The sharpest political mind in southeastern Michigan belongs to a 15-year-old girl named Sadia. She’s not old enough to vote, nor is she a citizen—and neither are her parents. Plus she’s superbusy. She’s got school, and then because, birth order-wise, she sits somewhere in the middle of a gaggle of kids, some of whom have kids of their own, she spends a great deal of time caring for infant nieces and nephews, as she would if she hadn’t left Bangladesh for the Banglatown neighborhood of Detroit at the age of eight.
Her entire family—most of the neighborhood, in fact—has been neatly excised from the entire democratic process. Many don’t pursue citizenship because even in these particularly trying times for immigrants they don’t see much benefit to it. Banglatown—so named for its majority-Bengali population—is a community engaged on every level with the health and happiness of its residents. Yet the neighborhood maintains a deep and abiding political disaffection. Sadia’s distinction is her keen awareness of the exact conditions of the disaffection that plagues her neighborhood.
She’s not aware, however (and she’ll be angry when she finds out): Sadia is the reason I left my idyllic little Banglatown urban farm, right across the street from her house, to take this job. I went back to visit a few days ago, and we grabbed a couple of minutes together. She updated me on her school—her language instructor makes inappropriate sexual comments in class, and her math teacher got mad the other day when Sadia rolled her eyes at an unexpected homework assignment. Her school, like many of the other public schools in Detroit, recently discovered lead in the drinking fountain water, so Sadia began the semester with a school-issued bottle of water. The distribution system for water bottles isn’t holding up, though, so now everyone has to drink out of those weird paper cones. Sadia is not a fan.
She asked me how the job is going and I told her it was going great. “I wish we had a newspaper like that here,” she said.
Then she jumped to neighborhood news. “Did you know that just the next block over a man was shot in the face?” she asked. “And then a couple of days later a girl down [on her street] was attacked and nearly raped. A Bengali girl!”
I had pored over Detroit papers every day since I left, but had seen no mention of the news. “Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sadia said solemnly. “She was coming in from her car [when she got attacked] and screamed. Luckily her mother heard her.”
“You know,” she added, “the police don’t come when you call them. Sometimes they come two hours later. Sometimes they don’t come at all.”
“And no one does anything about it!” she cried, throwing her hands up in the air in frustration. “It’s like no one cares about us.”
“That’s why people here don’t vote,” she said finally. “It doesn’t do any good. Nothing ever changes. No one listens to us.”
She’s right. During the 2016 presidential election, which in my district was the first election the majority of voters at my polling place had ever participated in, our votes were simply discarded. The lines were long that day because the city had understaffed translators for the Bengali, Yemeni, and Arabic languages the new voters spoke. And each of the voters, the vast majority of whom were women, also needed to be taught the process of voting. (Apparently it’s quite different in Bangladesh.)
So we had a good hour together at the polling place, my new-at-the-time Banglatown neighbors and I. We had pretty much planned out the Hillary Clinton Victory Party by the end of it, testing the limits of the range of vocabulary we shared to plan festivities. The celebration would be halal; I was one of the only non-Muslims in the room.
Our party plans dissipated as election results rolled in. Then it became clear that there had been discrepancies between paper and machine ballots throughout Michigan. Some of those discrepancies were never resolved. The ballots from my polling place were discounted. This news, as far as I could tell, was never translated into Bengali, and thus it’s not clear whether my neighbors ever got the full story on why their candidate hadn’t won. Nonetheless the message came through loud and clear. Their votes had not counted.
I came back to Chicago because I can’t promise things will change for Sadia, or for Banglatown. But I can try to get people to listen. And a particularly important time to listen to disaffected folks is right before the 2018 midterms. If listening’s not your thing, we’ve got a visual essay from movement photographer
Sarah-Ji, one of the smartest documenters of local politics Chicago’s got. We also have a gripping read (yes!) by Maya Dukmasova on the usually unthinkably mundane vote for Cook County judges, and Julia Hale peeks at the struggle to install a polling place at Cook County Jail.
Our cover image this week is by the Montreal-based illustrator and (former) comics creator Julie Doucet. We’ve excerpted an interview from my new book on her oeuvre—Sweet Little Cunt (Uncivilized Books)—for the issue, which coincides with the release of Drawn & Quarterly’s compendium of her work, Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie
Doucet. I hope to see you tonight out at Quimby’s, where cartoonist John Porcellino and I will discuss her groundbreaking work.
TRiiBE cofounder Morgan Elise Johnson last week won a 40 Game Changers Under 40 award from WVON and Ariel Investments—she and Tiffany Walden contribute an endearing portrait of Cupcakke for this issue’s Block Beat.
The rest of the year has a few treats in store too. Sao Song, the pop-up restaurant Mike Sula covered last week, has announced some new dates if you were intrigued by the combination of skateboarding and cuisine from Laos. We’ve posted them online, and will continue to add more as we receive word.