If you find yourself on the corner of Presstman Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, look up, you might just catch a glimpse of Elder C.W. Harris on the roof of the Harris-Marcus Center.
After climbing the fire escape of the four story building, that’s where I found him, sitting under a canopy tent, eating a bag of peanuts, looking out on the city.
Elder Harris is the founder and pastor of Intersection of Change, formerly known as Newborn Holistic Ministries. He’s been living on the roof since last Saturday and he plans to stay there until 500 people from the Sandtown-Winchester community vote.
"In our last election cycle only 257 people voted in the Sandtown Winchester Community. That community has between 12 and 14,000 residents. We only have 2,000 registered voters. We need to change all that."
Elder Harris is a lifelong resident of Sandtown. He says since last year’s uprising following the death of Freddie Gray who was also a Sandtown resident, people are even more disillusioned and disenfranchised with local government. "Things have not gone back to normal as it was before Freddie Gray. Folks are without hope. It is hard for them to believe after so many years of neglect. I don’t hate the players, I hate the game. If they look on the chart and see that there are only a few people from our community who voted why would they listen to us? That’s the game, we have to beat them at their game."
In addition to the roof campaign, volunteers from Intersection of Change, the No Boundaries Coalition and BUILD are walking the streets of Sandtown going door-to-door trying to persuade residents to get out and vote. Citywide there have been several other initiatives to drive up voter turnout, but none as usual as living on a roof.
"During the unrest there was a question asked 'what could we do to bring the attentions to members of our community to get them out to vote?' So it was my suggestion, I said that I would go on the roof. I just thought of a minister in Chicago who went on the roof and made some changes in Chicago so I thought that would be a good way to get the message across, everyone agreed and here I am"
As far as roofs go, Elder Harris’ setup isn’t so bad. He’s strapped into a harness at all times for safety, has a revolving cast of visitors and some of the amenities of home. "We have a lovely bedroom up here that is a tent that is able to sleep seven. I have that lovely bedroom, heater included. And in the back, in the corner, in the dark, by the crack, is my bathroom. Yes it is a lovely facility back there. Those who I am entertaining, such as yourself, you have my living room with views from all over the city with no obstructions, We’re also visited more often by not by wonderful birds, seagulls, they also give me their thanks as they pass by."
Nora Howell is the program director of Jubilee Arts, another organization founded by Elder Harris that is housed in the Harris-Marcus Center. In addition to braving the fire escape to the roof several times a day to check on Elder Harris, she’s keeping a running tally of Sandtown voters. "It’s been a lot of fun as we’ve been canvassing, talking to people about voting procedures to bring it up because most people they laugh, it’s a great way to start a good conversation, but we’ve had trouble translating that to people actually going to the polls. So that’s what we’re working on now, being like no really like he’s not coming down until you personally go and vote."
And if you think Elder Harris is on the roof just twiddling his thumbs think again. Sandtown residents can call the Jubliee Arts Center or Elder Harris personally if they need a ride to the polls. While I was on the roof Elder Harris got one of those calls.
(Phone ringing) "Eddie, did you vote? Did you vote? You don’t get a prize, Did you vote? Tell me that you voted and I can put your name down. Your mother didn’t vote either? Well come on and walk down here and we’ll drive you over."
"He calls me to take people to the polls whenever they don’t have a ride, you know. He knows he can depend on Sis and he’ll call Sis and I’ll take them"
That was Janet Isaac, today she’s taking Clyde Jenkins to vote at Edmondson-Westside High School.
"How you doing sir? You coming to vote? You see they gray tent looks like we’re partying? Well we ain't. you're going all the way back to the building the old hair company, through the glass doors . You know you can vote anywhere during the early election that you want to, so this is a spot no matter where your headquarters are, you can vote here"
While Elder Harris’ supporters are optimistic that they will be able to get the pastor off the roof with 500 votes, his son Dwayne is worried his dad efforts aren’t reaching everyone. "So far the older people they understand it so they’re going out to vote. It’s our younger people and our youth they don’t get it quite yet. So if its not on Instagram or Facebook they don’t want to know about it. If he's not waving a pair of Jordans in the air they're not going to feel it. I’m praying I’m wrong but that's what I'm seeing."
Elder Harris knows what he’s asking for is no small feat, in a community where many residents live below the poverty line and feel forgotten by politicians, but he hopes his efforts will inspire his Sandtown neighbors to use their votes to change the community.
"I am a son of Sandtown and we just don’t give up. We fight to the end. Whether it snows, if there is a blizzard, if there are hail storms, I have equipment up here that can withstand all of that. If it is an embarrassment to my community that a 66-year-old man is up on this roof and they have the power to get me down, then so be it. But I’m staying up here, not to embarrass, but to show the importance of voting, to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for us to have the opportunity to vote. My cry is to folk in Sandtown, get out and vote, get me off this roof, because I’m not coming down until you get off your tush and go to the polls."
This segment originally aired on April 20, 2016.