It was 1972, only the second time I'd voted in a presidential election. I was working full time and had two small children. My sister agreed to watch the little ones while I went to our nearby fire station voting location, and I, in turn, would watch my niece and nephew while she and her husband voted. We three adults had the idealism and fire of young, active citizens even though many of our political heroes had been murdered during the previous decade.
I didn't put a McGovern sticker on my car. I was an American citizen and afraid to speak freely. In the teachers' lounge, all I heard was vitriol against Democrats. Not just vitriol, words with undertones of violence. I didn't fear for my life, but I did worry about my car—the health of its paint job, the buoyancy of its tires. I didn't worry about my job, but I did worry about fitting in with my colleagues, most of whom were either the spouters of the veiled threats or more interested in family life than politics.
Waiting in one of the lines that spiraled out of the open fire truck bays and onto the paved driveway, I began to hear the violent language again. I was an American citizen and afraid to speak freely because my words didn't have a bullet at the end of them. One pronouncement in the language of a voting line stood out. It came from the citizen standing just behind me.
"If McGovern gets elected, I have a high-powered rifle waiting for him."
Lots of laughs. That was a good one. Then the laughter and good old American citizen fun continued until we reached the bay entrance where poll watchers, unarmed, must have intimidated the happy voters into more civil behaviors.
I had by then shrank. I felt small, a coward. I had said nothing. I marked my ballot with fear, afraid that I would be found out, a possible target for that high-powered rifle. Later, I told my sister and brother-in-law to be careful what they said in the voting line, that they might be taking their lives into their own hands if their speech was unacceptable to those for whom power at the voting booth involved weapons, not just the power of the vote itself.
Today, in America, I still hear the same rhetoric. I come across people who marvel at my courage for putting an Obama sticker on my car, for attending rallies in support of progressive causes. They say they are afraid to in their neighborhoods. Twice at one rally, cars, possibly unintentionally, veered very near the sidewalk on which I and my fellows assembled to peacefully protest what we consider gross inequities in concentrations of wealth and power. The old fear from the memory of voting at that fire station briefly returns. But that was almost 40 years ago. Surely, I tell myself, I can speak freely as an American, citizen of the world's oldest democracy, birthplace of freedom. But an involuntary reflex causes me to jump back from the curb, knowing a car can be an even more deadly weapon than a high-powered rifle.
How powerful are words! Memory of words spoken at an election so many years ago are so much a part of me that, still, my reflexes recognize fellow citizens as lethal threats against my right to peacefully assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances. But I've learned that the world over, even here in America, freedom is not free. Constant vigilance is required to keep the forces of repression and violence at bay. My side has seldom won, the country moving ever farther and farther to the place where violent rhetoric is tolerated, yet I'm still queuing up to vote, still sure that voting is one small way, as Robert Kennedy said in Indianapolis after Martin Luther King's assassination, to "make gentle the life of this world."
Causes Yuma Michaels Supports
NDRC, Southern Poverty Law Center, Greenpeace