“It’s like they’re frightened to talk to me”: Texas campaign workers of color face harassment, discrimination in the field

Texas Tribune News

Arash Farasat has campaigned for candidates in Texas for years. He said he's had people call the police on him or threaten him with a firearm on multiple occasions.
Arash Farasat has campaigned for candidates in Texas for years. He said he’s had people call the police on him or threaten him with a firearm on multiple occasions.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

While campaigning for a City Council hopeful earlier this year, Arash Farasat was assigned to knock on doors in an affluent Dallas neighborhood where most of the residents didn’t look like him.

Farasat had his block walking routine down pat. If there was no one home, he’d usually leave a door hanger, but that day he’d run out. While he was trying to wedge his candidate’s card into a door frame, a white woman on the opposite side of the street began shouting at him to “get away from that door.” As he tried to explain what he was doing, her husband came outside.

The 33-year-old — who has been working on political campaigns in Texas for more than half a dozen years — told the couple he came in peace. But the situation took a turn for the worse after the man brandished a firearm, an incident Farasat briefly caught on his cellphone before deciding to call the police. Farasat said that wasn’t the first time he’s faced a firearm while going door to door. He has also had the police called on him several times in the past year while working to get out the vote.

Sometimes when Farasat approaches people while canvassing, “it’s like they’re frightened to talk to me or they look at me in a real skeptical way,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good. I’m a peaceful guy, and it doesn’t feel good to have people be afraid of me.

“And I wonder, maybe if I was white, they wouldn’t be,” Farasat said.

His experience highlights a common plight for campaign workers — and candidates — of color: Although any canvasser could get harassed while block walking, canvassers of color say the color of their skin presents an additional barrier as they go door to door. Several canvassers told The Texas Tribune they’ve feared for their lives on more than one occasion. One white staffer said she knew of people in management positions in campaigns who refused to hire black workers to canvass certain neighborhoods because they “knew they were going to get the police called on them.” Some black candidates told the Tribune they’ve also had daunting encounters with police while campaigning.

Canvassing is “always going to be dicey,” said Summer Lollie, the former Dallas field manager for the Texas AFL-CIO. That risk increases, she said, when campaign workers of color scour predominantly white neighborhoods — a situation that is likely to happen more often as Texas flirts with swing state status.

Over the years, many campaign workers of color and candidates of color have increasingly focused their efforts on Democratic-leaning communities where more of the voters look like them.

But the results of last year’s midterm elections — with Democrats winning some close races for Congress and the Legislature and coming close in others — has helped expand the map, turning onetime GOP strongholds into new targets for Texas Democrats.

That’s likely to lead to more canvassers of color campaigning in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, an outcome that has some veteran political consultants worried stories like Farasat’s will only become more mainstream.

Mustafa Tameez, a Houston-based Democratic strategist who has worked on campaigns for two decades, said that as Texas suburbs where Republicans have dominated in recent years become more competitive, more canvassers from both parties will visit them.

Still, those suburbs, Tameez said, “are not overwhelmingly Democratic; they’re just starting to lean in that direction. So you’re seeing cars that will slow down and look at canvassers and wonder, ‘Who are these people and why are they here?’”

But although most canvassers dress the part — donning T-shirts or buttons with the name of a candidate or organization and carrying clipboards — there’s no question in Lollie’s mind why canvassers of color are more likely to find themselves in precarious situations.

“Black and brown bodies are always seen as more of a threat,” said Lollie, who is black. “That perceived threat is exaggerated when you’re approaching someone’s door.”

During the 2018 midterms, Lollie said she fielded at least two calls a week from fearful workers of color she was managing in the Dallas area — where Democrats flipped several seats in the state House, one in the state Senate and one in the U.S. House. Typically, she said, those calls were a forewarning that someone had called the police on them or that law enforcement had stopped them to ask why they were in the neighborhood. In the times she has had to talk to police officers on her canvassers’ behalf, the officers would claim they were called for complaints of solicitation or suspicious activity.

“It’s really hard to recall a time when police got called on my white canvassers — it rarely happened,” Lollie said.

Last summer, a black grandmother and her two grandkids from outside Houston saw their experience block walking for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and other Democrats go viral after sharing it on Facebook. The grandmother, Rose Odom, 71, told the Tribune that she and the kids — then ages 8 and 10 — had driven a few minutes away from their home in Sugar Land, one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse cities, when they pulled over to a nearby stop sign to look up directions on a cellphone. Shortly after they stopped, a man walked up to their car and repeatedly questioned why the family was there.

Odom said she and the man, who was white, engaged in a brief argument, culminating in him telling the family to “go the fuck back to where you came from.”

