Vote Your Conscience: December 19, 2016
After days of trying to find someone to carpool with (many interested, but few able to take time), I decided to attend alone the Vote Your Conscience rally in Lansing on December 19, 2016. At 2:00 the afternoon of that Monday morning, sixteen Michigan electors from the electoral college would gather from all parts of Michigan in the senate chambers of our stately capitol and cast the ballets that would confirm Mr. Trump as president elect. Why did I plan to give a day of my wild and precious life (the lines of my tattoo) to a cause I knew was futile? The reasons are complex and real. But the first was witness—weak as that may be. I want to understand, to the degree I can in this election of shocks and disappointments, what that electoral college is supposed to do.
I pack my car with road snacks and coffee, and leave Empire in Leelanau County to hit the highway. I make it to Lansing in three plus hours, arriving at the capital shortly after noon. I park and walk to the main steps of the capitol, past a FOX news camera man filming the stunning old-world dome towering over both of us. The camera man ignores me, so busy is he taking pictures of the building that he does not appear to notice even the sign-carrying crowd, gathering rapidly on the main steps. The rally is not large (futile, remember?), maybe 200, though I am among many now joining from the streets. We mill, stamp our feet against the cold. I remember Trump dismissing people who rallied as “professional protesters,” implying of course, that we did it for a living. There is nothing professional about this. This is grassroots, raw, wooly and motley. I look around—who are we?
Many young people have come, college age or twenty-somethings, but a good portion are also of my generation, boomers in their sixties. Not many in between. Which makes sense. The young and the older have flexibility to participate in a mid-day rally—as this must be because the time for the electorates to sign is designated in legality, 2:00 p.m. I look at us, dressed in a pastiche of winter darkness, down and wool coats, big boots, sloppy hats and mittens, most well-worn. I study the younger faces reddened by wind, no hankies, wiping noses on their sleeves. I observe older lined faces, gray hair hooked from under stocking caps by that sharp wind. We are by majority white, but still with representation of black, Latino, and Asian in the mix. The mood is, how do I say this? Steady, dedicated, serious. As it should be.
A lecturn with a standing mic is planted in the middle of the grand stairway, and people take turns speaking their fears for the democracy, their objections to the new Republican administration, their concerns for the LGBTQ community. There is particular alarm about the one cabinet member from Michigan, Betsy Devos, as Secretary of Education. We cheer for the speakers, mostly young, who take the podium: some are clear and bold, some offer unscripted rants. Most of these words reduce to commitment. We must be active in this new time. Amen. I join them, listening and watching. A brisk wind buttresses the wind chill; the temp is in the teens, but people keep joining. We chant over and over, Vote your conscience.
I step near a woman in Carhart jacket and snowmobile pants. She holds a sign, smiles a small welcome, but after nodding, her eyes return to scanning the crowd. She’s tall and can see over the crowd behind us. Suddenly, she focuses, and I can’t help but follow her gaze. Up the sidewalk, a tall, well-groomed man in a black wool dress coat, nice scarf, and dress shoes approaches, trailed by the FOX news guy with the camera. The dress coat man stops at the edge and listens, his head tipped skeptically. The woman in the Carhart jacket leans over and says, “That’s one.”
Maybe it’s the cold that muddies my thinking, “One what?”
“Electors.” She tips her sign toward the man in black, and I notice that he’s still at the edge of the crowd, shaking his head. He was that small smile like a father looking at children who are up to no good, but it can’t be helped. He doesn’t fit here, but is he an elector? Maybe he’s just a professional who works in the capitol.
“How can you tell?” I ask.
“They all dress like that.” She nods toward him.
“They do?” I’m even more skeptical.
“Yup, you watch. He’ll be met at the side door, under the steps.”
And sure enough, after a few minutes, the man skirts the crowd all the way to the right side of the staircase and then, under the shadows of the staircase, a security guard steps out, greets him, and they enter the building. I’m still not quite convinced, but a few minutes later, a similarly dressed man, a bit older, does the same thing. When these people approach, the crowd tends to make room for them, but heightens the chanting. This time, a rally member walks beside this person, not speaking but carrying a sign that claims, “Protect our Democracy. Vote Your Conscience.” The man who may be an elector keeps his eyes straight ahead.
