Wendy Caldwell-Liddell is in a race against time, all the time.
She is racing to wrap up her job as a grant-writing consultant. She is racing to get her 10-year-old son logged in to start remote learning at home since a case of coronavirus shut down his school.
She is racing to drive her two-year-old daughter over to grandma’s house for daycare.
But now on top of that, three times a week, 29-year-old Caldwell-Liddell is racing to get Detroit voters, especially the black community, to, in her words, “wake up.”
Four years after Donald Trump became the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988, Caldwell-Liddell is working as a one-woman canvassing machine in downtown Detroit to prevent it from happening again, fighting against what she says is an apathy within the community toward politics.
Trump’s Michigan victory was one of the biggest surprises of 2016. He won the state by just 10,704 votes. Wayne County, which includes Detroit, the largest Black-majority city in the country, was critical to that result.
Hillary Clinton still won the county by a large margin — but she received about 76,000 fewer votes than President Barack Obama did in 2012.
While Caldwell-Liddell is motivated and focused on preventing Trump’s re-election, she also says, “the Democratic Party has not done a good job at all in taking care of communities like ours.” And it’s she clear she struggles with that burden.
“(Democrats) take us for granted because they know that Black women are going to help them get the big wins they need, where it matters. But they also know that they can give us the bare minimum, knowing that we aren’t going to choose the other side,” she said. “
“It says we still got a long way to go when the backbone of the country is the most neglected piece of the country,” she said.
She isn’t coordinating with any campaign, but she is pounding the pavement at bus stops and outside convenience stores to try to make sure Detroiters are registered to vote and are going to vote.
Many of them are disillusioned by the systemic racism they see within their city, the President’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that has hit minority communities hardest and the economic inequality that has persisted for decades in Detroit and is only made worse by the pandemic.
“I know for a fact that if just a portion of the folks who sat home in 2016 made it to the polls, had someone to empower them to do it, that could have changed the outcome for Michigan,” Caldwell-Liddell said.
“On countless days when I go out and canvass, I will go up and talk to someone and they’ll say, ‘Listen, lady, I know that what you’re saying is probably right. I know that you just want me to get out and vote.
“But I’m sorry. I’ve got gotta feed my kids. I don’t even have time to listen to what you’re saying,'” she said.
“That’s a part of why I started doing this work with Mobilize Detroit…because at this point, this is our survival now. What happens politically is a part of our survival. And there’s no escaping that.”
Fighting against apathy
Amber Davis, 29, is one of those people who sat out the 2016 election after supporting Obama in 2012.
“I didn’t like Trump and I didn’t like Hillary,” Davis said. “I didn’t really care who won that election.”
Davis, a part-time massage therapist and full-time student pursuing a career in IT, says she cares now. She’s voting for Biden, even though she says she doesn’t really like him either.
“If I get Trump out of office by voting for Biden, then so be it,” she said. Davis adds it is the President’s handling of the pandemic that clinched her vote this time. “This coronavirus and everything that’s going on, it is horrible. So he got to go.”
She says she is disillusioned by politics in general because she says no matter which party wins the White House, her life doesn’t get any easier.
“We feel like our votes don’t matter. We feel like it’s just a waste of time,” Davis said.
Caldwell-Liddell knows what it is like to not have time for politics, especially presidential politics. In just the past year, she says her family was forced out of a home they had rented for the past four years. Then the next home had plumbing issues and instead of fixing it, the landlord simply just had the water shutoff, requiring Caldwell-Liddell to take them to court to get anything fixed. In the midst of all of this, she lost her pregnancy.
“I ended up having a stillbirth at seven months pregnant, living in a house with no water in a city that did not care to take care of me,” she said. “And things like that are allowed to happen because when folks like me are too worried about surviving to pay attention to what’s happening down at City Hall.”
She is now turning that apathy into action.
“I know that as a voter and as a Black woman, that there is a job that I have to do in order to get a representative who will come close to protecting my people in office. But I’m not necessarily excited about having another representative there who really does not inherently understand the needs of our community.”
Caldwell-Liddell is voting for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, spending free time that she doesn’t have trying to get others in Detroit to vote for him, but she’s not excited about it. This election for her is more a vote against Trump.
“I don’t really have many feelings towards Joe Biden one way or the other,” she says. “Kamala (Harris) makes me feel a lot better than Joe, to be honest with you.”
She says getting Trump out of office means life or death for her community. “Donald Trump is a president that does not care about people that look like me, about people like me, in any shape or form.”
Sitting out any election is something 63-year-old Markita Blanchard simply does not understand.
“I’ve always voted straight down the street,” she says while sitting in her backyard filled with the plants and flowers she shows off with pride. “There is no justifiable excuse not to.”
“People died for that right for us to have the opportunity to vote,” she added.
Like Caldwell-Liddell, Blanchard has also lived in Detroit her whole life. She and her three brothers still live in the house they grew up in, now all taking care of their 93-year-old mother.
Blanchard works as a janitor at a local public school. While she describes her childhood in the westside of Detroit as a “fairytale,” she describes life today as a struggle.
“We’re not exactly living paycheck to paycheck. I consider myself living paycheck and a half to paycheck,” she said.
The main street in her neighborhood looks nothing like how Blanchard describes it from her childhood. A “ghost town” now sits where grocery stores, dry cleaners, Black-owned gas stations and a movie theatre once stood. This economic collapse is one reason Blanchard is voting for Biden. She says she’s with him “100%,” reserving more colorful language to describe Trump.
“He’s full of s***. I’m saying he has done nothing,” Blanchard says with an apology. “It’s like we’re living in a sitcom and it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.”
“I’ve had people say, well, he’s not my President. I didn’t vote,” Blanchard recalls with visible anger. “I say, if you did not vote, you did vote for him.”
Impact of coronavirus and police shootings
One critical pursuit of the Biden campaign in Michigan is to turn out those voters who didn’t vote in 2016. But the Trump campaign is also taking steps to court those same people, including setting up an office just down the road from the Democratic Party’s on Detroit’s West side, covered with signs declaring “Black Voices for Trump.”
“I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen it ever, ever before,” said President Pro Tempore of the Detroit City Council Mary Sheffield.
“What that tells me is the importance of not only Michigan but Detroit in the black vote, the importance of the black vote…because both parties need us.”
Sheffield says she is worried about what she senses is still a lack of enthusiasm this late in the game among Democrats in Detroit. She thinks the coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame.
“Joe Biden is not really the most exciting person. And I think, unfortunately, in light of COVID, we lost that personal touch with him that a lot of communities need to get them excited and to get them engaged,” Sheffield said.
The coronavirus has disproportionally hit Black communities across the country, and Detroit is no exception. African Americans have made up 62.2% of the more than 14,000 confirmed cases in Detroit and 82.9% of the deaths.
While coronavirus may have hurt grassroot engagement for the campaigns, Sheffield says a different issue is sure to motivate Black voters.
“What we saw with George Floyd did spark a reaction in so many people and I think that’s going to help also increase some of the voter turnout that we see in Detroit,” she said.
Federal action in the police killing of Breonna Taylor is the one thing Davis says could actually swing her vote and convince her to vote for Trump.
“He could get Breonna Taylor’s killers arrested, that’s what he could do,” she said. “I would definitely vote for Trump.”
Taylor’s death also weighs heavily on Wendy Caldwell-Liddell.
“When you’re black in America, you know racism is alive and well,” she says when asked about it.
She pauses, looks off, and shifts in her chair.
“Now I have to battle with that on top of the thoughts of when I send my son into the world,” she said.
“And now it’s when me and my daughter are at home asleep, minding our business. Now, I’ve got to think about that, too.”
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