Battling Georgia’s Backlash Against Black Voters

Listen to this episode

S1: This is the word, a new podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Republicans who lost Senate seats in Georgia have responded with a new law aimed at keeping black voters from the polls. Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock says he and the people are fighting back. I’ve got news for the state of Georgia and for those who are trying to take the people’s voices in various ways, we’re going to keep on knocking on that door. What’s next for the battle to keep elections free and fair in Georgia if they ever were? That’s coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. A January special election in Georgia brought a historic number of voters of color to the polls and sent two Democrats to the Senate. Now comes the backlash. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has recently signed a law imposing a raft of ridiculous restrictions on the state’s voters, everything from cutting back on absentee ballot boxes to criminalizing giving food and water to people waiting in long voting lines, lines created by his very same policies. Now, the army of activists who turned Georgia blue are battling to keep it that way. Latasha Brown will be on the front lines of the fight. She’s co-founder of Black Voters Matter, one of the groups that helped Democrats win the Georgia Senate seats and tons of races across the South. Latasha Brown joins us now in a word. Welcome, Latasha.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Thank you, Jason, for having me.

S1: So I just want to start with this. Did you all think that this was going to happen no matter what? Did you think the Brian camp was always going to sign laws like this? Had it always sort of been in the hopper, or do you think it was a direct response to Democrats doing so well in the state last November?

S2: If you know the history of the South and voting behavior in the South, that any time there’s been a black advancement or black people have showed up? Know, what we’ve seen is we’ve seen a white backlash on 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. You know what I think was very in some ways shocking is I don’t think we knew that they would go that far, really predicate all of this on on a big lie that when you look at the state of Georgia, what he fundamentally did is all the things that Trump wanted in place for him to be able to steal and grab and change the results of Georgia. That’s essentially what Brian Kemp did. Now, mind you, this is a state that both the House, the entire legislative branch and the governor’s office is all those all Republicans. So the truth of the matter is the Republicans ran this election and believe you me, everything they could do to cheat within reason or reason, they did that. Right. And so I think it was a little shocking in that in the sense of how fast it moves and just how outright racists, you know, these bills were like they didn’t even try to fix them up to make it seem like for anything else other than we will stop black people from voting. Right. You know, I think that that’s what the attack is as an attack on voters in the state is also an attack on black leadership in the state and out. And I share why. And there’s attack on black organizations. So this is a full frontal attack of literally the universe, the ecosystem that actually helps to mobilize, to empower and protect the black vote, because essentially Fulton County is a county that you have a sizable black population. Atlanta is a majority black city. The county is a majority black county. And so those were the counties, quite frankly, that when you look at the vote share, they made the difference in this election cycle. Right. Which was propelled primarily by black voters, other voters as well, particularly communities of color, but propelled by black voters. But what was what is so egregious in this bill is that now it would give the GOP will actually have 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. It will actually take over power of the board of elections and the different counties. So DeKalb County and Fulton County, which they could not control because you do have black leadership and those places and on those boards of elections that now they’ve basically essentially given themselves power that they can actually just nullify. So we don’t agree with the results.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I’ve covered Georgia. I’ve been down. I used to live down there. And one thing I’ve seen is a particular level of aggression towards black women when it comes to politics. We got I think it was Makima who got arrested, who was a congresswoman who is now in John Lewis seat. And then just this last week, Georgia state lawmaker, part Cannon. All she did was knock on the door of the governor’s office in order to watch him sign legislation and a roomful of white people. And then something happened. We’re going to play a clip about what happened to Part Cannon we’re going to talk about on the other side.

