When I was growing up, my parents talked about politics, but they didn’t disclose who they voted for. I knew they were registered as Independent and did not feel particularly charged by either of the main parties. In the 2000 election, we had “Scholastic Reading” pamphlets that described the Republican and Democratic candidates, but no third parties. In the activity in that pamphlet I “voted” for Gore because I liked his name and face better. But we also took a trip to the town hall to go into the voting booths and participate in mock election. I pulled the lever for Ralph Nader of the Green Party. I had heard his name at my house, and had heard that he cared about the environment and planet. I also really liked that his last name rhymed with Alligator. That was 2000. I was seven.
When I was a teenager, we began talking about candidates and party politics more. When the 2008 election came around, I was frustrated with the oil wars and the Bush presidency. I didn’t know where I stood politically, just yet, but I knew I didn’t align with the Republican party. I was frustrated that I couldn’t vote in such an historic election, but I did everything I could to be politically informed. I engaged at all levels; I watched the debates, read the articles, rocked bumper stickers and pins and t-shirts. In addition to educating myself on issues, I campaigned for Barack Obama. I started small, with a letter to my extended family telling them why I was supporting Obama and asking them if they would consider doing so, too. I phone banked from my dorm room. I used my calling card because the minutes were cheaper than my Verizon plan. I still have the number burned in my brain (1-800-569-6972, Pin: 16111482052, in case you ever need to make a toll free call, I doubt I still have money loaded on it.) That was 2008. I was fifteen.
When I was college freshman, Obama was up for re-election. I went to the polls on November 6th and voted Democrat. That was 2012. I was nineteen.
Earlier this year, my parents and I changed our voter registrations from Independent to Democrat in order to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. I was abroad during primary season and felt removed again from the political process, as I had in 2008. But I did what I could from a distance– I donated, tweeted, posted, wrote, read, talked. One day at a cafe, a french couple saw the Bernie sticker on my laptop and asked me, “Do you think he will win?” I said, “Yeah.” The man laughed and said, “Do you want him to win, or do you think he will win?” I was like, sir, engage in an actual conversation or leave me alone, I replied, “I think he will win.” They left me to my plate of fried potatoes and naive sense of hope.
Eight weeks before the CT primary (I was taking no chances), I walked around Ho Chi Minh City with my ballot looking for the embassy. I arrived at the embassy, and they let me in without proper identification–my white, English-speaking, American privilege at work. I walked up to the booth and asked if I could mail my ballot from there. The woman said no, the embassy doesn’t send mail. Duh. She directed me to the international post office. I paid the postage, paid extra for tracking. I needed that ballot to get to On my way home from the post office, I walked by the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. I went in and tried to pray, but it was really busy, so I looked at some of the paintings, took some holy water, and saw my way out. There were a lot of people begging at the doors of the church. There was a gorgeous statue of Mary in front of the cathedral, so I went and stood there for a minute. A young man brought yellow flowers up to the statue, signed the cross, and walked away. A woman went up to the flowers after and adjusted them, tying them to the bottom of the statue. On the ground to the side, sat a man with some goods set out. I sat down opposite him and looked at what he was selling. I picked up a magnet of the church; the paint was a little chipped, and I liked this aspect. I asked how much. I gave him the amount and a little more. We held hands as I handed over a Vietnamese bill amounting to no more than 10 USD. We exchanged names. He had great English, though he had a speech impediment in addition to visible physical disabilities. He pointed to a woman nearby and told me that it was his mother; “She has been affected by Agent Orange,” he said; his physical deformities made sense. “She has had cancer several times.” The woman smiled softly and nodded at me. I asked when he was born. 1966. One year before my mother, and yet he looked ten years older. I told him thank you for the magnet. I put in my earbuds and walked back to my hotel, and all I could think was, “America did that” followed by, “I am American.” That was March of 2016. I was 22.
I wasn’t alive to protest the Vietnam War, but I’m alive today to protest oil wars masked as wars on terror, police brutality masked as self defense, and pipelines masked as job production. I’m watching the world crumble at the greedy hands of neoliberal elites. This is not melodrama. We live in a two party system, and if you support one of the two main parties, great, vote for them. But, don’t forget, we live also in a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist system that strategically cuts down anyone whose deviation from the socially constructed “normal” poses a threat to capitalism. To accept the former reality as True, and use it as a base upon which to make electoral decisions, is to support and perpetuate the latter reality.
Another future is possible. It takes imagination, determination, and courage. Courage to abandon the notion of “good enough,” courage to stand behind your beliefs despite ridicule or harassment, courage to not only swallow your pride, but digest it and accept that you might be wrong, or your plan might not work, courage to start over when you are and it doesn’t. I reject the concept of a “protest” vote. A vote is an opportunity to express one’s hope for a better future, to express support for a candidate who shares your values and speaks your truth. It is for this reason that I am no longer a registered democrat. My vote is my voice. Your vote is your voice. This is October, soon to be November, of 2016. I am 23. I’ll be at the polls in three weeks. Will you?
And for your musical note:
There is a war going on for your mind
If you are thinking you are winning