The following is the third and final installment of our conversation on voting.
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JOSHUA: Earlier you mentioned that not voting could be a source of resistance following in the tradition of our ancestors. How is choosing not to vote an act of resistance?
BRANDON: Choosing not to vote is an act of resistance, for me, because it is a conscious decision. I’m intentionally changing the way that I relate to the interlocked system of oppression. I’m resisting the very practices that claim to give my voice and creativity a place to be expressed while actually limiting them both. Choosing not to vote, and I’m speaking specifically of voting for elected officials, is an act of resistance because I see a system that does not truly desire my participation and I try to figure out ways to subvert it that do not simultaneously authenticate it in the way that voting does.
JOSHUA: And what are you resisting when you do this?
BRANDON: A lot of things! My sister and fellow sojourner, Amaryah Shaye, recently wrote a beautiful piece entitled “On the End of Imagination: Voting as a Sacred Seduction”. The following quote is helpful here:
“We are being abused by our government and yet every four years we go back and subject ourselves once again. As long as we are in an abusive system that corrals us into voting democrat or republican, that requires you have to be rich in order to run a legitimate campaign… that requires consenting to maintaining violence against black and brown people and countries, our votes every four years will just be an affirmation of our hatred of women, queers, blacks, the environment, the church, mosque, temple, the children.”
In not voting, I’m resisting abuse. I’m resisting violence. I’m resisting hatred. I’m resisting intolerance. I’m resisting capitalism, sexism, homophobia, racism.
This is the part where someone asks, “Can’t I vote and still resist these things?” One of my favorite German words so far is – Jein (yes and no).
Sure, one can vote and be completely opposed to the aforementioned forms of oppression. I would also ask, however, what does one sacrifice in voting? What does voting do to/for one’s soul? I contend that every time we enter a booth and in debt ourselves to the political process we give up a little bit of ourselves. Knowingly or not, we offer a certain portion of our voices, our hearts, our souls as a sacrifice to the very system that has stolen so much of these things already. Whether intentional or not, we sanction whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism… At this point in my life, my only option is to resist these things whole-heartedly in ways that are authentic to being: today, this means standing in opposition to the process and not feeling bad about it just because of some half-hearted, uncritical appeal to (fill in the blank).
Let me be clear, I’m not attempting to demonize those who choose to vote, but I am attempting to problematize the process of voting. I’m attempting to desacralize the right to rite of voting (shout out again to Amaryah Shaye) and to move beyond the notion that persons who choose not to vote commit the most tragic of atrocities.
Voting can no longer be considered the apex of political action and citizenship. Whether you choose to vote or choose not to (and let’s not forget those who aren’t allowed to) be mindful of what you are doing, and be intentional about it: think about it, feel it. For the consequences of voting surely outlast that brief moment of gratification that comes with the “likes” you receive on that picture of yourself with the “I Voted!” sticker.
In the spirit of not demonizing those invested in the process, can we talk a bit more about your involvement in the election this go around? I’ve been extremely intrigued by the creativity of the Obama campaign during both the 2008 and 2012 elections. The Obama for America ground game is something serious! While I applaud the creative campaign strategies employed by OFA, these strategies also remind me that place matters in elections! Based on your political activity during this election cycle, how has your understanding of the ways place matters in the political process developed?
JOSHUA: Space absolutely matters! And it matters in important ways, especially when the question of voter apathy is raised. I believe with all my heart that the Electoral College has perpetuated feelings of voter apathy among voters in states that are habitually red or blue; it works both ways. I cannot blame a Democrat in Tennessee for not being excited about voting in a state where their vote is virtually ineffective. In the same way, Republicans in Illinois may experience the same feelings of hopelessness in this system. Not to mention the people who don’t identify as Democrats or Republicans.
One of the things Obama for America has done to curb feelings of apathy is focused more on battleground states. For example, in states like Tennessee that vote red, volunteers put their efforts into the battleground state of North Carolina. Since I’ve been involved in Obama for America I have hosted phone banks to independent voters in North Carolina and been on canvassing trips. This gives volunteers a sense that they are making a difference in the outcome of the election. It does not, however, make them feel like their vote is important.
There are other things that may contribute to voter apathy. Things that come to mind include inconvenient polling hours, voter ID laws, and registration confusion, just to name a few. If America claims that voting is an essential part of citizenship, then it must back its claim and make voting easier and more accessible for all Americans.
BRANDON: Agreed. Any other thoughts?
JOSHUA: Yes – The notion of space reminds me of the importance of local elections: which we haven’t discussed up until this point. Often times, there is so much hoopla around the Presidential Elections every four years that we forget about the local ones that occur every two. These elections, these officials, enact the policies that will affect us most directly. Furthermore, local elections frequently require us to vote on propositions and ballot measures, which is an additional aspect of the electoral process we haven’t discussed. I think voting in local officials who reflect our passion for justice and who will enact policies centered in a love ethic is important.
I concede, however, that it must not end, and does not have to begin with voting. We must continue to put loving pressure on these officials and our unofficial leaders to do justice and to do better. But change does begin with us. Subverting systems of domination does begin with us.
Which brings me to a final question for you – in what ways is choosing not to vote an effective way of creating change?
BRANDON: I think its imperative to ask what really change means: especially after President Obama made the word synonymous with his campaign in 2008. Currently, I reject the term change because of the way it has been pimped by the Obamas and the Romneys of the world. Furthermore, I think transformation – which, for me, is one step beyond change – gets more to the heart of my desire.
To resist something, forces one to be creative. The creative process fosters conversation fosters ideas fosters action fosters transformation. This process begins with us being willing to simply ask the question – what would it mean for us to birth something entirely new, different in our country, in our world?
JOSHUA: How will you measure such a transformation?
BRANDON: I’m not concerned with measurements. Measurements are what patriarchal reasoning demands to stifle imagination and sustain itself. I’m concerned with transformation happening! I can tell you what transformation looks like, though, utilizing a Rev. Joseph Lowery quote. Transformation will have occurred the day when ”black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man,” [sic] I might add, when the “suffragette” will not be considered a threat, when queer can unashamedly be here, “and when white will embrace what is right.”
Such transformation should be the goal of our political action – whether that action is voting or standing in resistance to the voting process. I think it is beyond time for us to take inventory of our actions and the processes which claim to provide avenues for such actions to take place.
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Over the course of this dialogue we’ve attempted to offer honest reflections on voting from our different vantage points. If there are two things we agree on they are: 1) we cannot go on esteeming voting while trivializing those who choose to engage in other forms of political action (including, but not limited to, resistance), and 2) we must find better language to talk about the struggle of our ancestors, de-homogenize their narratives, and rely on their ever-present spirits for guidance in our current struggles for freedom.
We leave you with a quote from Audre Lorde: “…For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
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