“This is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet. It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.” – Malcolm X (1964)
Malcolm X and person wearing red, white and blue

There’s a special election coming up this August. The voter registration deadline is Monday, July 10th. Are you registered to vote yet?

If you’re not, it’s totally understandable: discussion of a need for an active and conscientious electorate can be quite insulting when you work more than two jobs to keep a roof over your head and food on the table; it can seem totally irrelevant. It’s also true that many of our elected officials tend to become aloof for all but the most intense portion of their re-election campaigns, so why bother?

Getting out the vote is the reason I entered into community organizing work, which brought me to Columbus over a decade ago. It was 2011, and Gov. John Kasich’s Senate Bill 5 sought to marginalize the collective bargaining powers of public workers.

Those opposed to the legislation saw it for what it was: an attempt to hoodwink the public into gutting worker protections while privatizing public sector jobs. We knew the Right would exploit their base’s resentments against unions. But we fought back and won with one of the largest mobilizations in Ohio history. 

That process was far from perfect. At the time, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin faced a recall election while we were mobilizing voters in Ohio. Walker raised tens-of-millions of dollars from GOP super donors from across the entire country, prompting the national Dems and big labor like the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and others to do the same. As a result, we defeated Senate Bill 5 at the ballot box. Walker survived his recall election, but worse, the traditional Left’s campaign coffers were gutted, paving the way for the Tea Party and GOP to steamroll state legislatures across the country. 

In case you’d forgotten, in  2011 the Tea Party (they’re now calling themselves the Freedom Caucus in the US Congress) had traded their rebel flags and burning crosses for “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and the traditional Stars and Stripes. They also pushed their more racist and bigoted kinfolk into encrypted chats and dark web sites. 

Soon they traded their “Don’t Tread On Me” flags for those bearing the name of a certain internet troll-turned Presidential candidate. They also started wearing obnoxiously bright red hats with messaging that lacked the bite of their forefather’s messaging but carried the same core meaning. 

The internet troll who became a Presidential candidate began inciting and agitating his new followers. They began openly demonizing brown people who’d come here mostly looking for better lives.  

Voter registration and participation had decreased markedly up until President Obama was elected. Our first Black President became the generational symbol of the Right’s ire – a President descended from “shithole countries,” said Trump soon after he assumed office, who used xenophobia and media manipulation to bulldoze his way through the political party that had enabled these racists and bigots for generations to flourish, and beyond our worst nightmare, the internet troll ascended to the most powerful political office in the known world. 

But wait. There’s more! 

While this was all happening, the state legislatures they’d come to control began to impose stricter voting rules hoping to further decrease the people’s ability to civilly and peaceably determine the way we were to be governed. (Despite making multiple references to the Constitution during Democratic administrations, they’d long since proven that the first three words from its preamble – We the People – either didn’t matter or didn’t apply to those whose existence they disapproved of.)

Their representatives currently hold super-majorities in both houses of the Ohio Assembly. They’ve passed legislation, for instance, that removes the duty of a person to first retreat from danger before retaliating. While Stand Your Ground wasn’t directly invoked during the trial of George Zimmerman, the white man in his mid-thirties who gunned down Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida months before President Obama was elected to a second term, the phrase’s inclusion in the judge’s instructions surprised absolutely no one who was listening to court proceedings. Months after the Ohio GOP super-majority passed a Stand-Your Ground law, a 36-year-old white man shot and killed a 13-year-old Black child. After spending a week in jail the white man’s lawyers invoked “Stand Your Ground.”

Krieg Butler is now out on bond awaiting a trial, not for the murder he committed nor the harassment he leveled against the family after his release, but for the improper handling of a firearm and tampering with evidence, which are fourth and third-degree felonies respectively. The magistrate for the case, Judge Jeffrey Brown, like so many nominal Democrats in this city, ran unopposed in the last election. 

“A ballot is like a bullet,” said Minister (Malcolm) X. “You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.”

Due respect to Minister X, but I would take that idea in a slightly different direction: while we’re keeping our ballots in our pocket, the guys with bullets are killing kids and getting away with it.

Our often-feckless national Democratic leadership bobbled their job so badly in 2016 that we’re increasingly living in a country where the racists and bigots get away with murder. Stacey Abrams ran a competitive gubernatorial race against Brian Kemp and lost. Nan Whaley might have run an out-of-touch, milquetoast and totally forgettable campaign in Ohio, but at least as governor she might have had the gumption to veto any number of dangerous, transphobic, pro-gun, anti-rent-control, sexist, and racist legislation Governor DeWine is hesitantly but steadily signing into law.

A court in Georgia did convict the three white men who lynched Ahmaud Arbery. The courts in Minnesota have convicted Derek Chauvin and his accomplices on multiple counts for murdering George Floyd.

Whether the trials of former Franklin County Sheriff Deputy M. Jason Meade or Columbus Division of Police officer Adam Coy end in convictions for the killings, respectively, of Casey Goodson, Jr. and Andre Hill, have yet to be determined. It’s obvious from the diluted series of charges leveled against Butler, though, that the outcomes will be less than the people demand.

One thing is certain: When we’re not using our ballots it makes the bullets going through the bodies of our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters sing all the more loudly and shrilly.

This special election in August would increase the threshold for ballot-driven petitions in the state of Ohio from a simple majority of the electorate to 60%. This will be followed in November with a vote on whether women in this state have the right to choose what to do with their own uteruses. 

The enablers of those racists and bigots are counting on you not to notice.

So: are you registered to vote? 

The bullets are already flying. Remember that the ballot is still there.