The Experiences of a Haitian-American Unionist in Trump’s America

Unionist Marie Paule Florestal takes a "selfie" in front of a trailer home with a Confederate flag in the window. These were the kinds of neighborhoods she canvassed before the U.S. election.

I’ve just returned to the New York metropolitan area after working as a Democratic Party campaigner in rural Michigan for the two months leading up to the Nov. 8 election. This is an account of the deep anger, ignorance, and racism I encountered in the American heartland.

Based in New York City, I am a Haitian-American organizer for the northeastern United States with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The union released me to work with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) of Michigan from September to Nov. 9, 2016 as a part of the AFL-CIO’s Working America Coalition, which sought to encourage voters to vote for Democratic Party candidates.

My job was to target specific groups of voters among Democrats, Republicans, and independents and then reach them via phone banks, mailings, and door-to-door canvassing.

Using software that tracked the voting habits and histories of AFL-CIO union members and the general public, we identified voters whom we might encourage to vote for Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as well as candidates for nine seats in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump had attacked minorities, immigrants, Muslims, and the disabled. He called climate change a Chinese “hoax” and said that women who had abortions should be punished. We believed these reactionary positions would give us ammunition to defeat Trump, as well as to push the AFL-CIO’s agenda for more jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, and making government more accountable and transparent.

I was stationed in Battle Creek in southwestern Michigan, where I worked with the Central Labor Councils (CLC) to encourage voters to vote for our Democratic candidate, Jim Haadsma for the Michigan House of Representatives and Hillary Clinton for President. I primarily worked in Calhoun and Muskegon counties in western Michigan.

My first day on the job in September was productive. I was excited by the materials that had been prepared for volunteers to make calls on behalf of their union local. They made member-to-member calls to vote for Haadsma and Hillary. We had a phone bank in Battle Creek making 1,000 calls a day. Although 59 % of the independents were not home, 22% of the numbers were wrong or disconnected, 17% were still undecided, and only 2% said they would vote Democrat all the way, I was encouraged and impressed by the number of volunteers who showed up and made calls for the two candidates. I assumed that as the campaign progressed, I would get more volunteers and union locals to support our work. I had 124, 495 doors to knock on between the time I arrived in Calhoun County and election day.

However, as I tried to recruit volunteers to knock on swing voters’ doors, I received excuses: “I’m too busy” or “I can’t because I’m working a third shift” or “I have to take my kids to soccer practice,” etc.  Since I wasn’t getting volunteers, I reached out to the CLC, asking them to help me recruit members from their locals. Some said they would introduce the request at membership meetings and then vote on it.  Others told me they could not because they needed to focus on their union local races in the upcoming months. Others didn’t even bother to return my calls and emails.

My campaign office was right next to that of the president of a Battle Creek local (BCTGM  3G), but he also couldn’t get his members to commit to doing shifts for me. He made an excuse that his members were too tired to volunteer for phone banking and door knocking. The BCTGM  3G only had five men help me do a phone bank shift for a night. I was pulling teeth to have volunteers to commit to a shift. As a result, I found myself doing three to four shifts a day, knocking on 130-150 doors in a rural part of Michigan, with which I am not familiar.

Through door knocking alone, I met interesting people who spoke highly of Haadsma. “He helped me get disability benefits,” or “My wife was injured at her job, and he was able to help my wife get worker’s compensation,” or “My employer unlawfully fired me, and he helped me get my job back with back pay,” or “He is a nice man unlike his opponent, incumbent state representative, Republican John Bizon.”  Another man said: “I will vote for him because I don’t like how John Bizon keeps cutting social services and trying to privatize everything in Michigan.”  Even though I had never met Haadsma, these accounts motivated me to help him get elected. He ran on a platform that working families struggle to make ends meet, while Lansing politicians give tax breaks to big corporations, thus Michigan’s economy is only working for the wealthy and well-connected.

But as soon as I would mention Hillary, these conversations would go sour. I found myself constantly having to defend her positions on ObamaCare, her emails, and Benghazi.

For example, I knocked on the door of a 69-year-old white man, informing him that Bizon had voted against fixing Michigan’s crumbling bridges and roads which would have created thousands of jobs. Haadsma supports such infrastructure work. The man was angered by the information and said he would not vote for Bizon.

