Γιαννης Παπαδοπουλος

Barbershop politics

Jetson Grimes in his barbershop in Sarasota, Florida (Picture by: Ioannis Papadopoulos)

By Ioannis Papadopoulos

SARASOTA- It had been a long day for Jetson Grimes. And now it was about to end, lifting his dreams or crushing his hopes.

The tires of his Chevy dug a muddy trail on his front yard. An anxious breath escaped his lips as he walked to his front door. His arms loose, his shoulders weak, his voice dark and deep, cracked as if he were a blues singer.

“I don’t know darling,” he told his wife. “What if we don’t succeed?” She grasped his shoulders and looked him in the eye. “Go and return victorious,” she said.

A kiss, a hug and a smile later, Grimes left his house. “Let’s do it baby!” he said. “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll!”

The moment passed, a rarity for Grimes, in his two year campaign journey for Barack Obama, the first black man with a real shot of becoming the next United States president. He is not a man to doubt. A barber by trade, here in Newtown, the largely black neighborhood of Sarasota, Fla., Grimes is known as “the general:” A man who fights, who leads, who inspires. But for a moment, three hours before the announcement of the election results, Jetson Grimes had second thoughts. An agonizing series of “What ifs…” pinched his mind on the very cusp of the biggest night, the biggest victory in a lifetime of fighting for social justice.

It wasn’t a pessimist’s prediction or a coward’s fear that drove Grimes to his home and his wife’s reassurance on Election Day. It was his past. He knew that “change” has never come easy.

COLOR LINE

Grimes, 68, grew up exiled behind the color line. Newtown, his neighborhood, is a place of pariahs, crime and poverty in the sunshine city of Sarasota. About 9,000 people –mostly African Americans- live here and unemployment has reached 30 percent. Out his barbershop window on Martin Luther King Drive, Grimes looks at stray dogs and police cars, while the streets that lead to Newtown pass through spas and plastic surgery clinics. The average salary in Sarasota is $50,000 a year, while in Newtown it’s about $7,200.

As an African American in the racially divided South, Grimes as a child could swim only in swamps, or “holes with salted water, filled with rocks and jellyfish.” Sarasota’s sandy beaches were a luxury only the whites could enjoy. In the ‘50s, less than two miles of Florida’s coastline were officially “set aside for Negro use.”

In 1955, black Sarasotans led by Neil Humphrey, a World War II veteran, began to challenge segregation. They drove to the Lido beach, an exotic and forbidden place for them. They swam in waters they shouldn’t touch. Among them was a boy in his early teens, Jetson Grimes.

“The first day we went to the beach, they [the whites] welcomed us with rocks and bricks,” Grimes said. “We didn’t give up. We went there the day after. They formed a human chain on the sand. They didn’t want us to swim there. But we drove there again and again, until we broke the color line.”

Swimming wasn’t the only forbidden fruit for Sarasota’s African Americans. They could watch movies at the local Gem theatre only from the balcony. Those days, your skin color was a ticket to a better seat. Grimes would stand on this balcony shoulder to shoulder with his friends to watch his favorite John Wayne movies.

At age 19 Grimes got his barber license. “When I finished high school I had a musical scholarship from local colleges. I was a B flat baritone,” he said. “But as an African American I didn’t have a lot of choices to pursue a career in music. I could become a teacher or join a band, but I didn’t like either. I wanted to do something creative.”

One of his former classmates had become a barber. Grimes remembers visiting him at his shop. “He told me he was earning $50 a week. That was a lot of money back then.”

Grimes chose to follow his classmate’s footsteps and after a year and a half of training he got a scissor of his own. Through his shop he became a friend and mentor for many Sarasotans, fighting along them for racial equality.

“I’ve fought for the integration of beaches, buses and theatres,” Grimes said. “Pushing the envelope has always been in my DNA. It’s tough to achieve what you dream. It takes hard work and commitment.”

But during the Civil Rights movement, Grimes’ wildest dreams didn’t include an African American running for the United States presidency.

“We told our kids that they could be raised up to be presidents, but in the back of our mind we said that would never happen for an African American,” he said.

But sometimes, reality catches up to even the most far-fetched dreams. And somehow, in 2008, that had happened. Sen. Barack Obama had won the Democratic nomination over Sen. Hillary Clinton and now, on Election Day, he was one step away from delivering his message of “change.”

“I thought I could never see that. Not in my lifetime,” Grimes said on Election Day. “White people saying for an African American: ‘We trust him, we believe in him, we think he is qualified to be the president.’ Obama is God sent.”

