Kristian Hammond is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week he contributes a campaign journal documenting his life out on the trail.
"I'll take care of this Babe..."
We live in Chicago. So we get fewer ads, less attention and there isn't a lot for us to do locally. Obama is a done deal here.
But we're next to Indiana. Indiana, where it's not finished, not decided and where our feet on the ground could be useful. So we decided to head to Indiana last Saturday and help out there.
My wife used the Obama campaign's web site to determine which was the best county for us to do volunteer work and let them know we were coming. So Saturday morning, we packed our boys into the car with enticing treats and entertainment to go canvassing.
Our reception at the Lake County Obama office was exciting. They had enthusiasm plus snacks, stickers, and a clear mission for us for the day. It wasn't just a vision; it was a vision driving an an incredibly focused effort.
Orientation was quick but thorough, with a focus on the goal--get information about people who were supporters, help them get registered if needed, and find out what those who were still on the fence needed from the campaign to help them make a decision.
The strongest point was that our job was not to sway McCain supporters. Someone who had strong feelings wasn't going to be convinced by a couple from Chicago with a clipboard and fliers. We were supposed to get our information and just walk away.
Our job was to have impact where it might do some good, not to get into arguments.
The day went great. At some houses, our boys (8 and 11) came with us. At others they stayed in the car. But our goal with regard to them was to make sure that they understood that believing in something means action not just words.
Obama supporters were happy to see us. But we assumed that. Our job was really to thank them, encourage them, count them and then move on.
Undecideds were universally, well, embarrassed. It was as though they felt bad about not knowing at this stage of the game. It quickly became clear to us that a good part of our job was to be supportive of their process, asking whether they needed any help, up to and including registration and early voting assistance. We were parental to the 19 year-old who wasn't sure if she was registered. We talked taxes with an older gentleman who was rightfully confused about whether or not he was going to be hurting more or less after inauguration day. And we promised more information and help to all of them.
Overall, our job for the undecideds was to ask the question, "How can we help you? How can the campaign help you?"
In general, the issue of talking with McCain supporters was moot, in that they had no interest in talking with us. Some were brusque, saying simply "Not interested" or "Go away" and closing the door. A few were shockingly pleasant, smiling and telling us that they were "For the other guy." And then there was tee-shirt guy.
Our list wasn't for every house on every block, only those where there were gaps in the campaign's data. And often we had only one name in a house that clearly had a lot of people living in it. So we often had to ask the person answering the door if we could talk with someone else. That's where we met tee-shirt guy.
Near the end of the day, we hit a house in which we were supposed to talk with a young woman on our list. There were people outside and we were directed to the back yard wandering around a bit until we hit her front door again. There we found her and introduced ourselves.
"H, I'm Kris and this is Robin, we're with the Obama Campaign."
She smiled and that was the last we saw of her. At that point her husband, boy friend, or whatever, placed himself between us, pushed her back and announced, "I'll handle this babe."
We had just met tee-shirt guy.
We call him tee-shirt guy because he had on a tee-shirt with what we learned was his company name in the upper left corner with a chiseled cross behind it. And of course, he wasn't on our list so we had no idea who he was. Unfortunately, the combo-package of the shirt, the dismissive attitude to our actual contact point, and the statement that we were something that had to be "handled" made it hard to think of him as anything but a stereotype.
He quickly commented on the apparent fact that we were not "from around here" and added that he himself had spent some time in Chicago and knew what the city was about. Then he explained to us about Obama and his dealing with Farrakhan, Ayers, Rezco and how we simply don't know enough about the man we were currently working to elect. And that this uncertainty was dangerous.
To his credit, he also talked about small businesses, including the one he worked for and taxes. But this was not as important to him as making sure we heard Muslin, radical, un-American. This was the tone of a man who was certain that he knew what we didn't know. He knew the secret and we needed to be saved by it. He wanted us to become part of the club again, rejoin the fold.
We listened politely for a good five minutes with our eight-year old standing next to us. We did not engage. We did not argue. We did not try to correct.
We didn't explain his gross misunderstanding of Obama's tax plan. We didn't explain that sitting next to someone at a board meeting was different than planning treason together. Or that Obama doesn't have any relationship with Farrakhan.
We did not do any of this for a very clear reason. Tee-shirt guy was not telling us what he believed. His arguments genuinely made no sense. There was no causal connection between the ideas that he was laying out. This is because he wasn't laying out his beliefs. He was simply showing us the camouflage he had in place so that he didn't have to look at his real reasons. And he was giving us license to use that camouflage ourselves.
I am not arguing that this was something tee-shirt guy laboriously thought out. In fact, that camouflage is there so he and so many others don't have to look at their real beliefs. It's there because, although it is straightforwardly racist, recent history has made it almost acceptable in this country to say that you don't trust someone because they are Muslim. So people think that they can say, "I won't vote for him because he is a Muslim" because they know that we simply won't tolerate "I won't vote for him because he is black."
And so I did not push and simply listened because I was standing in the middle of a country lane in Indiana with my wife and our eight year old at my side and didn't want to have him see what it's like when a racist has all of his excuses stripped away and all that's left is his anger.
Once we left, my wife, who is from a small town in southern Virginia asked that we not continue down this particular road to the last three houses on our list saying "It's a little too country." And while I know it's not the 60's and we weren't in Selma, I had to agree.
But next week we're going back without the kids.
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