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Union group runs voter registration drive in West Baltimore

Joe Cox and David Otoo, knock on doors in the Mondawmin neighborhood to register residents to vote.
Joe Cox and David Otoo, knock on doors in the Mondawmin neighborhood to register residents to vote. (Carrie Wells, Baltimore Sun)

Joe Cox and David Otoo knocked on doors up and down Windsor Avenue and canvassed the football fields of Frederick Douglass High School on Saturday, hoping to register citizens to vote at a time when community activists say West Baltimore's residents need a larger voice in their government.

As it turned out, most of those who they spoke to said they were already registered, and the challenge for some would be persuading them to vote. In the parking lot of Frederick Douglass, while parents and grandparents of football uniform-clad teenagers rushed around, one woman on a cellphone hollered back at Cox and Otoo's question of whether she was registered to vote.

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"Yeah, I don't vote though," she responded.

The voter drive was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in response to the civil unrest in late April and early May after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody. The organizers targeted the neighborhoods of West Baltimore, where Gray was arrested. AFSCME Maryland has done voter registration efforts before, but the unrest "put it into hyperdrive," said Patrick Moran, president of the union group.

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"Not only are our members demanding that we do things differently in the city, but the community is demanding that we do things differently," Moran said.

The voter registration drive was one of many recent efforts to help those in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested, and the surrounding areas. Various community groups have brought donations of food, drinks and household items to West Baltimore residents and helped them obtain prescriptions after local pharmacies were looted, among other efforts.

On Saturday, the ASFSCME members had more luck elsewhere, registering 22 new voters. One of them was 18-year-old Brandi Womack, who was set to graduate from Carver Vocational-Technical High on Sunday.

Womack, whose mother, Dishawn Smith, was one of the 27 AFSCME volunteers, said some of her friends are interested in voting, while others are less so.

"If I let them know that I had registered, maybe they could make a change with their voice, too," Womack said.

Smith, who said she had been registered to vote since she was a teenager, added: "I think Brandi wants to see a change within the youth. They feel like they have no outlet."

Catherine Frazier, a 64-year-old AFSCME member, said she could remember a time when there were more recreation opportunities for children and when people brought chairs to wait in line to vote. "I've seen those lines decline over the years," she said.

Young people are more enthusiastic, she said, but those between the ages of 30 and 40, "they've taken on the attitude that it's not going to change anything. We need to let everyone know that you're still important. One vote is all it takes. It's very important that we get out and talk to residents about how it's not a hopeless situation."

Back on the street in the Mondawmin neighborhood, Cox and Otoo found a family hanging out on a porch. The residents were either already registered or visiting from New York, but seemed receptive. Before they left, Cox and Otoo left the family with a placard to hang in their window. "We are the community, we are the solution," it read.

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