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Voting for Harm Reduction
Why you should bring your neighbors into the voting booth with you
I voted early last week. I was the only one in my polling location (aside from volunteers), and I took my time, consulted some notes, and made my picks for who I thought best to lead New York City and Brooklyn.
On the way home, I walked down Franklin Street in Greenpoint. It’s lined with small coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, and an independent bookstore. I was happy with how easy it was to vote, and I carried that feeling past these small businesses, many of which barely survived the past year and will likely need more help in the near future from neighbors like me and from City Hall.
I thought about the makeup of a neighborhood, and how many addresses I’ve had in the past ten years. How I have the ability to go in search of a place I like with people who look like me and give it a trial run. If it’s not what I thought it was or if I’m no longer the same person when time is up, I can always rent elsewhere and start the process over again.
There are a lot of people who can’t do that. The same people who couldn’t work from home during the height of the pandemic. The people who live where they’re born, multiple generations under one roof, proud as hell of their city and hopeful for progress toward a more equitable future.
These are the people I brought into the voting booth with me. The people who will still be in this neighborhood if I decide in five years that I need more space or more quiet or less crime or whatever it is that inexorably drives us from cities to suburbs. Because whether or not I put down roots or only stay for a short time, it pays to be a good neighbor, and to vote like one.
There’s a great magazine in New Orleans called Antigravity that prints “harm reduction” voting guides that “prioritize the needs of people most harmed by systemic oppression.” As an example, the guides promote the judicial candidates “least destructive to the lives of the poor and others caught in the dragnet of our punitive legal system.” In a city that’s majority Black in a state with an incarceration rate 30% higher than the rest of the United States, this is a big, local issue (not that it isn’t in most metropolises), and one that affects the whole community even if you’ve never stood before a judge.
Despite our best intentions, we all have personal desires that influence our votes—tax breaks, identity politics, personal connections—and that can make it difficult to look outside our personal gain. It’s one vote for one person after all.
But we all live in neighborhoods. We’ve all wished for better neighbors. We could all be better neighbors. You’re already thinking about your friends and your family and what benefits them. Why not widen the circle of empathy to acquaintances and strangers? Why not try to reduce the harm of policies that don’t necessarily visit your door but hit others like a battering ram?
If, deep down, you don’t see any given election vastly swinging your life in one direction or another, why not support the people and movements that uplift the most of your neighbors? Instead of politicians building coalitions that keep them and their friends comfortable, we could be building coalitions with the people who bring in our packages and look the other way when we’re singing karaoke in our living rooms a smidge past midnight.
We could use our privilege and our stability to vote for the least among us, and we would be better off for it because you never know when you’ll be the one who needs to borrow a cup of sugar.