This week I signed up with the Sacramento Poor People's Campaign and Sacramento County Democrats to drop off door hangers around the city.
I did this for a couple reasons:
1. I am SO SICK OF STAYING INSIDE
2. One of the most effective ways to reach voters is to engage them directly
3. I wanted to do what I can so that Measure A does not pass in Sacramento.
4. I wanted to make a Politics for People video explaining that campaign work isn't that scary.
I picked up my literature and headed to South Sacramento and my assigned precinct. While I was walking around I ran into all of the normal things you do when canvassing, wrong addresses, gated houses, gated houses with angry dogs, and gated houses with angry dogs and threatening signs.
You know, the usual.
Toward the end of my list I was walking through Meridian Family Apartments near Elder Creek Rd dropping off fliers on doorsteps. It was the middle of the day and I was surprised not to see anyone outside until I turned a corner and two men in a minivan called out to me.
"Hey man, come over here!" (Nope. I've seen this movie.)
"I see you out here with your phone and people are getting nervous. We have kids out here man, what are you doing?"
I guess I had stuck out. Solo white guy walking through a neighborhood in a mask, t-shirt, and shorts going door to door with my phone out. Upon reflection, he had a point.
I walked toward the van and the voice. A large man with white hair and a sneaking hairline reclined in the driver seat, his hand hanging out the window, smoke curling off the blunt between his fingertips. His passenger looked over at me through the windshield, equally curious but not as direct. The driver continued.
"You know man, from where you are standing right now, murder has happened within 35 feet. I watched a prostitute crawl into my driveway before she bled out. People are nervous here. They're jumpy. YOU gotta watch out!"
He reached out the window, thrusting his business card at me.
"This is who I am, who are YOU?"
I looked down and saw his name and written beneath it his title, "paralegal." I stepped back from the car and pulled my mask down to deescalate the situation. I wanted him to see my face to know I had nothing to hide.
I explained who I was, a campaign volunteer passing out information on Measure A, Measure C, and Naila Pope-Hardon for School Board. I told them that I had been a former history teacher and was trying to help people in our community understand government better.
He visibly relaxed. It was clear he had been testing me, looking out for his neighborhood. I had passed - so far.
He introduced himself as Waymon and pointed to his passenger, "this is Arthur." I returned the pleasantries while keeping to the sidewalk, maintaining my distance for COVID and in case the situation changed. Waymon was right, I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood alone. I reminded myself to be more thoughtful about my surroundings.
The two of them explained that they were both former prisoners, having spent more time in prison than I had been alive. We spoke for a few minutes about their experiences on the inside. They asked me about myself and I explained my background. That the only times I had been in a prison had been on formal visits as a congressional staffer - a far cry from calling one home. Something registered in Waymon's eyes when I mentioned congress.
"We need streetlights," he blurted out. "And that system that goes on top of it that can tell the difference between gunshots and fireworks."
"And speed bumps!" Arthur leaned over from the passenger seat. "I'm tired of seeing animals get killed. We've got kids around here, that could be them!"
I realized I may have given off the wrong impression. I don't sit on the City Council, I couldn't shift the funding for the "ShotSpotter" program to their neighborhood.
Waymon and Art didn't care. I was in front of them and listening.
"Can you help us?"
Without promising results, I said I'd try and asked them to help me brainstorm ideas while we walked through the rest of the neighborhood to the last few houses I had to get to. Art and I set off through the complex looking for the last few numbers on my list.
This time around with Art by my side, I got to meet the neighborhood. It gradually became clear that though I had been oblivious to it, I had been watched since the moment I walked on property. Now, with the social proof of my chaperone Art, I was a celebrity and everyone wanted to find out about the white guy with the pamphlets.
Two cars pulled up, slung low on altered suspension and oversized rims and the passengers popped out to say hello. Art leaned his head back and declared "We're running for Congress!"
(30 minutes ago I was a threat, now I was being drafted into public service?)
A few houses turned into a stop at Waymon's house for a 0.0% beer and a conversation in the driveway about criminal justice reform. I was introduced to OG, who told me about his brother, still serving time. He told me the story of meeting his brother for the first time in decades, through the visitation window after he had left prison himself.
I realized, I was getting the pitch and readied myself to explain that I had no power, no ability to pluck someone out of prison, innocent or otherwise. Its the same one I've had to deliver to the families of prisoners a handful of times since I started working in politics and it doesn't get any easier.
OG handed me his phone, he wasn't about to miss his chance. On it was a picture of an elderly man in a poorly fitting inmate uniform. "He's been in there since he was 17 man."
I asked how old he was now.
I felt disappointed in myself and looked at the ground. I couldn't do anything. I felt powerless to offer any semblance of help. Regardless of what he had been convicted of doing, I couldn't imagine being held to account for a mistake I made at 17 for the rest of my life.
"Would you mind if I write to him?" It felt like a pitiful attempt at something, but it was all I could think of.
OG looked up at me with a wounded smile and a little bit of optimism for the first time since I met him.
"Yeah, I think he'd like that."
So now I've got speed bumps to research, a letter to write, and three new numbers in my phone for the next time I am out canvassing in the neighborhood.
I'm going back to walk next week in Sacramento on October 24 at 10AM. If you would like to join me, please send me an email at jimmy at gocatuli.com or DM on Instagram (@j.frem).
If you would like to get involved in your community, please feel free to reach out and I would be happy to help point you in the right direction.