News: Beyond the Vote

Political exile continues activism in his new country

In 2000, while effectively appointing George W. Bush to the presidency, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is no federal constitutional right to vote. That election left many wondering if their votes really matter — and if not, what they can do to have their concerns and voices heard.

One Cincinnati man who cannot vote is demonstrating how political involvement, not just voting, can challenge and change American politics.

John Smith* is a 26-year-old African immigrant. In late 2002 he fled Cameroon, where he had worked as a journalist and activist. The United States granted him political asylum just a few months ago.

Cameroon has faced many problems since President Paul Biya took office in 1982. Many of the country's 150 political parties boycotted his 1997 inauguration. His fifth term, lasting seven years, ends in 2004. However, because of government corruption, democracy remains out of reach, according to Smith.

Political tensions have run high in the West African country since 1972, when the country went from a decentralized federal state to a unitary state.

"Cameroon before World War I was colonized by Germany, and afterwards France and Britain took over the country," Smith says. "So we have a state dependent on France and two dependent on Britain, but it is one country. The two (British) states feel oppressed by the majority."

Some groups have called for secession.

"The situation is much better in Cameroon than when I left, but there are still problems," he says. "The newspapers are better, more free now, but television is still very controlled."

Last year the Cameroonian government closed down two independent television stations as well as privately owned radio outlets.

Before fleeing Cameroon, Smith worked with Amnesty International.

"I protested against excessive use of force by security forces, detention without charge and impunity," he says.

The country has seen numerous human rights abuses, he says.

"I was standing for justice, and it became very difficult to do that, so I had to leave," he says.

Soon after his arrival, Smith became involved in American politics, despite his non-citizen status, first contacting U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) and later volunteering for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

"I was in touch with Steve Chabot," Smith says. "I would let him know what he needs to do about civil rights, as a congressman. I found it was important to get involved, and I went to work for the Dean campaign. He stood for a movement, the changing of American society."

Dean's grassroots approach appealed to Smith.

"People need to understand that the more they are involved in politics, the more we will have change," he says. "Otherwise you will always have lobbyists. It is why the population doesn't see themselves reflected in what is happening in this country."

Of course, Smith acknowledges, getting started is the hardest part.

"When you don't feel invited, it is difficult to just walk in and say 'I want to be involved,' " he says.

But a key factor in removing Bush from office and changing the country's direction is the involvement of African Americans, Smith says.

"We, as black people face a lot of discrimination," he says. "It is why we have to vote. That is the only way for us to bring change. Politicians take us for granted. The media doesn't explain what is taking place so we can know what is really going on. No American can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background and individual commitments of each candidate."

Smith has urged Congress to pass a law to end racial profiling. Relations with police are even more complicated for immigrants, he says. In late 2002 his friend, also an immigrant, was stopped by Cincinnati Police officers on his way home from buying groceries.

"They asked him what he had in the bags and he didn't speak English, only French," Smith says. "They searched him and made him put his hands on the car. His hands got cold because the car is metal and it is December and he put his hands in his pockets and they gave him a ticket. He didn't understand why until he came home and had someone read the ticket to him."

As an immigrant, Smith is in a unique position to teach Americans about themselves and about the way they treat newcomers. For example, he points to the exploitation of the Latino vote.

"There is a focus on Mexican immigration, and not other immigration," he says. "It is a political game. When they focus on Mexican immigration, they know what they get. There are so many Mexicans in this country, and so many that can vote. They don't want to know about other immigrants, because they don't know what they can get back."

Even without the right to vote, Smith is working for democracy.

"People need to understand what is going on and think for themselves," he says. "Communities need to come together. If you don't bring people together, you can't do anything." ©

*The name of the source in this article has been changed to protect their identity

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