The major turning point in my short, sixteen-year-old life was the 2020 Wisconsin primary.
Because of a shortage of poll workers, only five of 180 poll sites were open the day of primaries. As a result, Wisconsin residents had to wait for hours to vote, risking their lives during the coronavirus. The Wisconsin government had initially declared that they would be accepting absentee ballots until a week after the election, but it was overruled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which declared–just the day before the election–that all ballots would need to be received by Election Day in order to be counted. This cemented the voter suppression of thousands of Wisconsin residents. For me, this was a wake-up call.
And this call hit home.
I have been doing work for a year with YVote, an initiative of Next Gen Politics focused on youth voter mobilization. On April 7, I felt like my efforts and contributions to my cause were undermined because of a partisan Supreme Court, which goes against the very principles that a Supreme Court should adhere to. It was just so clearly unfair that I was left feeling like I had no idea how America had come to this.
I cried for weeks, frustrated at the lack of power that the people had at the hands of a judicial system that did not care about them. Then I realized it was not just the Supreme Court but the entire government that aimed to suppress the voice of the people. Ultimately, I decided that if the government was not going to give us the political power that we deserved, then we would have to take it ourselves.
To think that a relatively simple injustice–voter suppression–in contrast with the bigger and bolder injustices that our government has perpetrated was my call to action might seem laughable. If the same thing happened today, mere months after, I would not even bat an eye. Lately, the government’s neglect of its citizens has made me almost numb to its violence. I do not have to remind you of the over 138,000 people dead by the coronavirus as of today as a result of our government’s inaction. Nor of the financial ruin of countless American families, including mine. There are so many grievances, each one privately mourned but never publicly righted.
For many Americans, the death of George Floyd was their awakening to action. They scrambled to go to protests, to post on social media, to read, and to educate themselves and others. His murder casts a shadow over everything we do as a nation now, from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July.
So you may wonder, what does the Wisconsin primary have to do with the Black liberation work that I focus on now?
After the primary, I started to pay attention to the news more closely. This soon turned into action. I started a nonprofit called PoliFem to inspire girls and nonbinary femmes to run for office. I attended a town hall to learn about the injustices of the proposed NYC Budget. I signed up to testify in front of the city council as a proponent against the education cuts. The week of George Floyd’s murder, I produced a play for the same cause. That advocacy turned into leading protests for police-free schools for Black and Brown kids and then Black liberation protests.
The injustices that make up racism in America are not just overlapping— they are connected. It was no mistake that my work against voter suppression resulted in a space in the Black liberation movement.
Racist poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and voter roll purges have historically affected Black people the most. The Black women forced to stand in the back of the rallies for women’s suffrage or even worse, excluded entirely, could tell you that voter suppression is a racism issue. Black people are chronically over-incarcerated and felons are chronically disenfranchised who cannot vote; connect the dots. In the Wisconsin primary, it was primarily Black people whose poll sites closed and stopped them from voting.
But why did *I* feel so personally called to get involved and to be on the frontlines for this work? Me, a sixteen-year-old Bengali American who still has a picture of the Korean boy band BTS as her lockscreen?
I think that I feel somehow, on a spiritual level, I have a part to play. If we achieve Black liberation, maybe I will no longer be teased for my dark skin by the Bengali communities. If we stand up against misogynoir, the dual oppression faced by Black women, then maybe Bengali men will take my interest in politics more seriously. That maybe if we defund the police, who too often murder and harass Black people, my dad, a dark-skinned man who works as a taxi driver, will no longer be harassed by police, too. If we can take the steps needed to liberate the most oppressed among us, all of us who experience discrimination will benefit.
It’s painful, connecting all the dots. But we all have to, because every little step counts.
Maybe if my parents were not undocumented for several years, I would not have cared about voting so much. That made me care about the Wisconsin primary, which made me care about the NYC budget. My hope is that many others will see and feel these connections, and rise to the same level of mobilization.
So many times people are lauded for their devotion to one single cause. But why limit ourselves? Our lives are intersectional. Our politics should be too.
And here, I lay out a simple promise of hope. That after every tragedy, after every disenfranchisement, after every murder, there be a rebellion. May it be led by the most beaten down among us, young and old, supported by all of us with skin in the game. If we promise not to accept injustice, we will always be prepared for the next tragedy, whatever it is, and be prepared to put an end to it once and for all.
Meril Mousoom is a sixteen year old who has spent her entire high school career in activism. She is the founder of PoliFem, an organization that inspires high school femmes to run for office and advocates for an end to the school to prison pipeline.
Photo Credit: Julianne Dressner at one of the protests planned by the author