My confession today is a big one, a really big one. It is this. Yesterday I participated in a mass movement, a mass march, a mass demonstration in the exercise of our freedom, in the exercise of my freedom in this country. It was a slow march, excruciatingly slow at times, which would explain why it took me three and a half hours to complete.
I was surprised just to find myself in the situation I found myself in yesterday. I have been home since mid March. I am a non essential worker so my services were no longer required and further I was required to stay home. Everything was closed anyway, so there was no reason to go out. Except for a couple of food runs a month, I was not out at all.
My interpersonal interactions have all been on zoom except for outdoor, very socially distanced conversations with neighbors or fellow walkers. But I have not been anywhere where there has been a large crowd, or even a small crowd for that matter. Places are starting to open but the number of people allowed into any particular place is regulated to keep the number of people low.
The Verizon store where I went today is a good example of this. Only three individuals are allowed in the whole store at one time. That would be the employee and two customers max. Anyone else must wait outside. (appropriately socially distanced of course)
So you can imagine how overwhelming my experience of yesterday must have been for me, dear readers. After two and a half months of not being around even small groups of living, breathing human beings, I felt I had entered the world I have been watching on my TV screen this past week – but not.
Let me try to explain what I mean. People were everywhere I looked. The lines were long and not seeming to move much, so the lines continued to grow longer behind me as the afternoon wore on into evening. It was a beautiful, warm summer afternoon and I was grateful for the breeze. I also had my umbrella up to shield me from the sun. (a few others also had umbrellas out for this purpose so I didn’t feel myself to be the only weirdo)
The crowd seemed to contain the entire spectrum of humanity. From the old to the young, every age group was represented, every color of skin could be seen. People from every socio-economic group were there, people from every religious persuasion, (or none) people of every political bent, people from every walk and way of life were represented by those of us who waited patiently in those long, winding lines. And wait we did!
We waited in the hot sun, we waited through a brief rain shower, (umbrellas came in handy then) we waited through more hot sun, all the while seeking shade whenever possible, and still we waited.
There were some uniformed men on the scene making their way up and down the lines of people, I watched them approach, then gladly received the bottle of water they were offering to each of us. Not what I had seen on TV at all. I breathed a sigh of relief.
And still we waited in the very long line, a line growing longer behind us by the minute. People were on their phones or talking with the people nearest them. Some had come as a family, there were young children there in the line, learning early what the exercise of freedom looks like in this country. I hope it is a lesson they remember and carry with them into adulthood.
It was a quiet gathering, it was a peaceful scene. People would call out in greeting as someone they knew walked past, glad to see a familiar face I guess. Cars would pull in and out of the parking lot as people left and more people came to take their place. People would sit on the curb when the wait got to be too much, or a few had brought a lawn chair. And so we waited.
I begin to marvel at the patience of the people that surrounded me as one hour turned into two and the line ahead of us was long and didn’t seem to be moving all that much. Still, there were no deserters. Everyone hung in and held their place in the ever lengthening line.
My TV screen had been full of loud, angry people seemingly running rampant and roughshod over everyone, including each other. Here there seemed to be a good-natured, supportive comaraderie developing between people as they continued to wait in the heat. We seemed to be encouraging each other to “hang in there” just a while longer. I was able to share my umbrella with a stranger for a few brief moments during the summer shower. Little moments of care can go such a long way in trying circumstances.
Peace continued to prevail into the third hour of our wait and still no deserters, just a constant stream of new arrivals. What would be so important that we would all wait patiently in these long lines? Yesterday was election day. Our opportunity to exercise our right to vote is what kept each of us there. We were part of a mass march to the polls, however slow our pace.
I have voted at this particular place for the past twenty years. I had not anticipated this experience because in the past there had never been a line, the huge school gym easily accommodated the spacing of necessary booths etc. and I encountered very few people during my voting experience because I was in and out so quickly.
I have never had a voting experience like this one in my entire life. I am grateful not to have missed this opportunity to really take note of and appreciate freedom and democracy in action as if for the first time. I had plenty of time for reflection and plenty of time for thought as I waited in those long lines. The lesson was not lost on me. Ironically, this experience was brought to me courtesy of COVID-19.
Because of COVID restrictions, most of the polling places were closed. Only a small fraction of the polling places were open. This was to achieve COVID prevention and protection goals of limiting the number of people that can be in any given place together, allowing room for social distancing to be practiced while they are together and keeping the time short in which people are out of their homes and with other people. (essential business only)
Well, as you already know we ended up with a very large number of people, together for a very long time, with not enough space to properly social distance because of the large crowd. None of the COVID prevention objectives were met. Let the irony of that one sink in. With all the polls open as in the past, the numbers would have been small at each place, making it easy to practice social distancing, and wait times, if any, would have been minimal.
But I digress. I am well into my third hour and the line ahead of me looms longer than ever it seems. A lady aways behind me in line appears fatigued and her husband summons help from the medics that have been present for the duration. Those around her urge her to move all the way up to the front of the line (which we cannot see from where we are, but we know it must exist) and her husband helps her along in that direction with everyone nodding agreement. Not one person raised a voice or a fist of protest against her moving up so that she could cast her vote before becoming too ill to do so. It was all encouragement and support.
I overheard a mother telling her son, “you will be able to do this in twelve years.” What an example she is setting for her son! He will remember this long afternoon long after he is grown, I am sure.
Thankfully, this was not the America I had seen on my TV screen. The America I found myself in for three and a half hours yesterday, was the America people had envisioned when they gave their lives so that we could have the privilege of standing in line to cast our votes.
Certainly, the least we could do was to stay the course and cast our votes. And so we waited. I would hear cheers up ahead as voters exited the poll after having finally accomplished their goal. Eventually, I would accomplish my goal, too.
I passed a very long line of people still waiting as I left the building and headed to my car. I wanted to encourage these strangers but had no words. They didn’t need them, they were already determined to exercise their right to cast a vote.
Given the events of the past week, I would have thought a polling place would be a place easily given over to argument and dissension. Certainly many of these people were out of work or maybe had lost a loved one during this pandemic. Many were probably carrying extra heavy burdens from the pandemic and from the protests. Still, they came, they stood, they waited, they voted.
Yet the peaceful, supportive, purposeful atmosphere that prevailed at the poll, was America at its best on display for anyone to see. There were no camera crews at our poll, too bad. The message of hope, that we still believe in our country enough to show up, stand in line for hours, and let our vote speak for us would be a welcome encouragement to others.
Hopefully, the protesters took time out of their busy protest schedules to show up at the polls and cast their vote. The polls are the place where every citizen can have their voice heard. Rich and famous or poor and unknown, our voices are heard equally at the ballot box. Everybody gets one vote.
I am glad I showed up to vote. I saw firsthand how much people value their right to vote in person on election day. The fact that people weren’t leaving but staying, standing in the heat for hours, was proof of their determination to be heard. I am proud to be one of those that persevered at the poll.
I pray for peace in the days ahead. I pray for us to truly be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
sincerely, Grace Day