“May I speak with Corbin, please?’ I said in my best “Not your neighborhood” smile.
A middle-aged white woman came to the door, dressed in a salmon-colored workout top and pants. She had the confused look of a woman used to leaving her front door open and nobody knocking.
“There’s no Corbin here,” she said.
“Gotcha, thanks,” I said with my best dual-consciousness smile, double-checked the address and then went back to my car, in the sweltering heat, wondering how the heck I used to do this for a living. It was 90 zillion degrees.
This was Dunwoody, an Atlanta suburb located in the southern tip of Georgia’s 6th District, and I was there looking for Corbin Spencer, the field director for the New Georgia Project. The Georgia 6th special election Tuesday has become a proxy election for every organization, party and political leader on the right and the left as each side seeks to both downplay and prop up the significance of the election.
However, instead of following Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff’s campaign or even Republican candidate Karen Handel, I decided to follow the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan “get out the vote” organization, to see how this race looked from the ground. What I discovered is that suburban Atlanta looks and operates a lot like America in general, with all of the intrinsic problems that come with it.
I was eventually greeted at my car by Corbin Spencer and Rodney, a canvasser, and we three African-American men began walking through the sprawling neighborhood of Dunwoody, talking about what it was like to be a part of the most important early election of the Trump era.
Spencer made it clear from the beginning that NGP had no partisan leaning in the race, that its goal was to turn out as many voters as possible and, in particular, to target minorities, young people and single women. Mind you, in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp has made voter suppression and intimidation his modus operandi, simply having the audacity to sign up people to vote and getting them to the polls puts the New Georgia Project squarely in the “left-wing resistance” column by default.
Everyone in Georgia’s 6th District knows that the nation’s eyes are on them. The airwaves in Atlanta are bombarded with ads for Ossoff and Handel, and the candidates’ every action is magnified by national cable networks, then regurgitated back to the local news.
Since it’s America, the grotesque racial dynamics of American politics are on full display as well; the pro-Donald Trump PAC Great American Alliance has been running ads on the popular Michael Baisden radio show telling blacks to “sit this race out,” even using audio from President Barack Obama suggesting that voting for Democrats is “plantation politics.”
The classic Republican campaign stunt of using a black-sounding voice to confuse or suppress the black vote is a sign of just how seriously the GOP is taking this race. Unlike special elections in Kansas and Montana this year, the Georgia 6th is 13 percent African American and 12 percent Latino voters, and Hillary Clinton lost the district 48 to 47 percent to Trump last November.
Combine the district’s demographics with Trump’s cratering poll numbers, and a Democratic victory has moved from total impossibility to just within the realm of not totally crazy. The fact that the race is national, even in the eyes of local voters, is also something that has both parties on edge.
“Most people really want to talk about health care or police brutality,” says Rodney, an experienced campaigner who hails from Boston. Rodney is exactly what you’d expect an election canvasser in Atlanta to look like: a tall, lanky black man with stylish, short locs, various artistic bracelets on each wrist and a T-shirt covered in buttons promoting various forms of voter engagement.
“No one can really tell me why they’re voting for either of them [Handel or Ossoff]. But people are worried about their health care, they don’t know what Congress is doing, and a lot of people want change; they really want to see change in Washington,” he said.
“Do you think people here really care about police brutality, or is that just because you’re a tall black guy who’s encouraging them to vote?” I asked.
“Nah, I’ve seen the change,” Rodney said. “People bring this and health care up the most. They’re visibly upset about it. Especially with [Philandro] Castile last weekend? A lot of people are coming right out to say they’re voting Ossoff.”
As we rounded a corner, a group of Ossoff canvassers, maybe in their late teens or early 20s, were driving from door to door. I asked them how long they’d seen Karen Handel’s campaign or other groups in the area.
“Everyone is out here,” said a young white girl in the backseat. “People are literally sick of it; they know how important this election is.” She paused for a moment to recall everyone in the area. “Planned Parenthood, Ossoff campaign, everyone. Most people aren’t coordinated with each other. I don’t see a lot of Karen Handel people, though.”
As we started to turn back for our lunch break, I asked Spencer what the reception was like for canvassers. While you don’t get the sense that local voters are hostile, you can’t ever be surprised by suburban racial politics. Ossoff’s canvassers happened to be a hipster-looking white guy and girl, and a black girl who looked as if she’d just graduated from high school. Despite having just moved from Atlanta a few months ago, I was hypercognizant of how three black men, as opposed to that group, might be perceived in the area.
“Well, it’s been pretty good,” Spencer said. “I mean, a couple of people got yelled at. I’ve gotten calls threatening our canvassers at the office. Two groups of canvassers have had people throw things at them, but other than that, it’s been OK.”
It’s telling that having American citizens throw objects at someone just for asking if they plan to vote, not who they’re voting for, is considered normal. Then again, I knew where we were. As we walked to the corner back to where our cars were parked, there were two police cars there. The cops, two 30-something white guys, were prowling around my rental car and had stopped the Ossoff canvassers and were questioning them.
“Are you with them?” they asked me.
“No, I’m a journalist following the New Georgia Project,” I explained. “Those folks are working for Ossoff. They’re just canvassing the neighborhood.”
Then, as if on cue, I heard the sentence that every single black person in America has heard dozens of times in life, the sentence that means you have about a 50-50 chance of having a really bad day, or just suffering through annoyance and indignity.
“There’s been some robberies in the area. ... And the lady at the house said that people were walking around the neighborhood,” one of the officers said.
I didn’t need to hear the rest. Obviously, the lady in the workout clothes whose door I had knocked on looking for Spencer had called the police on me, him and Rodney. Even though she knew full and well that there were canvassers walking through the area.
The police, doing their duty to acquiesce to the racial fears of suburban white women, were pulling over random cars searching for us, based on some ambiguous “robberies” in the area. Nonexistent robberies, I might add, since I checked. Fortunately, a mixture of police boredom and good luck allowed me to talk my way back to my car and head home, but not before being reminded of the sobering reality of the Georgia 6th election and what was at stake.
African Americans engaging in our constitutional right to participate in politics are still considered a threat in this country, whether from conservative forces, or random people in Anywheresville America. Let’s be honest—I have no idea who that woman was voting for or how Tuesday will play out, but I do know this: When faced with that kind of naked racism and aggression, one of the few resources we have is the ability (often under duress) to get ourselves to a polling station and vote.
No matter what happens with Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, my only hope is that black voters’ voices are heard at the polls, if for no other reason than to fight back against everyone, local and national, who wants to keep us silent.