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Monday, October 6, 2008

Knock Knock

"Hi, my name's Janette. I'm with the Barack Obama campaign, we're going around this morning to make sure everybody is registered to vote."

I said that line 64 times yesterday. My canvassing partner and I spent the morning and early afternoon walking through a 4-by-4 block neighborhood in South Philly, knocking on doors of people whom the campaign had identified as undecided or 'sporadic' voters. Our job was to, firstly, ensure that those people we met were registered to vote, and secondly, to ask how they intended to vote. Nearly everyone was registered - unsurprising, as our list came from voter registration records. And, even better, those who chose to share their voting intent with us largely answered that they supported Senator Obama.

That wasn't always the result, though. Before we set out, I told my partner that while I often traveled through the neighborhood to which we were assigned, I couldn't begin to guess at the ethnic makeup of it. As it turned out, the makeup was, as far as we saw, entirely white, and Italian / Irish. I admit to being surprised at that. This is a big city, and I can't imagine that so large an area could be so homogenous. Did the whiteness shown by our list reflect the true balance of the neighborhood? Did it show a huge disparity in the racial makeup of voter registrations? I don't know the answer, but the reactions to our visit from a couple of households may provide a clue.

Early in the day, we knocked on the door of a house, and a teenage boy answered. I introduced myself, told him what I was doing, and asked if his parents were home. He called upstairs to his father, who came down the stairs to meet me. "Who is it?", he called. "Obama!", answered his son. "Obama? Nobama! Nobama!", I heard from the staircase. "We're not buying!", the father, a 50-something man in a white sleeveless T-shirt, shouted as he came into view. "You're doing this in an Italian neighborhood? Get outta here! Nobama!". I did as he asked, and moved to the next building down where my partner was, while the man stood at his door and continued to shout at me.

My second telling experience came towards the very end of the day, at the fifth-from-last house on my list. Again, I knocked, and introduced myself through the screen door, this time to an elderly woman. She told me that they were registered, but not voting for Obama. I said 'Thank you', and marked that down on my clipboard. As I was writing, I heard a heavily Italian-accented man's voice from inside ask "Who's that?" The woman at the door answered that I was with the Obama campaign, and the man began screaming at me. I honestly couldn't understand most of what he was yelling, but as he repeated specific things, I was able to figure them out. "Have you no shame? Have you no shame?" was the first thing that I caught. "That bastard motherfucker!" was the second. I said "Goodbye." and walked away.

Now, I've obviously picked the two most extreme examples of people's reactions to us. Those two anecdotes were counterbalanced by some very positive ones - "Hey, I'm Local 98, bro!", "I'm on board!" "Signed, sealed, delivered!", "I'm definitely voting for him", - positive, enthusiastic responses. And yet, the good feeling I got from those who were on our side somehow doesn't come close to erasing the shame and dismay I felt at the overt, agressive racism hurled at us by that vocal minority.

What will certainly help dispel those negative feelings, however, will be an Obama victory in November. And toward that end, I'll be going back out and knocking on as many doors and talking to as many people as possible between now and then. If that means I get shouted at by a few more sad old men, so be it. In the course of his career and his campaign, Barack Obama has certainly been subjected to far worse, and shown nothing but grace, elegance, and perseverance. My hope is that his example will take hold in the houses in South Philly and across America where fear and ignorance now rule, and we can truly become, once again, the greatest country in the world.

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