I was in the room when the Knoxville City Council broke the tie between District 4 candidates Amelia Parker and Harry Tindell. The district’s top vote-getter in the primary was Lauren Rider; the tie was for second place. City Council members voted unanimously in favor of Tindell, whose name was then placed on the ballot alongside Rider’s for the upcoming City Council election. I should not have been surprised, but I was, and have since been thinking about the many ways to characterize what happened. A missed opportunity. An injustice. Safe. Prudent. Understandable. Obvious. Unimaginative. Unrecognized privilege.
Parker is one of two candidates still in the running who come from the 2017 City Council Movement, established last spring with goals that include electing people who “adequately represent the needs of all residents, including racially diverse and economically challenged communities who have been traditionally underserved.” The other candidate is Seema Singh Perez, who is running in District 3 against James Corcoran. That’s an easy call in favor of Singh Perez since it is my humble opinion that Corcoran cares less for the issues facing Knoxville than he does for bolstering his own political career. The nod to Parker is harder, first for the simple reason that she’s not on the ballot—voters will have to write her name in. Second, both of her opponents would make decent City Council members and I’d be happy enough with either one, except these days I’m mindful of whose voices are never heard, whose concerns are not on the table, whose interests are subverted for other goals, and whether we should critically reflect on the ways we “allow” people into power.
Rider and Tindell have worked through channels that have traditionally been considered appropriate for the City Council. Parker has used her law degree and human rights training to work in the community on civil rights and anti-racism issues but she is considered inexperienced. Also ill-mannered. Evidently she has been deemed disqualified for public office because of past angry outbursts in front of the very City Council on which she hopes to serve.
I’ve thought about those outbursts. I’ve thought about how many times I could go unheard—how many times the people I love could be ignored and disrespected—before I would lose my cool. Would that invalidate my voice? I hear talk about wanting to see more women and people of color in leadership roles; what does that mean if they are penalized for not playing the game right?
I identify as a progressive, but I’m no purist. Never will I forget conversations during the 2006 Harold Ford/Bob Corker Senate race with so-called progressives who abstained from voting because Ford wasn’t “liberal enough.” Corker won by only 3 percent of the vote. I wonder how many vulnerable people suffering under subsequent Republican stinginess and malfeasance are thanking them for their purity.
I happen to believe in politics, not in spite of compromise, but because of it—in a true democracy, if your “side” wins every time, then mechanisms are in place for the other “side” to win every time. I believe progressives can stick to their principles, work for justice, and still be smart and strategic. If a write-in vote for Parker risked sticking us with the likes of a Corker or a Martin Daniel or a Marsha Blackburn or a Donald Trump, then I would say it’s not worth it. But the worst that can happen is we get Rider or Tindell, both capable of listening to the hundreds of Parker’s primary voters who had never voted before because they do not believe government cares about them.
They are right. It doesn’t. But it could.
Parker, Singh Perez, and the 2017 City Council Movement want to alleviate poverty and end racism. Too much, too hard, too pie in the sky?
It’s easy to feel frustrated when people ask questions with no immediate solutions, but there are building blocks like restorative justice in schools, or truly fair housing practices, or participatory budgeting. Without ambitious goals to reach for, we risk doing things the way we’ve always done them, which means leaving a lot of people out, writing off actual human beings whose voices are so successfully silenced we hardly know they’re there.
I wouldn’t be writing this column if not for the way the tie between Parker and Tindell was broken. I would be supporting Lauren Rider. And chances are Parker would not even be running her write-in campaign. But City Council members gave the ballot to Tindell, unanimously, with no explanation, no justification, no regard for the message they were sending. Regardless of their intent, the message to Parker was loud and clear: You do not belong here. And when they dismissed Parker, they dismissed her voters, who have been dismissed for too long.
We should acknowledge that dismantling institutional racism is not easy. We are talking about making difficult choices, changing comfortable assumptions, and endorsing painful changes that can’t always come from good and well-intentioned white people doing the right thing. In light of ongoing policing decisions, why waste an opportunity to place a representative of Black Lives Matter on that ballot?
Similarly, we should not waste the opportunity to elect Gwen McKenzie to represent her community in District 6. The principals of fairness and equal representation are worth standing up for.
I love how our city is being developed. I love the restaurants, the bars, the breweries, the condos, the parks, the shops, the sidewalks, the greenways, the bike trails. I believe we can become a city that values both development and the dignity of all our citizens, but not if we don’t act with intention and courage.
Of course, first we have to vote. Some 90 percent of the city’s eligible voters did not bother in August’s primary. WAKE UP people! VOTE! Election day is Nov. 7. Early voting runs through Nov. 2. I can’t vote in this one because I live outside the city limits, but if I could, I’d write Amelia Parker in.
Additional thoughts (10/24/17):
As an addendum to my column, “Write Her In: Amelia Parker for City Council,” I wish to clarify: There are important differences between 4th District candidates Lauren Rider and Harry Tindell. Rider has been working on behalf of her community for years. Her views on issues such as fair housing, economic development, and community policing align more closely with mine. She’s done her homework, knows her stuff, and won the majority of votes in the 4th District Primary. I believe she has a broader vision and the capacity to listen to, give voice, and work harder for her entire community than Tindell has demonstrated, and in an ordinary election she would have my support. If the goal is to elect Lauren Rider to the City Council, then voters should absolutely chose her. Anyone writing in Amelia Parker should know they risk eroding votes from Rider.
But if the goal is to work toward dismantling the systems of power that have entrenched institutional racism and white supremacy, then voters should consider writing in Parker. This race should have been between Rider and Parker in the first place. I believe current City Council members made a mistake when they gave the ballot to Tindell, failing to recognize Parker’s work in bringing new voters, new voices, and new perspectives into the election. Her write-in campaign is a courageous and crucial answer to an unnecessary injustice.
For too long, communities of color have been told “not now, not yet, wait your turn.” Citizens can petition and march in the streets, but a critically important expression of political power comes in the voting booth. It is interesting to me that so few people appeared to take Parker or the 2017 City Council Movement seriously until they became a political threat. Changing centuries of racial inequality will be messy, difficult, and unpopular, but when opportunities arise to further that goal, I believe we should take them. No matter who wins on Nov. 7, Parker’s voters will constitute a political movement that cannot be ignored. That is why, if I could vote in the City Council election, I would write in Amelia Parker.
I should also add that my opinions do not reflect the opinions of the Knoxville Mercury nor does my column signal an endorsement of Parker by the Mercury staff. I am a political columnist, grateful for the opportunity the Mercury offers to writers like me.
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