THE CAMPAIGN

Grimes said he was one of the first Sarasotans to believe in Obama, even when most people in his city didn’t know who Obama was. He had been following Obama’s political career from his Senate years in Chicago.

“Sometimes you have an intuition that a person is special,” Grimes said. “That’s what I felt with Obama. I trusted him, I believed in him. I knew he could bring change.”

Two years ago Grimes drove around Newtown with an Obama sticker on his green Chevy. He became a volunteer for the campaign, one of hundreds of African American barbers across the country who had been recruited to bring black voters to the polls.

“The barbershop is a spot of inspiration for the African Americans. It’s like an information center in the black community,” Grimes said. “There are not many places to go around here, so people come to the barbershop and discuss sports and politics.”

Jetson’s Creative Trend is one of the three remaining shops on Martin Luther King Drive, a road where businesses disappear as if they were built on sinking sand. Ten years ago, African Americans owned 78 businesses in Newtown. Today, only 12 of them survive.

With a history of five decades, Grimes’ barbershop is one of the oldest shops around. Its wrinkled interior of dusty tables, stained carpets and melted linoleum floors reveals its age. Only the pictures of African American women with Locks, Updos and Twists hairstyles alert the casual visitor that this place is a beauty salon.

For the last two years, this barbershop had been Obama’s headquarter in Newtown. Through his business, Grimes registered 75 new voters for the Democrats. Across the country, since January, the number of new black voters registered at barbershops reached 120,000.

Grimes cannot forget the day when 15 people joined the Democratic Party at his shop. “I registered one young lady and she got her two teenage sons and brought them to register and then they brought their friends to register,” he said. “Our message traveled through generations.”

On Election Day, Grimes hoped this message could reach the polls. He had woken up at 6 a.m. and when he got to his shop, three minutes after seven, he saw a dozen of people waiting for him. They stood there, the shrill droning song of cicadas their only company, waiting for “the general” and his orders.

Grimes arrived with shorts, black Reeboks and a hat in the color of autumn leaves. A pin on his chest with Obama’s face read: “I have a dream.” He studied the crowd behind his rectangular glasses, scratched his unshaven face and smiled.

Within 15 minutes everyone was on the streets, on a different mission. Some had to hold Obama signs on major crossroads. Others had to drive people to the polls with their cars… or even bicycles. And Monica and Veronica, two girls with earrings the size of Christmas balls, had to knock on doors to make sure that everyone in Newtown had voted. Grimes had paid Newtown’s unemployed youth $60 to spread Obama’s message on the Election Day. About 40 people showed up to claim the money and deliver the message.

Glenda Williams, one of Grimes’ closest friends and an Obama supporter didn’t ask for any money to contribute. She was in charge of feeding Grimes’ hungry army at noon, on their lunch break.

“I’m walking on air,” Williams said, surrounded by boxes of roasted chicken, trays with chocolate chip cookies and sweaty bottles of Ginger Ale. “It doesn’t really matter what happens today. The journey was more important. And it had been awesome. It changed our minds and hearts. This election brought people together. It brought this community together.”

Grimes knows most people in this community by their first names. He trained at least 16 barbers who left for other cities or started their own businesses in other parts of the town. People have been coming in his shop since they were kids. Now, they come and their hair has turned gray.

“I’ve gained their respect,” Grimes said. “I had my opportunities to leave and start my business in other parts of Sarasota. But I chose to stay. I never abandoned them. If you want to change a community you have to be part of it. And I’ve been.”

On the Election Day Grimes wanted to give back to his community not only by driving people to the polls and organizing volunteers, but also by throwing a party every local would remember.

From 10 a.m. a dj had been rapping next to Grimes’ barbershop. Three hours later, volunteers would close Martin Luther King Dr., dance to the lyrics “tell me why you like Obama” and swing in the air posters that read, “hope” and “change.”

Grimes would stand on a corner, eat the roasted chicken with his fingers and exchange a few words with his soldiers.

CHANGE IN NEWTOWN

Grimes had been waiting this Election Day like a hungry child who lusts for his first ice cream. But he knew that one-day –like one ice cream- would never be enough. “Change,” demands devotion, effort and sweat. It needs time.

And Grimes has devoted a long time to change Newtown –his lifetime. He didn’t grow up with his physical parents. After his birth, his mother spent eight years in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, a disease that killed her.

Grimes doesn’t talk much about his father, a man who abandoned his sick wife and newborn son. “I’ve seen him only once in my life,” Grimes said. “He was never there.”

Madam Brooks, Newtown’s midwife, raised Grimes until he turned 11. Then, he lived with his aunt. “Strong women raised me,” he said. Both of them were very active in their community delivering babies or bringing jobs. These women motivated him. They showed him how to give back and help his neighbors. They shaped his dream: “Watch Newtown flourish.”

