Dana Clark always votes, always votes early, and this year felt the urgency to do so even stronger than before.
So when she and her husband found themselves with some free time last week, they grabbed their 18-month-old son Mason and drove to downtown New Orleans to stand in line for more than an hour and a half for the first day of early voting.
It was there photographer Kathleen Flynn asked to take her picture, an image that has since gone viral showing Clark standing in line to vote in a contentious election, wearing a "safety pod" to protect her family from COVID-19, and holding her young Black son in her arms while wearing a mask that reads, "I can't breathe."
"Once I saw the picture posted I thought, 'This is everything, everything that is going on in America with Black people,'" Clark told BuzzFeed News. "It was beautiful, and it shows the compassion of a mother wanting a better life for her child, standing in line to vote, because this is the only option she has left."
Clark said she didn't even realize how every detail in the picture came together, accidentally lumping together in one tight frame so many of the critical issues that have embroiled the US, but especially Black Americans in the last year.
"This is everything, Black Lives Matter, my son, everything that is going on in America with Black men just being attacked, not being treated like citizens," she said. "We feel like second-class citizens."
"This might be the photo of 2020," replied one user on Twitter after Corinne Perkins, an editor with Reuters, tweeted the image.
"This woman is all of us," said another. "Dana Clark is every American."
Clark said she and her husband figured early voting lines would be longer than in previous years, but they didn't expect to see the crowds they saw Friday, with lines forming two blocks long.
"This is crazy," she said to herself at the time. "It's a pandemic but the polls are still flooded with people."
Because of the crowds and because18-month-old Mason tends to pull his mask off his face, she said, she decided to use a "safety pod."
The device fits like a bubble down nearly to her waist but leaves her arms free and enough space inside to hold Mason in her arms. She bought the pod, she said, for when she returns to the classroom with her fifth-grade students next week as an added layer of protection to protect her kids and her husband at home, who has underlying health issues.
"The way COVID is affecting the African American community is astonishing and that's concerning to me," she said. "It's very alarming."
She grabbed the pod, grabbed her face mask, picked up Mason, and headed toward the polls. She didn't even realize the mask she grabbed had the words "I can't breathe" written on it. The words were the last words spoken by George Floyd, the Black man killed by a Minneapolis Police officer in May and became a rallying cry among protesters demanding racial justice.
"George Floyd could have been my husband, my brother, my uncle," she said.
Without thinking about it, Clark was carrying with her things that illustrate the issues that were driving her to the polls — an ongoing pandemic that has been disproportionately affecting African Americans, police violence against Black people which has sparked protests and a racial reckoning across the country, and an uncertain future for her kids.
"This is one of the crucial elections for my sons," she said. "We're so divided right now. We can do better. We should do better, and it starts with voting, which is why I always bring my kids to the polls."
Voting has always been a priority for Clark since she was old enough to vote, she said.
As a first-year college student in 2006, she traveled for hours by bus from Atlanta to New Orleans with an organization called Sisters Keeping It Real Through Service, or SKIRTS, which was doing recovery work in the city. Her family had evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina, but she returned hoping to vote in the mayoral election.
She was turned away because her registration card and birth certificate were lost in the hurricane, and broke down in tears.
So she's voted in every election since, she said, taking her boys with her to see the process firsthand. She said she hopes setting the example for her kids shows them the importance of voting.
"I just know it was important. It's important to get my voice out, and I have to be heard," she said.
That's what she said she hopes transpires in the photo. She knows there's a bit of desperation that can be seen in her face — holding her son for more than an hour in line can do that. But she said she sees her perseverance too.
She knew the picture had really, truly touched people across the country when her older son, 9-year-old Johnathan, came up to her and told her he too had seen the picture.
"Mom," Clark said her 9-year-old told her over the weekend. "I saw you on TikTok."