Is his body language defensive? Is he afraid? I remember reading that electors had complained about getting “harassment” mail. The previous week, I had sent a letter to all sixteen electors, and I had also forwarded letters for five working friends who had written letters, but didn’t have the time to address and mail those letters. I had written a reasonable letter, reminding the electors of their constitutional rights, and I had read every one of the other letters I sent for friends. To a one, these were intelligent, heart-felt requests for the electors to rethink their votes. The letters, the ones that I forwarded for my friends, were pleas by conscious voters, not harassment. Of course, I’d read only a half a dozen letters. Had there been those who had not written reasonably? I sighed. Likely.
I go back to studying this crowd, now about 300. And their signs. Yes, this is a time when words mean something, and I want to know which words they’ve chosen to alert the electors—if the electors even read them. One man holds a sign that reads, “60,000 Detroit votes were not counted. Why?” The margin of votes between candidates in Michigan was less than 10,000. Sixty thousand would have held a difference. Another holds one that says, “Since when do the Russians get to pick?” The news has just released new information that the Russians were manipulating the release of emails. Another sign, “Be a hero. Go rogue.” I smile at the defiance pinned on that. Yes, go rogue. But most of the signs say things like “Love trumps Hate” and “Vote Your Conscience.”
After 45 minutes, the speakers wind down.
Then a woman named Jessica takes the mic (she’s been in charge), and announces that we will enter the building now. She’s an organizer, serious and watchful of the crowd. She tells us the signs have to be dropped at the door. She reminds us to keep on chanting but that this is a peaceful demonstration. Slowly, like a pond finding it’s outlet into a stream, we siphon towards the side door under the great stairway, chanting softly all the while. I’ve never come to the capitol in this way. We find ourselves in a long hallway that leads to the center of the building. Our voices change eerily, bouncing more loudly off the marble surfaces. I hear our footsteps under the chants. Up a flight of stairs and suddenly the dome, soaring and majestic, over us. Up another, and a balcony. We fill this balcony, two or three people deep. The dome floats above us, filling the place with winter light. Portraits of previous governors hang on ornate walls behind us, staring at our defiance with placid faces. Our Michigan capitol is balconied, three tiers high. Once the first balcony is full, the crowd spills up one more flight and fills the next balcony. Now inside, the crowd seems larger, and the chants ring out more rhythmically, sound filling the dome, entering us like spirit. We can feel the tenacity, and at last our own union. Ah, this is another reason why I am here.
One of the speakers pounds in time on the balcony railing, filling the dome with the percussion.
We (thump) reject (thum-thump)
the president elect. (thum thump thumthum thumpthump)
I can’t help it. I’m a poet and writer, and believe rhythm in words taps into something past the words, into unspoken meaning. I scan this rhythm, identifying the trochee, the iambs. Do elementary teachers teach children chants in order to teach rhythm, or is rhythm like this innately defiant? The chant shifts.
hate and disrespect.
This chant continues a full ten minutes.
Then a more inflammatory one, Trump, go away. No racists, fascists, KKK. I think we should stay focused on the positive, on the electors, but it doesn’t go on for long before the organizers switch to the one I am here for. Vote with the People. Follow your Heart. This one. The voices fill our ears and ricochet in the crowded air. This chant one goes on for a long time, echoing into the hollow space of the dome. Follow your heart. Are they?
As the minutes pass, a man (and a few woman), dressed again in that very professional manner (did they all agree on black overcoats?), makes his or her way, often escorted, to the high side hallway where the doors to the senate chambers remain open. I find a way to stand a few steps up to the next balcony so I can overlook and study them. They are vetted at the desk outside the senate doors. They exchange words with security people. Some men joke a little with the pretty girls at the desk. Doors are held open for them. The dark overcoats enter and disappear into the chamber.
At one point, a single file of children enters the balcony where we are pounding on the railing in that percussive rhythm. The crowd intuitively softens the chant, the pounding on the railing, but does not stop. The children are led by adults, and the crowd makes way for them. I watch. We do not stop for the children, but we de-escalate. These are children who have been given permission, with tickets, to observe the voting. We ralliers make way for them. In that moment I wonder if everyone of us is thinking what I am thinking. We don’t want to frighten the children, but yes, we do want them to see us, to see democracy in action. This is what citizens do, on both sides of the aisle. It should be an honor and a lesson for children to observe the workings of the government. I hope they remember the chanting as much as they remember the signing. I hope they ask why we are here? I hope someone tells them the truth. I hope it makes them brave when the time comes for them to stand up. But the truth is, they are probably confused. They have probably been told they are seeing an important moment in history. They are. But will they know which part is more important?
