Purple America

Jonn Elledge meets the people behind the "Rednecks for Obama" banner, showing that America is a purp

So a girl walks through midtown New York wearing an Obama t-shirt. And a middle aged guy standing outside a bar yells at her, "He's going to lose!"

"I hope not," she replies.

And he yells back, "Vote white, vote white!"

...scared, yet?

This story is a reminder that, for all the talk of red states and blue states, the US simply isn't that simple. There are frustrated Democrats in the inner cities of the south, low-tax Republicans in California - and a few racists at the centre of American liberalism.

And, deep in the interior, there are self-described rednecks campaigning for higher taxes and bigger government. Tony Viessman, for instance, reckons one of the biggest challenges facing America today is creating a healthcare system that actually provides everyone with healthcare. "I'm not worried about socialized anything," he says in a Missouri drawl, "just so long as it's fair."

Viessman and his friend Les Spencer hit the headlines last summer when they started hanging out at Democratic events holding a banner reading 'Rednecks for Obama'. (The Senator, knowing a good photo-op when he sees one, ran 60 yards in the rain to get a picture with them.) They say they were inspired to do it by Obama's intelligence and way with people, as well as his stance on the war.

But what's really motivated them is their disgust with the last eight years of Republican government. During our brief conversation, they find time to express their fury with the Wall Street bail out, the failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, and the obsession with wedge issues such as abortion. "Bush is the worst president we've had in a long time," says Spencer. "He's taken a lot of the pressure off Hoover."

And middle America, they say, has nothing to fear from Barack Obama. "People say that if you vote Democratic you're gonna lose your guns," says Spencer. "But Obama's gonna support the Second Amendment, there's no doubt about it." Viessman agrees. "There's a few dummies that'll vote because of colour, but we've come a long way in the last fifty years."

These two have attracted a lot of attention, because people don't expect to hear such sentiments from self-described 'rednecks'. But it shouldn't be surprising. Polls show that even in the reddest of red states, Alabama, a third of the electorate will still go for Obama. In liberal Massachusetts, meanwhile, 36% are backing McCain.

In fact, the whole red/blue state paradigm is an invention of the last decade. Bill Clinton won huge swathes of the south; ten years earlier, Ronald Reagan won the liberal strongholds of the north east and west coast.

In the last few days, Barack Obama has extended his campaign to new states such as Montana, North Dakota and even McCain's own Arizona. If he were to do well there, it'd mean the US was a lot more purple than anyone has given it credit for.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.