Marie Paule Florestal of the UFT and Walter Christophersen of the IBEW canvassed trailer parks on Nov. 7. They were harassed by Trump supporters and the police.

At the end of my conversation with him I asked, “if the presidential election were to be held today, would you vote for Hillary on top of the ticket?” He started swearing and calling Hillary a “bitch,” saying how much he despised her. I knocked on many dozens of other doors asking the same question about Hillary at the end of the conversation, and the swing voters would always respond with disgust.

I went to the house of another voter, a 39-year-old union member and loyal Democrat. “Trump is a scumbag, almost as bad as Hillary,” he told me. “But I’ll vote for him because I worry about my kids’ future and trillions of dollars in debt. If Trump continues to make these gaffes, I may vote for Gary Johnson,” the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee.

In the small town of Albion, I met a salesman, 72, who called the U.S. system of government “broken”, saying he believes the Justice Department and Obama’s White House “control everything” and that Hillary Clinton should be indicted for illegally taking money.

“I’d like to put them all in jail,” he said.

At another house, I spoke to a 64-year-old woman who said she’d back Trump but didn’t know how she’d vote down ballot, because she’s always been a Democrat. “It’s a hard election,” she said.

Each evening, I reported in phone conferences with AFL-CIO leaders what was happening as I canvassed, things we had to be concerned about. I told them of voters’ deep antipathy towards Hillary, although when pressed, those same voters could not say exactly what she had lied about. They simply repeated the opinions of Fox News commentators. The AFL-CIO leaders advised me to only talk about Haadsma because it was becoming clear people in that area had made up their minds to vote for Trump. Even the independents were close-minded and didn’t want to hear any defense of Hillary and her positions.

One day in Pennfield Township, I spoke to an independent female voter. I had some talking points on the differences between Trump and Clinton. The middle-aged woman exploded, turning red as she vented her anger towards the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton. She said that the U.S. is running trillion dollar deficits and that the Obama administration is ruining our country. Each time I tried to correct and challenge her, she cut me off. I tried to leave her to go knock on another door, but she would not let me go, continuing to express her anger and frustration. She said she opposes gay marriage, gender neutral bathroom polices, abortion, and the slow economic recovery. Furthermore, she said America is changing too quickly, and the Republican Party is moving too slowly to block President Obama’s policies. I wanted to tell her that she had gotten a lot of things wrong but could not get a word in edgewise and ended up practically running away.

At another house in Calhoun County, a 74-year-old man stopped the lawn mower he was riding to ask me why I was knocking on his neighbor’s door. As I turned around to speak to him, I saw an assault weapon on his waist. I was taken aback, and he noticed my reaction. I tried to smile and pretend that it was not shocking to see a man mowing his lawn with an assault weapon. He told me his age and that he was a Korean War veteran. He said he carried the gun because about four miles away there had been some robberies. Looking at his house, I didn’t think there would be much to rob.

I spoke to a 31-year-old woman working at the hotel where I stayed in Battle Creek, asking her thoughts on the presidential election. She did not think a woman should be running for the highest office of the United States because “when women have their menstrual cycle, they can become very emotional.” I did not point out to her Hillary’s age and the unlikelihood she was still menstruating.

Some of Florestal’s co-campaigners at their union headquarters in western Michigan.

She then expanded her hypothesis to conclude that, as women,“we can’t govern because we are too emotional.” Furthermore, as a gun owner and a single mother raising two children, she needs her gun to protect herself and her family and would not vote for Hillary because she would take her gun away from her.

I knocked on the door of another couple. Apparently, because I’m black, they were scared. I smiled and tried to appear non-threatening. However, it took them a few minutes to overcome their fear and actually speak to me.

The first thing the man said was that he would not vote for a Democrat because they would take away his guns. I tried to explain to them that it was not true, but they literally “stuck to their guns.”  Michigan is an open carry state, and many people there believe that the Democrats aim to seize their guns.