“If you come in to Sarasota you see all the prosperity and success, the wealth of this city,” Grimes said. “But if you come to this community [Newtown], you see oppression, you see poverty.

The African American community is almost like a Third World community. That’s a form of race racism.”

In the ‘80s, Grimes founded the Greater Newtown Community Redevelopment Corporation, a non-profit organization to revitalize his neighborhood. Che Barnett works with Grimes at this organization. “We have many school dropouts and a lot of poverty here,” she said. “We are one of America’s most segregated community.”

Grimes has been campaigning to create job opportunities and bring investors in his community. He wants to make the corridor around Martin Luther King Dr. a state-designated Enterprise Zone. (The state of Florida established the Enterprise Zone program in the ‘80s providing tax refunds in areas that sunk below the federal poverty level.) Grimes’ organization has rebuilt five houses in order to attract wealthier and successful African Americans to the community.

“We need lawyers and doctors, teachers and other people with college degrees,” Grimes said. “We want them to live here and set the example. Show their black brothers and sisters that everything is possible.”

Grimes’ efforts to change Newtown’s face don’t cost him only sweat. Sometimes they cost him tears.

Twelve years ago, Grimes remembers, about 300 people had been using or selling drugs in this community. “There were days I could see 30 of them dealing outside my store,” he said.

Police wouldn’t come into Newtown. Fear and threats kept their sirens away. The dealers had asked Grimes to leave his shop, but surrendering wasn’t an option for him. Grimes tried to clean his community and asked for police help. He received death threats and survived 18 months of vandalism in his shop. The drug kingpins tried to burn down his house and broke his car windows. Grimes had to walk with police protection for six months.

Today, he gives his customers fliers about job offers, rehab centers and information about AIDS. Even his house, on 28th Street, is open to anyone who needs food. Every Sunday, his wife, Raymell, cooks for eight to fifteen people. They sit around a wooden table in the living room, across a wall drowned in pictures of Grimes’ two sons and grandsons that his wife calls “the wall of fame.” And they discuss life in Sarasota.

Grimes’ usual epilogue is that “Newtown has never been prioritized.” But this time, on the Election Day, he hoped things could change.

THE BIG FINALE

“Obama can bring change,” Grimes said on Election Day. “He can change the attitudes, the stereotypes. He can turn fear into hope.”

His voice was still dark and deep but this time it didn’t crack. “The general” showed no doubt. He was ready for the final battle, the big finale.

He parked his Chevy at Sarasota’s Port Marina and headed for the local restaurant. Hundreds of Sarasota’s Democrats were gathered there, either to celebrate their success with cigars or drown their bitterness in wine and beer. Grimes stood at the left corner of this restaurant that looks right into the Mexican Gulf. He had the same hat on, shorts and black Reeboks. The smell of cologne on his cheeks was the only addition when he had stopped earlier at his house.

Now, he had around him people with shirts and ties. They drank from tall glasses and kissed their wives. Waitresses balanced their steps like acrobats and reporters from CNN, CBS and even Britain’s BBC waited with their cameras on the red to capture a moment of history: a smile or a tear.

City Commisioner Fred Atkins, who became the first black mayor of Sarasota in 1986, approached Grimes and hugged him. “If we win Sarasota it’s over,” he said. “Tonight we make history. We have gone a long way and your help was tremendous. Thank you Jetson.”

But winning in Sarasota, a predominantly Republican city, would be tough. In 2004 George W. Bush outpolled John Kerry in this region by 16,000 votes. And in 2000 Bush won Sarasota over Al Gore by 11,000 votes.

“Frorida is a must win state for Sen. John McCain,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “If Obama wins there, that’s it. The race is over.”

Grimes denied making such predictions. He couldn’t afford another moment of doubt. He distanced himself from the crowd. He stood alone, silent, his hat in his hands, his eyes on a TV screen.

At 9:30 p.m., as the networks started to announce the early results, the crowd was ready to erupt like a volcano. Grimes would smile after a state was won, or look at the screen frozen after a battle was lost.

The news so far had been good and even Grimes allowed himself to smile more than usual. Obama had won Vermont, Massachusetts, Indiana. And… Florida, yes Florida, a Republican’s fortress had voted for Obama by 51 to 49 for McCain. Champagnes popped, people smiled, strangers hugged and sang: “Yes-We-can! Yes-We- Can!” “It’s over baby, it’s OVER!”

Grimes gripped his hat, bit his lips and let a tear roll down his cheek. His battle was over, for tonight.

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