Preparing for the unexpected

David Villalobos with the Texas Organizing Project, a liberal group that advocates for black and Latino communities in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties, said he was driving through Grand Prairie last year when he came across an unsettling sight: one of his paid canvassers, a young black man, running away from a German shepherd that a resident had let loose on him. Neither the campaign worker nor Villalobos opted to call law enforcement, and Villalobos suspected that similar instances go unreported because “there’s a mistrust that goes on between people of color and the police.”

“Sometimes calling them doesn’t always help,” he said.

Any seemingly calm block-walking session can get interrupted by panicky neighbors or skeptical police officers, said Amit Banerjee, a student at Southern Methodist University who has canvassed for multiple Democratic campaigns. Banerjee recalled a time last year when someone called the police on him and a friend who were block walking for Colin Allred, a black Democrat who is now serving his first term in Congress after successfully flipping a suburban Dallas seat.

“If you’re in a neighborhood that’s 95% white,” Banerjee said, “people in the other 5% will stick out.”

The challenges of canvassing while black or brown are not restricted to Texas. Last year, black candidates in Wisconsin, Oregon and Florida made headlines after speaking publicly about having the police called on them while they were campaigning.

Banerjee’s block-walking safeguards include never wearing hats so people can see his face more clearly. He also dresses nicer than he normally would — in other words, no sweatshirts or jeans — to make himself appear more professional to those he’s approaching.

Some advocacy groups say they take additional precautions to ensure the safety of those they send out to canvas on their behalf. During the 2018 election cycle, for instance, the Texas arm of the AFL-CIO started having people who canvassed apartment complexes carry signed letters that explained why they were knocking on doors, said Jeff Rotkoff, the group’s campaigns director.

A handful of groups that regularly enlist volunteers of color told the Tribune they’ve often called local law enforcement in advance to let them know that they’ll have canvassers in the neighborhood. They also often send those canvassers out in pairs and direct them to work within eyesight of one another. Most are trained on how to interact with law enforcement and deescalate tense interactions.

Some groups, like the United Professional Organizers, of which Farasat is a member, have organized to help fight for better working conditions on campaigns, including better pay and, in some cases, safety measures like requiring that canvassers always work in teams.

Both the Texas Democrats and Republicans say they also prioritize the safety of their canvassers when working door to door — regardless of race.

“Employee welfare and safety are top priorities for the Texas Democratic Party,” said Executive Director Cliff Walker. “In a few cases where canvassers have been stopped by local authorities, we have reached out to department leadership to reaffirm our canvassers’ constitutional rights.”

The Republican Party of Texas also has policies for such situations.

“We expect any incidences to be reported to RPT and authorities, if necessary,” Chairman James Dickey said in a statement to the Tribune. “Next year will look very different from the field efforts of 2018. Republicans are rallying and ready to win up and down the ballot in 2020 and will prove it with their shoe leather.”

But some canvassers of color, meanwhile, believe that all the T-shirts, clipboards and training in the world can’t protect them from someone who wishes them ill.

“If someone is hateful or racist, they will not listen to you or they’ll tune you out, regardless of what you say or how logical you are,” said Sana Shahid, the executive director of the Texas office in Emgage, a national nonprofit that works to get the Muslim community politically engaged. “They’re more likely to listen to someone who looks like them or is from their community, as opposed to a Muslim woman with a hijab running for office.”

Ahead of what’s expected to be a politically heated 2020 election cycle in Texas, Villalobos said the Texas Organizing Project will likely continue the strategy that the group employed to protect canvassers last year — mandatory 30-minute training sessions tailored to specific challenges such as defending against dogs or handling interactions with law enforcement.

“We want our canvassers to be able to foresee the unexpected,” Villalobos said.

Arash Farasat facilitates a meeting in Dallas for United Professional Organizers, a group pushing to organize Texas campaign workers into a union.
Arash Farasat facilitates a meeting in Dallas for United Professional Organizers, a group pushing to organize Texas campaign workers into a union.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

Farasat said he already knows that he’ll canvass for candidates again next year. And with that decision, he’s all but certain to block walk in another majority white neighborhood — exposing himself to what could be another perilous situation.

But fear of those instances doesn’t scare him away from this work. Plus, he said, “there’s plenty of happy moments.”

For example: On Election Day in June, a few weeks after his altercation with the couple that led to him calling police, he was canvassing an apartment complex in a diverse and poorer section of East Dallas when he knocked on the door of a black woman concerned about the lack of grocery stores within walking distance to her. She didn’t have a car, so traveling to the polls was also a struggle.

Farasat ended up helping arrange a ride to take her to the polls to vote for his candidate.

“We do this because it’s important to us, and we wouldn’t do it if there weren’t situations like this to motivate us,” Farasat said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.