a politics that eschews the violence of political exclusion and that instead cares for, values and invites into the political process each and every one of us.
A Nonviolent Alternative
- We must restore the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. The rush to adopt restrictive voting mechanisms makes clear that the U.S. Supreme Court’s “mission-accomplished” decision in District of Columbia v. Heller was premature, if not a cynical denial of continued injustices.
- We must adopt mechanisms that automatically register citizens on their eighteenth birthday. If we can require young men to comply with Selective Service on that important day, then we can ensure that all young people are registered to vote as soon as they turn eighteen.
- We must create a federal nonpartisan commission (with full prosecutorial power), the responsibility of which will be to set standards for districting throughout the nation so as to prevent gerrymandering and other acts that effectively exclude communities from the political process.
- We must restore the right to vote to all citizens who have had that right taken away by a felony conviction. Punishing people beyond time served is a vindictive policy that reinforces our culture of violence.
- We need to make Election Day a federal holiday. No citizen should have to choose between voting, working, and taking care of her children.
- We must make early voting an option for all voters so that they have the time flexibility they need in order to exercise the franchise.
- We must provide enough polling places and poll workers for every community so that voters are not forced to stand in long lines for hours at a time.
- We should provide mobile polling booths – akin to mobile libraries – for citizens (the elderly and infirm, for example) who might have difficulties reaching fixed polling places and who may have missed or overlooked early voting by mail.
- We must adopt strict penalties for and prosecute anyone who on Election Day interferes with, brandishes weapons or otherwise attempts to intimidate citizens at or near a polling place.
Since the tragedy of 9/11, Arab communities and those who adhere to the Muslim faith have faced stigma, scapegoating, discrimination, and religious as well as racial profiling. Islamaphobic stereotypes abound, espoused by everyday people, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and presidential candidates alike. Hate crimes and violence against Arab communities and Muslims are on the rise, as is the emergence of anti-Islamic hate groups.
By no small measure, these developments have been fed by state and federal governments’ targeting and blanket surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities, carried out with little regard for these and indeed all citizens’ constitutional rights. Revelations of government surveillance of #BlackLivesMatter activists absolutely underscores this point. We must not allow any resuscitation of COINTELPRO, and we must reject justifications for any such program as somehow necessary for “winning” our war on “terror.”
This kind of repression is part of a long history of political violence in our nation that has harmed and put too many citizens in harm’s way, as well as whittled away the civil liberties that we all have a right to enjoy. As one court recently stated about the surveillance to which the NYPD subjects Muslim Americans, “We have been down similar roads before – Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight – that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or colour.’”
Even more, such surveillance sets us apart from one another and thus denies our common desire for peace as well as freedom from fear, violence, and suffering.
A Nonviolent Alternative
- We must prohibit the blanket surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities.
- We must prohibit the blanket surveillance of all U.S. citizens. This prohibition must include the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ email data, phone records, and internet history.
- We must repeal both the Patriot Act and the USA Freedom Act in their entirety.
- We must abandon the Countering Violent Extremism methodology adopted by the Obama administration and Congress to help identify individuals presumed to be vulnerable to extremism. This methodology neither prevents terrorism nor does it avoid stigmatizing Arab and Muslim communities. It also fails to contend with the alienation created by our investments in physical, political, legal and economic violence.
- We must aggressively investigate and prosecute hate crimes directed at Arab, Muslim, and other vulnerable communities.
- We must develop legislation that balances First Amendment free speech rights with Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights – legislation that recognizes and rectifies how the burden of free speech (specifically, the freedom to speak, write, and advocate for hate) falls heavier on some communities than on others.