Upset with elected officials after COVID-19 halted her business, woman registers people to vote

Upset with elected officials after COVID-19 halted her business, woman registers people to vote

Cassandra Wilson holds up a voter registration form and voter registration drive flyer in downtown Clarksdale days before her first drive.

CLARKSDALE — Frustrated by the response of elected officials after the pandemic slowed her business, Cassandra Wilson has used her down time for something she’d never done before: registering Delta residents to vote.

Wilson, the 35-year-old mother of three whose taxi and tourism business went from more than 50 rides a week before the pandemic to zero, was not qualified to receive COVID-19 relief funds.

She blamed the lack of federal, state and local government leadership to ensure the financial security for people in the Mississippi Delta, where the pandemic has heightened economic and health disparities.

“I felt like a lot of little people kind of got left out the loop,” Wilson said. “If you didn’t fall on the right end of the spectrum, you lost your house, you lost everything because of these big people who could not relate to everyday, average working people who were born into poverty. There are households around here with two full-time, 40-hour working people who are barely able to stay above water.”

She wanted to change how politicians’ decisions affected her life and those around her. So with the challenge of prohibitive voting laws and a deadly pandemic, she initiated the first step: registering people to vote.

In June, Wilson set up a tent and a table on a Clarksdale street with voter registration packets, snacks, pens, masks, and sanitizers laid across the tables. Whether residents walked up to register or drove through, each individual received masks and sanitizer. With her taxi business at a halt, she decided to drop registration packets off to others who could not attend the drive due to work, she said.

She took off from work at her other full-time job, sacrificing income to work on these voter registrations drives. With help from her 13-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece, the trio has helped 20 people register to vote so far across three Delta towns: Lula, Friars Point and Clarksdale.

Wilson’s goal is to get 200 people registered ahead of the Oct. 5 registration deadline.

One challenge Wilson has experienced is a lack of education around government and the voting process prevents people from voting.

“I think this young lady was maybe like 22 years old and she asked me, ‘What is voting? Who do you vote for?’ and I love that,” Wilson said of a registrant at one of her drives. “(I said), ‘This is how you vote, this is why you vote’ … We have a lot of that in the Delta.”

More than 23,000 people reside in Coahoma County, which has about 15,000 eligible voters. But voter turnout has remained fairly low. For example, in the March primaries, only 23% of eligible voters cast a vote, according to data from the Circuit Clerk’s office.

Ray Sykes, chair of the Coahoma County Democratic Party, said he’s heard “no one is coming out” to the polls because community members fear going grocery shopping, church and gathering in large groups.

Despite this, he expects a record turnout, but he said it falls on the local leaders to get folks out.

“Elected officials have a duty to push the turnout,” Sykes said. “Pastors have a duty to get the public involved.”

Some Delta-based political leaders expressed more concern with getting people to the polls rather than voter registration, especially now during a pandemic.

“Everyone wants to press voter registration … which is great. I’m not knocking it. The real problem is getting people out to vote,” said David Rushing, chair of the Sunflower County Democratic Party. “We’re under-resourced, and the state is under-resourced.”

But Mississippi doesn’t make it easy for people to vote.

The state has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation, and is one of only six states which has not taken action to make voting safer during the pandemic. For instance, Mississippians must provide an excuse in order to vote early.

In July, Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill into law stating people could only vote early during the pandemic for two reasons: if they are under a physician-imposed quarantine or providing care for a dependent under quarantine.

“It’s not the intent (of the legislation) to make it harder to vote,” Senate Elections Chair Jennifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, told Mississippi Today.

Currently, two lawsuits have been filed against state officials challenging Mississippi’s absentee voting requirements.

To register to vote, an individual must be 18 or older, a resident of Mississippi, and cannot be convicted of disenfranchising crimes. On Election Day, voters must present a Mississippi voter ID, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Pam Shaw, a longtime Democratic political strategist and president of P3 Strategies, said it should be incumbent on circuit clerks and county supervisors to create innovative and safer ways to do voting. She suggested creating curbside voting and expanding voting hours in the weeks prior to the election.

“You do it in a way that does not compromise staff of the clerk’s office and the people who come,” Shaw said. “If you say, five days before, or two weeks before, it gives them time. … It gets rid of all of the people who may be hesitant and eases the burden you’re going to have on Election Day.”

But by taking matters into her own hands — battling a public health crisis, small town politics and what many call modern-day voter suppression — Wilson said she hopes that her small efforts will make an impact during the upcoming election, even if just one person goes to the polls because of her work.