In Albion, I knocked on the door of a self-employed electrical engineer. He seemed to be a nice gentleman. He had been working on his car and cut his index finger. He should have gone to the hospital to get stitches, he said, but he had no health care coverage. Therefore, he had simply taken some gauze and taped two fingers together.  Although he had been able to get health coverage under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the premiums kept increasing every year until he had to pay $3,300 annually, which he couldn’t afford. He went on to give me a history of how Battle Creek’s economy was booming in the 1960s. Many people flocked there from the segregated south and other parts of the world, he said,  to work at manufacturing plants which made Kellogg’s cereal, aircraft, auto parts for American-made cars, wines, etc. He said those had been good paying jobs which had allowed his parents to move up the socio-economic ladder. As the sun began to set, I told him that I had to go. He told me to be careful in this county, especially in Battle Creek, because the people can be very racist. He said that I seemed to be a nice woman, and he did not want anything bad to happen to me while knocking on doors.

Since I was not getting much cooperation from the CLC in Calhoun County, my AFL-CIO coordinator decided to move me to Muskegon County, thinking it was more diverse with more union support. I stayed there until Nov. 9.

In Muskegon, the United Auto Workers union (UAW) were more helpful. Every night, we organized phone banks so that retirees could make phone calls. It was productive, but responses were not encouraging. We knew that many of the target groups were Trump supporters. Some were afraid to let us know, but others were brutally honest.

A middle-aged woman in front of a large home told us she’s with “Trump all the way.”

“I just don’t put the signs out because I don’t know how other people are voting,” she said.

I spoke to a 77-year-old grandfather and his wife. They had 11 grandchildren. “We like Trump and fear for the future of our grandchildren,” he said. “There are too many Muslims in the government.” He worried about the introduction of Sharia law…. in the U.S.! They had planned a trip to Italy and Greece but canceled it because of fears over ISIS.

It was clear that Trump’s fear-mongering had a big effect on the psyches of many whites in rural Michigan. Trump had whipped them up with overt racism, bigotry, islamophobia, and xenophobia. We deployed many canvassers to do walk shifts, but unfortunately they couldn’t speak to independents voters because many residents threatened to call the cops on them.

Marie-Paule Florestal was chased from this trailer park where she was canvassing.

Sometimes, the cops would come. After hearing complaints from the residents about black canvassers, the cops would tell the canvassers to leave the neighborhood or be arrested for trespassing, even though they were not in gated private communities. Some canvassers told me that residents would make false complaints about them and sic dogs on them. In contrast, many white canvassers were well received. Blacks told me that for years there had been racial tensions in Muskegon township. I believed them but didn’t understand how bad it was until I went door knocking alone on Sun., Nov. 6, two days before the vote.

At that time, the polls showed Trump closing in Michigan. Our strategy was to visit only registered Democrats and get them out to the polls. That Sunday, I started knocking on doors at noon after people were back from church.

Unfortunately, many people were fed up with canvassers. Planned Parenthood, Working Families in Michigan, and other Democrat-affiliated groups had all made passes and left literature. Also, Trump’s negative TV ads pushed many Democrats to flip.  So when I began knocking on doors that day and introducing myself, many would slam the door in my face or be rude.

Unfortunately, many people were fed up with canvassers.

Around 4:30 p.m., I pulled in the driveway and rang the bell of a 64-year-old white man. “Who the fuck sent your ass here?” he asked. “This is a private road and your ass don’t belong here. You better get your dark ass off my property before I get your ass arrested.”

I was stunned and couldn’t believe this was coming from a registered Democrat. I was alone and didn’t want to argue with him in case he went to get his gun. I immediately walked to my car and backed out of his driveway. I called my zone leader and told him what had just happened to me. We agreed it was best for me to stop door knocking until I had a partner.

On the Monday before the election, Walter Christophersen, a white International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) organizer from Muskegon, and I went door knocking, mostly in trailer parks. Many residents were not home. Those that were said they would not vote for Hillary because she is a liar. Again, they couldn’t pinpoint what exactly she had lied about. Occasionally, a resident told us they would vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Most of them said they liked Trump’s tenacity to challenge the status quo in Washington. They said they are tired of foreigners coming to this country and taking their jobs. I couldn’t convince these registered Democrats to vote for Hillary.