Once the kids are tucked into the chambers, focus returns, louder. When another elector enters—and it seems clear now who they are—the chants build. The Carharted woman was right; electors have a kind of uniform, and also… an arrogance? Not humility. Wouldn’t you be humbly honored to do this work for your nation? But now, there is a kind of stuffy authority to each one we spot. And each time, the chants shift, cadence changes, rouse fills the dome. I put my own into it, let the rhythm take over. Will I be heard, or is the attitude of that first gentleman, the one who looked at the crowd in that condescending manner—is this the only attitude that will prevail today?
Once they bend to sign, will they think about us? Probably not. I hold a more moderate wish: that their thoughts will always be accompanied by our muffled voices. That forever, this moment will be accompanied by the muted outcry of a couple hundred voices filtering through the cracks in those marble walls at that very moment when they vote for this president. I raise my decibel level. I want the moment they vote to be accompanied by this muted roar, the sound of those who do not agree.
This is also why I am here.
As the two o’clock hour approaches, some ralliers make their way to the front, and begin to ask to enter the chambers to see the signing. The guards refuse. The ralliers plea, making their case, their voices a higher pitch under our chants. I can’t hear the words exactly, but from my place I can read the body language. At some point, guards straighten, stop listening, and deliberately pull a wide red tape firmly in front of the vetting desks, from one hallway wall to the other, separating us from them. Their space is now closed to us. But behind them, the doors remain open as the last of the electors are allowed to cross the red tape. We build the chant. Minutes pass. Is it when the large vinyl inner doors to the chamber swing closed that the crowd erupts in booing? Yes, fierce dark booing.
The two young men have been leading the chants from opposite sides of the hallway use their big male voices in antiphonal style. Suddenly they are louder, more emphatic.
“Whose house?” One shouts to the crowd.
“Our house.” The other answers and we pick it up.
Call. Whose house? Response. Our house.
The house of the people. I stand in it, exercising my right to assemble, to say to the electors, whether they hear it through closed doors or not, this was their original job. This was why the founders made this process of the electoral college. You were given this responsibility to prevent a mistake.
But I know already, this is not how they see it. They wear a different uniform.
A last elector arrives, a large black man in a black overcoat. He has two canes, and lumbers so slowly up the stairway that I worry he will make it. He stops to breathe and wobbles a little, and I am unable to help myself. I hold my hand a few inches behind his back, just in case. Then he turns to me and says, “Isn’t Trump wonderful?” I stare back. For the first time that day, my voice is silenced. I am having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that a black man would have anything positive to say about Trump. I back away, melt into the crowd. I ask myself if I heard him correctly, but I did.
He is the last. Once that man has entered the chambers, it happens.
The larger doors, not the vinyl ones but the real ones, the ornate wooden ones, with the fighting harts embossed on them, swing closed and catch. Something like a gasp, an intake, a breath held for a brief second, then huge booing sweeps through the halls and up the dome.
The chant bursts out, “Let us in. Let us in.”
A bearded man along the side raises his arm, and shouts Seig Hiel three times, and makes the gesture of the Nazi’s. When this happens, the young man leading the chants says just loud enough for those closest to him to hear, those who have been responding, carrying the crowd, “Don’t let that catch on.”
And in fact, a couple of people hiss at the bearded man. We know what we’re about, and it’s not that.
How much later do I overhear another older woman behind me say, “Watch out for that guy. He’s infiltrating.” I look at the woman and she is staring at a burly, short-cropped blonde guy in a football jersey. I follow her gaze. Her friend, the man who has been leading chants, says, “Some alts are here. Be careful.”
Of what? And the electors were afraid?
But in the end, it doesn’t stop anyone.
“Let us in. Let us in.” Our voices are quieter, perhaps tired. Looking at the closed doors, I am tired too. It is so final. Finally, one floor below us, a third round of boos carries up, and the gray-haired woman says softly, “They must be done.” What happens then is a heartfelt cliché. The old song, “We shall overcome” rises in the air, our voices for the first time joining in that slow melody, not the percussive rhythm of vocal chants. We sing one verse, slow and sad and thin. The end is soft and off key. And just like that, people zip their coats, pull mittens and caps out of pockets, and start drift away. We disperse peacefully. As I walk out, I watch people pick up the signs they left at the door. We are quiet, but we have done what we said we would do. We have requested a change; we have been rejected. We have protested and witnessed. We have done our work.