“I just want to see a better Clarksdale, want people to do better, especially African Americans,” Wilson said. “We don’t know how this election is going to go in November, but I can tell you one thing — it’s going to be very difficult for us to go to the polls the way we used to.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

What you should know about Black birders

What you should know about Black birders

For Black birdwatchers, the outdoors is a relaxing space but not one free from racism and discrimination. (Shutterstock)

Birdwatching is open to all. Unless you are Black.

This is the message Christian Cooper received as he was birding in New York City’s Central Park back in June. When Cooper asked a white woman to obey the posted signs regarding off-leash dogs, she called the police, claiming that her life was being threatened by an African American man. Christian Cooper filmed the encounter, which his sister posted online. It went viral, resulting in the woman being fired from her job.

There are different ways of looking at the encounter in the park.

Birding is one of the most popular nature-based activities in Canada. About a quarter of adults spend time watching, feeding or photographing birds. Birding is widespread as it is cheap and can be done close to home. It appeals to both women and men. Birdwatching is a charming way to teach children about nature.

Birdwatching is also a racialized hobby, where whiteness and white privilege work together to keep it non-Black. What this means is that the birders are white, may belong to white birding clubs and go on birding walks in woodsy areas which are seen as white spaces. If they are lucky, they may encounter a Black birder once every decade.

I am a Black birdwatcher, and I am also a researcher whose work focuses on how race shapes conservation, environmentalism and outdoor recreation. These fields are overwhelmingly white and noted for their lack of diversity.

Rules for Black birders

Ornithologist Drew Lanham has written nine rules for Black birders, including: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” In a recent update, he added: “Roadrunners don’t get gunned down for jogging through neighbourhoods, do they?” These pieces of advice refer to Trayvon Martin, a Black Florida teen killed while wearing a hoodie, and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man from Georgia slain while running.

Racism in birdwatching is not a new phenomenon. The founder of modern bird conservation, John James Audubon, is rightly praised for his splendid books Birds of America. However, slavery paid for his birding activities: Audubon was born in Haiti and was the heir to a sugar plantation.

On his arrival to the United States in 1803, he remained connected to slavery by buying and selling enslaved people. In fact, Audubon painted birds on a visit to Canada in 1833, the same year that slavery was abolished in Canada and the rest of the British Empire.

Audubon’s Birds of America is a celebrated series of books cataloguing the continent’s birds. But its author, John James Audubon, was a direct beneficiary and participant in the slave trade. (John James Audubon)

Ornithology, or the study of birds, was also hatched as colonial discipline. The quest to find and classify the birds of the world flew wing by wing with the spread of European empires and colonialism. White birders are credited with discoveries, while the local people who taught them, guided them and prepared their scientific specimens are erased from the studies.

In the past, birds were hunted for food and for their feathers. Watching birds for pleasure took off in the early 1800s, as a counter to industrialization and brutish life in the cities. Early birding clubs were formed by and for white people. Modern birding and bird eco-tourism are still dominated by this demographic.

Black faces in the white outdoors

I spend a lots of time in parks and conservation areas (which are, in turn, on Indigenous land), either hiking, cycling or looking for birds to add my life list.

In Black Faces, White Spaces, geographer Carolyn Finney traces how the legacies of slavery warp African American experiences in outdoors recreation. Their visits to national parks are tainted by everyday racism and fears of racial violence; Black people are made to feel unwelcome, and treated as if they are intruders on what is supposedly public space.

In geography, the racialization of space and the spatialization of race describes how Black people are expected to be penned in urban areas paved with concrete, and not in parks and free to enjoy nature. Nature is thus coded as a white space and Black people who venture there are seen as out of place. The same phenomenon occurs in Canada where wilderness and whiteness go together in our land of the Great White North.

The lack of role models is another obstacle to Black people’s participation in birdwatching. In one study, two-thirds of African Americans had never met a birdwatcher. People are less likely to try a new hobby if they don’t see someone like themselves doing so.

In response, Black outdoor activists and enthusiasts have established #BlackBirdersWeek as a social media celebration. According to a statement from former U.S. president Barack Obama, it should not be the new normal, where Black people are harassed in public spaces by white people or the police, including birdwatching in a park.

I got into birding by looking out the window. I saw a flash of crimson and dashed out to check it. I thought the poor bird was spray-painted bright red, as a prank by graffiti artists working on a nearby mural. Then, I spotted another pair of crimson wings. The cardinals sparked my love of birding. I hold on to this moment, this memory of joy, when I think of other Black people’s brush with colour and birdwatching.The Conversation

Jacqueline L. Scott, PhD Student, Social Justice Education, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.