Politics

Activists Saw the Attack on Black Voters in Georgia Coming

Demonstrators protest outside of the Georgia Capitol building.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

After historic Black turnout flipped Georgia and sent two Democrats to the Senate, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new law that could hit Black and other voters of color hard. Now the army of activists who turned Georgia blue are battling to keep it that way. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke to LaTosha Brown about the situation. She is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, one of the groups that helped Democrats win Georgia at the Senate and presidential level. We discussed how activists are fighting back against this new controversial law. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: So I just want to start with this: Did you all think that this was going to happen no matter what? Did you think that Brian Kemp was always going to sign laws like this? Had it always been in the hopper, or do you think it was a direct response to Democrats doing so well in the state last November?

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LaTosha Brown: If you know the history of the South, and voting behavior in the South, anytime there has been a Black advancement or Black people have showed up, we’ve seen a white backlash in some form or fashion—something punitive that normally comes up to try to prevent or marginalize our voice and our votes. And so, on one hand, there was something to be expected. We had this historic turnout in this last election cycle. I don’t think we knew that they would go that far.

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Now, mind you, this is a state that both the entire legislative branch and the governor’s office, those are all Republicans. Fulton County is a county [where] you have a sizable Black population. Atlanta is a majority Black city. DeKalb County is a majority Black county. And so those were the counties, quite frankly, that made the difference in this election cycle, which was propelled primarily by Black voters, with other voters as well, particularly communities of color.

But what is so egregious in this bill is that it would give the GOP the ability to take over power from the secretary of state. And so now within this bill, it will take over the secretary of state’s office and will actually take over power of the board of elections in the different counties. So DeKalb County and Fulton County, which they could not control, because you do have Black leadership in those places, they’ve basically essentially given themselves power that they can actually just nullify and say, “We don’t agree with the results.”

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Tell us some of the things that you and Black Voters Matter have faced in Georgia. What kind of intimidation, and sometimes government sponsored or vigilante levels of violence, have you faced just trying to organize people to vote?

This history of Jim Crow, and this history of how there has always been this parallel of not just voter suppression, but violence, right? That has been inflicted in our communities and directed at Black women. What we’ve seen in South Georgia is that we would pull up… I mean, it was like In the Heat of the Night. We would pull up in these rural communities and at a gas station, and in front of us, the gas station owner would literally take the sign and say closed. He might as well say, “Negroes are not welcome.” And literally just look at us and close the sign.

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One trip, we were going from Alabama to Georgia, coming back to Georgia, and the bus windows got burst out. And the white state trooper refused to even go look at the window to file a report. Black officers came, who were with the city police and the local county sheriff’s office. And it was because of them that literally we were actually attended to. Even in Georgia, I’ve gotten unknown, unmarked packages from Russia sent to my house. The bottom line is that it is in that kind of contentious environment that we’ve had to actually hire layers of security as we move around the state. But nevertheless: Can’t stop, won’t stop, we continue to go.

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A lot of the discussion about Georgia has been putting pressure on businesses. What is the role of putting pressure on Delta or Coca-Cola or Home Depot, or any of these businesses? One, how do you guys do that? Two, is it really effective? Could Home Depot, Delta, or Coca-Cola make a difference in these kinds of laws?

So, that’s an excellent question. I think we also have to recognize as organizers, there’s always a relationship between the politics and the economics. And so what we have launched in Georgia is a corporate accountability campaign. We took out a couple of ads, full-page ads, in local newspapers, all across the state, including the ones with the largest circulations, just calling the question. Like, “Are you standing with the voters of Georgia?” A few years ago, there was an abortion ban bill in Georgia. And there were corporations and businesses—primarily the film industry took a lot of the lead that time—that said, “We’re not coming to Georgia. We’re not doing business in Georgia if this is the kind of things that y’all are passing.” We saw the same thing in North Carolina with the bathroom bill. My point is those corporations have an enormous amount of influence and political capital.

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Tell us a little bit about this slate of Black Fortune 500 CEOs that are out there now doing advocacy work and telling these large businesses that they need to pay attention as well.

Number one, I’m going to just lift up that that is what real accountable corporate leadership looks like. To come out and use your power, your space of privilege to say, “This is wrong, and our company is going to call and speak to that being wrong.” We saw that with Salesforce. Every chance I get, I like to shout out to Salesforce, because they’re not even based in Georgia, and they literally came out with the strongest and the most clear statement around these voter suppression bills in Georgia. These Black CEOs that have come out and said that this voter suppression is unacceptable, and they’re going to use the weight of their companies to really push the defeat of these bills all across the nation, that is something that is critical, that is something that is needed, should be lifted up. And I do think that it’s going to change the trajectory.

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There’s a real conflict here. Obviously you’ve shown that you can put pressure on a lot of huge Fortune 500 companies to try to change what’s happening with voter suppression in Georgia, but you have other people who say, “We should just boycott these companies.” Where do you fall on this? Do you think that that corporate pressure on a brand is more effective, or do you think boycotting is the best way to put pressure on state governments to roll back some of these voter suppression laws they’re trying to pass?

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I don’t know if I think that there’s either/or; I think it’s and. There’s this idea that Black people should only have access to one form of pressure. I think when people are fighting you, and your community is under attack, you should use every single tool that’s available to you. And so the AME Church has actually called for a boycott. And while my organization, in particular, has not called for a boycott, we’re also not telling people not to boycott. We believe that people should make choices of who they spend their money with, their hard-earned money with those companies that align with their values. But we’re also saying that there are other strategies as well. And I think that you have to have all of those tools that are working in concert together to put the pressure and light on folks to make these companies actually step up and stand out.

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