Signs of trouble are rising like the ghosts of Jim Crow in the heart of Cleveland’s African-American community.
Billboards, lots of billboards, looming large and menacing where black citizens live. Across the street from a public housing development. Near the community college.
A short walk from just about anywhere, including the home of Mayor Frank Jackson, who is black.
The billboards’ target: African-American voters who support President Barack Obama.
The billboards’ picture: a giant gavel lowering a verdict of guilty.
The billboards’ written message: VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY – UP to 3½ YRS and $10,000 FINE.
The billboards’ unwritten message: We will do anything to keep you from voting.
The plan, of course, is to intimidate an entire community of innocent Americans accustomed to withering suspicions steeped in race.
Two facts about voting in Ohio:
1) Voter fraud is a myth – just as it is everywhere else in the country.
2) Felons who have served their time are allowed to vote.
It doesn’t take much to scare ex-offenders away from the polls. Redemption may be the law, but it does not reside in the hearts of those who will go to extraordinary lengths to keep certain people down and out.
We’ve seen this kind of billboard before – in 2010 in Wisconsin.
The photo: black faces peering from behind prison bars.
The message: VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY – 3 YRS & $10,000 FINE.
The target: African-American voters.
“The message is offensive,” the Rev. Ken Wheeler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2010, “and implicitly and explicitly creates a climate of fear in the African-American community that was historically denied justice and discouraged from voting.”
A number of Cleveland’s African-American leaders, including pastors and elected officials, have denounced these billboards, but they are likely to stay put. At least until Election Day, that is.
Ohio state Sen. Tina Turner, who is black, described her reaction as she and Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland stood in front of one of the signs.
“We went to that billboard together, as tears welled up in my eyes at the sight of that,” she told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz. “The fact that African-Americans have had to fight so hard to get the right to vote, and then you have groups who are putting billboards up like that. ...
“But we’re going to continue to fight. We will not be pushed back by these intimidation efforts. They know disproportionately that this will have an impact on the African-American community. ... Some of them do have felonies. But you can vote in the state of Ohio even if you are an ex-offender.”
In Ohio, to repeat:
Voter fraud is a myth.
Felons who have served their time can vote.
There are signs of trouble in Cleveland, rising like the ghosts of Jim Crow.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.