There’s a particularly American, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tendency that views images of people waiting hours to vote as inspiring documents of their commitment to democracy, and not of a blatant act of voter suppression. It’s the same tendency that frames people walking miles to work because they can’t afford to fix their car or raising money for medical bills on GoFundMe as examples of “good news” and not the inherent brokenness of the health care system.
Because of this tendency, it’s heartening to see that a photo of a woman that captures all of the worst things about 2020, about the government, about COVID, and about how hard it is to vote going viral because it calls attention to those problems. Taken by freelance photographer Kathleen Flynn for Reuters, it shows Dana Clark, a Black woman, and her 18-month-old son Mason waiting in a long line to vote early outside of New Orleans City Hall.
“Once I saw the picture posted I thought, ‘This is everything, everything that is going on in America with Black people,’” Clark, the subject of the photo, told Buzzfeed. “It was beautiful, and it shows the compassion of a mother wanting a better life for her child, standing in line to vote, because this is the only option she has left.”
The long line is symptomatic of widespread voter suppression largely enabled by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in a 2013 decision. One gutting statistic is that there are 21,000 fewer polling places this year, part of a coordinated effort to discourage voting, particularly in working-class and minority neighborhoods.
“This is crazy,” Clark said. “It’s a pandemic but the polls are still flooded with people.”
In the photo, Clark is wearing a mask printed with “I can’t breathe,” the last words of several black men killed by police and a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s an apt choice for a mask that’s meant to protect Clark and those around her from a respiratory virus that’s infecting and killing black, Native American, and Hispanic Americans at disproportionately high rates compared to white people in this country.
“The way COVID is affecting the African American community is astonishing and that’s concerning to me,” Clark said. “It’s very alarming.”
To protect herself and her son, Clark is standing inside a clear “safety pod,” a bubble-like enclosure that separates her from the outside world and is big enough to allower her to hold him. She originally purchased it to use when she returns to work as a fifth-grade teacher next week. She decided to wear it to the polls because without an enforced mask mandate and the right, encouraged by the president, railing against mask usage she couldn’t be confident that people would be wearing masks.
Voter suppression, racial injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic: the three horsemen of the 2020 apocalypse, all captured in one vivid photograph.
Thankfully, all of this awfulness did not discourage Clark, who was once denied the chance to vote because her vital documents were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, from exercising her right to the franchise.
“This is one of the crucial elections for my sons,” she said. “We’re so divided right now. We can do better. We should do better, and it starts with voting, which is why I always bring my kids to the polls.”