On election day, I began knocking on doors in a trailer park. A middle-aged white man told me to stop knocking on residents’ doors. I told him that I am knocking on their doors to encourage them to vote. He insisted that I stop. I ignored him and continued with the door knocking . He  yelled from 50 yards away that he was calling the cops on me. I told him: “Go ahead, make my day.” He continued to yell, following me and my partner. Less than five minutes later, an older white woman yelled: “Get the fuck off my property,” over and over. My partner swore at her. She made a gesture with her hand and mouth to suggest my partner was gay. I sat in our car’s passenger seat in disbelief.

As I turned around, I saw a police car coming towards us. My partner said to check that my seatbelt was on and that he would do the talking. A female officer pulled alongside us and said to leave the area because a neighbor was complaining that we were soliciting. We explained to the officers that we weren’t soliciting. She told us to leave or she’d arrest us. She also suggested that we check with the local county clerk’s office whether or not we could knock on the doors of registered Democrats in the trailer park. She asked my partner for his name, age, address, and phone number. The older woman who had yelled at us earlier followed us until we exited the trailer park, calling us all kinds of names.

We drove to the clerk’s office, about one mile away. A receptionist there told us that she was not sure about the ordinance in Muskegon but would check with the clerk. She took our information and said she would call us.

 We went to the CIO hall in Muskegon and told our Zone coordinator what had happened. He then contacted the AFL-CIO headquarters in Lansing. An AFL-CIO representative contacted the municipal building and complained about the cop who had told us to leave. Five minutes after the call, we were back knocking on doors in another trailer park.

We went to the doors of registered Democrats and asked them if they had already voted or planned to. Some said they had already voted but wouldn’t tell us for whom.

I asked on older woman in her 50s if she had voted. “It’s none of your damn business who I voted for,” she shot back.

The anger from these working-class white folks was intimidating.

I brushed off the remark and moved on to the next trailer home. A woman across from trailer where I was knocking told me: “Stop fucking knocking on his door. He is sleeping and get the fuck out of here.”

The anger from these working-class white folks was intimidating. Some of the residents were afraid to be seen speaking to us. They constantly looked over their shoulder to see if any of their neighbors were watching. There clearly was a lot of voter intimidation going on in the trailer parks, with exceptional hostility aimed at me, a black woman, or towards anybody identified as a representative of “Working Families in Michigan” or the Democrats. These people were angry with the Democratic Party but often couldn’t articulate the reasons for their anger.

Reflecting on my experiences in Michigan, I clearly see that Trump riled up disenfranchised people, but offered no real solution. The manufacturing jobs he promised on the campaign trail are not coming back to the U.S.. Many of these people lost their jobs due to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) two decades ago. A generation of families would have to be retrained. Higher U.S. wages augur that manufacturers will not to move factories, at least not many, back to Michigan. Even if they did, automation would mean far fewer unskilled jobs.

The poverty in western Michigan was grim. Many people had no teeth. Some were clearly drunks or heroin addicts. Some of the houses I visited were in a scary state of disrepair, even looked abandoned, or were without indoor plumbing. Although I’m from Haiti, I’ve never seen homes in the U.S. like those I saw in rural Michigan. Some of the towns in Calhoun County appeared to be set in another country or century.  The people were terribly poor and despairing. They blame the Democrats, and Washington generally, for their misery.

This explains why, after my two months in Michigan, less than 5% of the people I spoke to face-to-face said they would vote for Democratic candidate Jim Haadsma and only about 1% said they would vote for Hillary Clinton.

Democratic Party leaders sabotaged the electoral bid of Bernie Sanders and embraced the neo-liberal policies which the Clintons personify. That is why Democrats were trounced in the Nov. 8 election nationwide, although we must remember that Hillary Clinton won the U.S. popular vote by over one million votes, thereby denying her opponent any kind of mandate. Furthermore, thousands of minority voters were purged from voter rolls in key swing states.

Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue who has sold the American people yet another scam, just like Trump University. Working-class Democratic voters, particularly those represented by unions, had better wrest leadership of the Democratic Party from the neo-liberal operatives who now control it, or envisage third party alternatives. Either way, I fully expect that Michigan’s poor and working people who voted for Trump will be betrayed by him. This means that we now have a golden opportunity to organize for a truly progressive alternative, like that proposed by Sanders, in the near future.

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