An adorable curly haired moppet smiles sweetly from a billboard in Tallahassee, Florida.
In a lot of ways, it looks like your typical advertisement for a children’s item. Only this little boy isn’t advertising toys or candy. He’s advertising bulletproof vests, and more specifically, bulletproof vests for kids.
The ironic billboard is part of the #VoteOrVest campaign started by the Florida community organization the Dream Defenders. The group first came to the national spotlight after staging a 31-day sit-in at Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager.
The campaign urges people of color to get out the vote by offering a stark choice: make your voice heard at the polls or potentially face the reality of having to wear a bulletproof vest.
The billboard coincides with a commercial featuring a black mother solemnly asking her young son to wear a bulletproof vest to protect him from the police and potential gun-toting vigilantes.
“Every 28 hours an African-American is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante. No parent in America should have to put their child in a bulletproof vest. On Nov. 4, you have a choice; Vest or Vote,” it says.
The Dream Defenders chose this intimate moment between a black mother and son on purpose.
“In black communities, everyone has to have ‘the talk,’” Ciara Taylor, the political director for the group, told msnbc.
By “the talk,” Taylor refers to the need for parents of color to educate their children about how to avoid a potentially deadly encounter with law enforcement.
Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson has even published a step-by-step guide for young black youths in Florida on what to do if stopped by the police. “So many children have been saved because of that,” Wilson told José Díaz-Balart following the Michael Brown shooting this summer.
Taylor points out that the conversation reflects the current grim reality in the U.S., where according to some reports, black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white peers. “The conversation she’s having with her son in the video is a conversation that is specific to families of color. Not everyone has to have ‘the talk.’”
Taylor says reactions to the campaign have been mixed. “Some people think it’s funny or think it’s satire … some think we’re exaggerating or making something out of nothing,”
But perhaps the most interesting reaction is that some parents have actually inquired about where they can buy the vests for themselves or their children. “They’ve been writing us saying seriously, where do I get the vest?”
Taylor hopes the unusual campaign will cut through apathy and inspire people of color to vote despite what she sees as the “dismal” political climate and disenfranchisement of black and Latino voters in Florida.
“The climate in Florida has been very bleak.” Taylor told msnbc. “It’s almost like there is a feeling of hopelessness. A lot of times you ask someone in Florida who they’re voting for and they’ll say ‘do you really think this will help us?’”
As a group, the organization believes voting is one integral part of a multi-pronged strategy for political power. “We don’t believe that voting is the only way to be politically engaged, but voting is important, especially in midterm elections.”
Specifically, the Dream Defenders hope people will look beyond the draw of voting for big name candidates in flashy presidential elections and vote in local elections as well. “You need to think about more than just presidential or gubernatorial. Think about who you’re voting for for mayor or for sheriff. These are people that decide the quality of life in your community,” Taylor maintained.
The Dream Defenders say they saw first hand what being shut out of the political process looks like at the Florida gubernatorial debate between Charlie Crist and Rick Scott on Wednesday.
The group attended a debate viewing with their local chapter at Broward College. They handed out voter information cards to students. Even though the group doesn’t align themselves with any political party or affiliation, Taylor said six uniformed police officers told them they were “soliciting campaign material” and that they would have to either stop handing out the cards or leave.
After the debate, the group wanted a chance to ask the candidates about police brutality in Florida, a topic had not been addressed during the debate. After a tense 45 minute standoff with several more police in full gear, they were told they would need to stay in the campus “free speech zone” or face arrest.
“A lot of these were people who are students there,” Taylor explains. “They wouldn’t even allow their own students to exercise their rights to freedom of speech at their own college where they pay tuition.”
To Taylor, the incident only highlights the importance of being political aware.
“We had to talk to our people and de-escalate the situation. It’s a reality that we continue to be blocked from the political process. We told them ‘this is why you have to vote.’”