Junior Soleil Smith recalled the date after 2016’s election of Donald Trump as a somber point on Knox’s campus, with near universal shock over the result as some professors opted to cancel classes.
“There’s a lot of professors on this campus that are in the LGBTQ community, who are people of color, who would be threatened by a lot of things that our current president stands for,” she said. “That was part of the reason a lot of them canceled class.”
Smith, along with sophomore Ty Kiatathikom, are two of the current co-chairs of Knox’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter (YDSA). They described their efforts this election season as partially about not repeating 2016’s mistakes.
Kiatathikom and Smith stated that as a club, they’ve been working on encouraging members to vote and to help students be informed about their choices. They held an event discussing ballot information and gave members the chance to discuss the election with each other.
“Voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement, are super big issues in the United States right now and we think it’s really important that college students be aware of that,” Kiatathikom said. “Particularly because these college students might be affected depending on where their home states are.”
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, junior Katana Smith described her response as a lukewarm one. The night saw the Democrats take control of the house, but lose multiple seats in the senate.
“I felt like if things didn’t work out in this election, the momentum that was built up before this would kind of implode,” Katana Smith said. “Democrats have been struggling to remain optimistic… if we had another really damaging election people would kind of be like, ‘oh well it’s over for us, it’s going to be a conservative country for the next four to six years.’”
Democratic U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos, whose 17th congressional district includes Galesburg, was re-elected to a fourth term with approximately 62 percent of the vote according to the Associated Press. In the competitive race for Illinois’ 93rd District, which includes part of Galesburg, Republican Norrine Hammond was re-elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. However, her opponent, Democrat John Curtis, won 58 percent of the vote in Knox County according to the Register-Mail.
While she was surprised to see the Republicans make gains in the Senate, [Katana] Smith overall took encouragement from the Democrats’ success in the House. She said this while cautioning that she believed there was still much activism to be done.
“It’s definitely not the end of the story. The Trump White House doesn’t need the House of Representatives to do damage to the most vulnerable Americans,” she said.[Soleil] Smith noted that she was grateful to be from Colorado which she considers to be strongly against voter suppression.
“I know I was helping people from the state of Missouri with their ballots, and things were significantly more complicated,” she said. “Sending my ballot was really easy… I know that’s not the case for a majority of people in our country.”
Kiatathikom and Smith felt encouraged by the interest in the election Knox students showed this cycle. They saw that students were actively engaged in the process and most students they knew voted.
“Definitely with the 2016 election, I don’t think there were that many organizations moving to educate peopleÉ the parade of the polls is something I did not see happen in 2016,” [Soleil] Smith said.
YDSA members were among the students who participated in the election day’s parade to the polls event, during which students walked together from Knox to their local polling place.
“We brought some pots and pans and banged them… I think we were trying to create a positive and fun environment on the way to the polls,” [Soleil] Smith said.
Sophomore Robert Draper voted in his home district, but showed up to the parade to the polls event in support of his peers who were voting that day.
“I’ve been encouraging all my friends to vote, helping them find their polling place, and helping with getting absentee ballots if they’re not voting here and stuff like that. Just doing my part,” Draper said.
Draper explained that he chose to vote in his home district, the 1st district of MN, largely because it was a close swing district where his vote was more needed. Draper was further motivated by his opposition to President Trump, citing his belief that Trump’s tax cuts have been financially irresponsible as a major issue.
“Mainly just everything that President Trump has done I’ve been against and I feel like we need people in Congress to kind of check that,” Draper said.
Freshman George Gillman, a member of the Knox Conservatives, discussed the club’s election watch party and their discussions in the run-up to the election.
“We’ve been comparing candidates, we’ve been looking at independent candidates as well as all the other candidates… comparing and deciding who we’re going to vote for,” he said.
Within the club, Gillman noted there was activism from some members to support Kash Jackson, the Libertarian candidate for the Illinois governorship. Gillman stated that while the Conservative Club wasn’t pushing people to vote too strongly, voting was being widely encouraged.
“That’s your civic right to vote. It’s a privilege to vote,” he said. “We don’t make people vote obviously… but it’s a big push to vote just as both sides are trying to push everyone to go out and vote.”
Gillman, who spoke prior to the election, stated he was not particularly concerned about the results due to the republican party holding the executive regardless. He did not feel that the results of the election would have a major impact on him. While Gillman had hoped to see Republicans hold on to control of the House, he noted that he had been open in considering how he filled out his ballot.
“I just looked at what [candidates] wanted to do, their history, who they are. If I don’t like the Republican, I’ll vote Libertarian or another third party. Sometimes I’ll even vote Democrat if I want,” he said.[Soleil] Smith acknowledged that the sense of the election’s unpredictability increased concern about the result, but she was generally reserved about her expectations for the night.
“I personally don’t have too high up hopes for the governmental system that we have,” she said. “I think this country is headed in a very strange and uncharted direction, and I’m excited to see new evidence of where we’re headed.”
Smith noted that many critical elections were taking place in her home state of Colorado. Tuesday night saw the election of Jared Polis as Colorado’s next governor and the first openly gay male governor in the United States, an event Smith noted prior to the election that she was looking forward to.
“Our state used to be known as the ‘hate state’ because of how many different anti-LGBTQ laws we’ve passed,” she said. “I’m proud that we’ve really changed our image. It changed very quickly.”
Kiatathikom, who is from northern Illinois, was dissatisfied with the options in the Illinois governor’s race, citing political corruption in the state of Illinois and both candidates’ enormous wealth. The governorship was primarily contested between incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner and billionaire Democrat JB Pritzker, the latter of whom won the election on Tuesday.
“The leadership in many states… is dominated by rich, old, mostly white men, who don’t really have the interest of working people and people of color at heart,” Kiatathikom said. “Young people really need to take the stage. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to have this trend of leaders who don’t represent us and who we kind of don’t like.”
Kiatathikom’s conclusion was that despite the importance of voting, he believes young people need to realize voting alone is not enough to create change.
“You need to be out there, you need to be organizing, you need to be banding together with people who are like-minded to you, you need to collect in numbers, and you need to really go out there,” Kiatathikom said.
Looking back at 2016 and the aftermath of Trump’s election, [Soleil] Smith noted that initial interest in activism seemed to have fizzled soon after.
“There was also a protest the same day which I was a part of. We walked through Galesburg, a lot of people flipped us off but a lot of people also cheered us on,” she said. “But then I don’t really think much more came out of it. After the protest, people really didn’t organize much after that which is alarming to me.”
Kiatathikom discussed how YDSA is looking to organize going forward, saying that they are turning their attention to the issue of the Central American migrant caravan, a hot topic during the election. Kiathikom said the club hopes to hold an event showing support for the migrants and educating the Knox community.
“There’s a lot of hatred and a lot of problematic language being spoken, problematic tactics being deployed by the extreme right wing by people,” Kiatathikom said.
Katana Smith also reiterated that her organization’s focus remains primarily on activism. She stated that YDSA is currently trying to raise awareness for a counter-protest at Western Illinois University this Saturday, against an appearance by the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I know a lot of us are kind of like, okay that voting thing is over, onto the next thing” Katana Smith said. “Being in your community and doing things that directly affect people, we see that as being something that can be really effective.”