'Ay! Ay! Register to vote!': On the corner with community organizer Perry Hopkins

'Ay! Ay! Register to vote!': On the corner with community organizer Perry Hopkins
Credit: Kenneth Stone Breckenridge

The roar of traffic and a strong breeze bombard everybody who traverses the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues on a sunny Monday afternoon in late March. Perry Hopkins, a field organizer for the low income advocacy group Communities United, is sitting at a long table with pens, clipboards with voter registration applications, and a pile of miniature bags of M&M's and Skittles sitting atop it.

For many who aren't hardened by Baltimore street life, Hopkins' in-your-face prod for new voters may be intimidating. He is loud with a heavy voice as he engages bystanders.


"Ay! Ay! Register to vote! If you on the sidewalk, register to vote! Trump is comin'! Trump is comin'!" Hopkins yells, focusing on a group of men casually blocking the outpouring of passengers on a bus.

In just one week, Communities United, joined by a coalition of low income and ex-offender advocates, including the NAACP, registered 500 new voters—half of them were ex-offenders.

"I go on a rampage, man," Hopkins says. "You gotta build a relationship with the people in the community. You see how I talk to 'em? I'm one of them. They see me around the corner in Gilmor [Homes] every day!"

Clad in a baby blue Communities United t-shirt, Hopkins encourages nearly every pedestrian holding tight to their hat or portables on this windy day to vote, but he has a particular interest in the sizable population of ex-offenders in Baltimore. He is an ex-offender himself, with 19 years in Maryland's prison system.

"You got 20,000 people out here that been paying taxes but ain't got no voice...who've been legally discriminated against for years," Hopkins says.

Earlier this year, 40,000 ex-offenders gained the right to vote after the Maryland General Assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of that extended voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole. Maryland jointed 13 other states allowing voting for ex-offenders after finishing their term of incarceration.

"We can and will decide this election," Hopkin says with a wide-eyed expression of gravity. "[The experience of ex-offenders] is out of sight, out of mind. That's been the public mentality, except in the lower income and impoverished neighborhoods, where those are the people who are generally and in the majority of getting locked up."

Hopkins says the days of political apathy toward ex-offenders is over.

"This is big, dude, keep taking us lightly," he warns those candidates who won't take these new voters seriously.

Mayoral candidates are going to have to answer for the poor state of the ex-offender experience during a Communities United forum on April 13,  from 6-9 p.m., at the Douglas Memorial Community Church.

"Mosby, Embry and Stokes are committed. We have a verbal commitment from Pugh and we are seeking Dixon's commitment," Hopkins says. "Our forum is planned on the day before early voting for those who may not be registered and appear. We're givin' those candidates a forum to serve that community."

At the end of this day in West Baltimore, Hopkins says nearly 50 new voters have signed up, about half of them are ex-offenders.

There are still two major challenges to registering the ex-offenders, he says: trust and political education.

"There are major trust issues," Hopkins says. "Ex-offenders don't want to put their information on a form that's going to be fed into somebody's computer."


Registering can conjure a feeling of being a part of the system, he says, and "they don't want to be found."

"They [also] don't understand that the number of registered voters determines how much money is dispersed into any community," he says. "They don't realize the reason they don't have rec centers is because the community can't afford them based on the money that's being given! They have tried and had faith and always turned out disappointed with no result. There's a lot of hope that's been killed here."

He thinks a combination of recent events have awakened a cautious optimism in the community.

"With the passing of Freddie Gray, the change of the mayor, the debacle in housing...poor people are getting involved because they now realize there is a window of opportunity. Change is about to happen and they want to be a part of that change."

Halfway through the discussion, a short older black woman with a head of gray approaches Hopkins carrying reusable grocery bags walk toward the table. Hopkins speaks over the roar of the traffic and groups of people talking nearby.

"You registered baby?"

"I sure am." The woman answers

"Alright now!"

"When did you register last?"

"Last year."

"Are you sure?"

"Baby, I'm positive."

"I love you, hear?