New York City has done something which some will consider wrong but which according to my understanding of what’s good is a step in the right direction. It has given some 800,000 non citizens the right to vote in local elections. It only applies to green card holders and those holding work permits and the first election where it would apply is in January 2023. It goes without saying it is a debated law and some including experts say they do not know if New York City’s city council has the right to pass a law affecting voting rights. Still, it remains that in a democracy people are to have a voice in their fate, and voting is how we do it. Non-citizens live in the community, and pay taxes, they are involved and it seems only fair they ought to have a voice in the affairs of their city. There’s also the issue of inclusiveness. To my understanding humanity has to learn to be increasingly inclusive as a means to reach unity millennia from now. And this would be a small step. New York city is the largest city to pass such a law, towns in Vermont and Maryland already allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections and non-citizens can vote in school board elections in San Francisco. It’s worth noting that several other towns in Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts are planning to allow non-citizens to vote. Needless to say it is controversial and some states like Colorado and Arizona have already passed laws preventing non-citizens from voting. It will continue to be controversial and as it does it is bound to foster discussion—perhaps a discussion that will deepen our understanding of what inclusivity means. That I believe would be very helpful to better understand how democracy works.
The situation between Belarus and Poland is a complicated one, and the conditions of migrants from Belarus trying to enter the EU via Poland is even more so. Yet this complex political chess game forms the background for what I want to share, an example of human courage and solidarity. In this case one where poles are risking their lives to help the migrants. The article in The Guardian used fake names to protect them. Jakub, 38 has helped and hidden about 200 migrants. Others have too. They do not compare it to the Holocaust, but are aware of the parallels and inspired by the fact that many poles hid Jewish children. Jakub’s uncle was among those, so to him doing what he does is personal. The Polish authorities could arrest them because helping migrants is illegal. Regardless, people like Jakub roam the woods looking for signs of life such as discarded nappies or huts made from tree branches, bringing water, food, the offer of shelter. It’s dangerous for the migrants too. If caught they are sent back to the sub- zero temperature forest. They are all courageous, and show us that courage is not only for heroes.
We have come to have this negative picture of human nature, and of course we are all flawed. Still, because this picture is reinforced by so many films, computer games, cartoons and the like, we forget the other side, our better angels or whatever terms anyone wants to use. But it is that other side that helps us go forward, so when I encounter it I want to highlight it. That’s why what Jakub and those like him are doing in Poland is worth knowing about. They remind us that humans are more than their down side.
What is it like to be the daughter of an imprisoned international figure, in this case someone who opposed Vladimir Putin? How does one cope? What kind of strength must one develop? I read about Daria Navalnaya, the 21-year-old daughter of Alexei Navalny in an interview she gave the German magazine Der Spiegel and these questions kept coming up for me . As we know Navalny is serving a prison sentence for having criticized and stood up to Putin, not an ordinary adversary. Since 2019 Daria has been studying psychology at Stanford University in California. Recently she traveled to Strasbourg in France to appear before the European parliament to give a speech on behalf of her father and receive its prestigious human rights award, The Sakharov Prize. In the interview she talks about corresponding with her father, asking for his advice about the speech she was giving, visiting him in prison and seeing him look pale and weaker. She also talks about the fears she’s always had for him and growing up ending up seeing everyone as a spy. For some this would be paralyzing, for her it isn’t. She sounds focused and determined. We all have our issues and problems, even serious ones, but few of us are confronted with this kind of challenge. Many I’m sure have had experiences that helps them relate to Navalnaya. I for one had a sister who lived 17 years as a total paraplegic . every time I stand up under a hot shower I remember she couldn’t. Daria had to learn to delve into herself for strengths most of us do not require. I suspect she had to do that just to survive. Doesn’t matter how she did it or what strength she developed, she did it and in doing it she reminds us of how strong human beings can be in the face of big challenges.
Juan Haines and Kevin Sawyer are both incarcerated journalists who wrote for The Guardian about a simulated election at San Quentin prison in California. In cooperation with Solitary Watch, a non-profit which aims at documenting and advocating against solitary confinement, they helped with this mock election. Solitary Watch sent 1600 ballots to the prison by Express mail. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR, never delivered them. So they improvised and some 150 ballots were handmade and passed out and later 170 more were smuggled in with the explanation that since CDCR had not delivered the sent ballots, they had to improvise. Although there were some votes for Trump, Biden won. The ballots had a place for them to say why they were voting and why they voted for their candidate. What comes across, which is why I wanted to write about this, is that inmates are no different from ordinary people. They want to vote, want a voice in their elected officials, want to be good citizens, wan to participate. “ I want to be heard” one man wrote on the back of his makeshift ballot. Another wrote, “I’d like to feel like a citizen; feel like I am important too”. In California as in many other states people in prison and on parole cannot vote and they are still disenfranchised when they finish their sentence. The U.S. has the largest proportion of its citizens in prison, and as a whole the prison population is greater than just about any American city. Of course as the authors noted, they didn’t have to worry about violence at the polls or even social distancing, but still they were very aware that their vote would not count. Most inmates will eventually be released and be part of the society. I’m among those who believe allowing them to vote would help create a sense of belonging, of engagement with their communities and we would all benefit.