Advertisement

S2: As an elected representative, you are choosing to address an elected official. What makes you want to write the statute, the statute that you are arrested on to

S1: 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

S2: this history of Jim Crow in this history of. There has always been this parallel of not just voter suppression, but violence, right, that has been directed, inflicted in our communities and directed at black women. You know, I’ve seen that clip a million times. I think this is the first time that I’ve actually really just heard it from audio. And it struck me something struck me in just hearing it just now around the other black women that were actually coming to her defense. You know, it’s something about that, that maybe something will happen to me around how black women are treated, that we are one, that we are how we’re mistreating black people in general mistreated, where those who abuse power, but also how courageous sisters are right to stand in the gap. And so what we’ve seen in Georgia, in south Georgia, is that we will pull up. I mean, it was like the heat of the night. We will pull up in these rural communities at a gas station and and in front of us, you know, the gas station owner would literally take the sign and say close. You might as well say that Negroes are not welcome. And literally just like look at us and close aside. One trip we were going from Alabama to Georgia, coming back to Georgia, the bus, we actually the windows got burst out and the state trooper refused to even go look at the window to file a report of the white state trooper on 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. You know, even in Georgia, I’ve got an unknown, unmarked packages from Russia to my house. You know, the bottom line is that it is 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 we continue to go.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: 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, too? Is it really effective like it could Home Depot, Delta or Coca-Cola make a difference in these kinds of laws?

S2: So that’s an excellent question. You know, I think we also have to recognize as organizers, you know, there’s always a relationship between the politics and the economics, always. Right. And so what we have launched in Georgia is a corporate accountability campaign. We took out a couple of it, full page ads in local newspapers all across the state, including the ones with the largest circulation. Just calling the question like, are you standing with the voters of Georgia? A few years ago, there was an abortion ban bill that was in Georgia. And what happened? There were corporations and businesses. Probably the film industry took a lot of that time. Let’s say we’re not come to Georgia. We can’t do we’re not doing business in Georgia. And this is the kind of things that you all are passing. We saw the same thing in North Carolina with the bathroom being. My point is those corporations have an enormous amount of influence and political capital.

Advertisement

S1: Tell us a little bit about this sort of slate of of black Fortune 500 CEOs that are out there now doing sort of advocacy work and telling these large businesses that they need to pay attention as well.

S2: Number one, I will say I’m going to just lift up that. That is what real accountable corporate leadership looks like, that 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. You know, we saw that with Salesforce. Every chance I get, I like to shout out Salesforce because they’re not based in Georgia. And they literally came out with, I think, the strongest and the most clear statement around of 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 is going to change the trajectory.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: 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 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 off?

S2: I think that there’s either or. I think it’s and I think that, you know, there’s always this kind of idea that black people should only have access to one form of pressure. I think when people are fighting you and your communities under attack, you should use every single tool that’s available to you. Well, I do believe that. And so the AMA churches actually call for a boycott. And while my organization in particular has not called for a boycott, we’re also not telling people not boycott. We believe that people should make choices of who they spend. 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.

Advertisement

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on Georgia voting rights. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about the fight for voting rights in Georgia with Latasha Brown of Black Voters Matter. So I want to step back a moment and talk about you now. How did you come up with the idea for black voters matter? What prompted you into creating this kind of organization, this kind of activism?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Black Voters Matter was created in twenty sixteen by myself, along with my brother, Cliff Albright, who is my comrade and brother in this struggle. We’ve been working together as activists, as social justice activists for over twenty five years. I think a turning point campaign for us was in two thousand and two thousand. He and I were both very active in helping to elect the first black mayor of Selma, which is a big deal. I need people to understand the background of that, which is literally when we’re talking about our model, a lot of our models based off that, that here was a city that was 80 percent black, that had never had a black mayor and the same mayor who was the mayor when our people were beaten on the bridge. Bloody Sunday in nineteen sixty five had maintained that was still the mayor in 2000. And it was a combination of what we see across the board. It was a combination of one, how black voters were really marginalized from the process. Right. How that was misinformation to how they would actually use a runoff system. And the third thing was voter suppression, that every element that we’re seeing right now in Georgia. That’s why, you know, Cliff and I was like, oh, we prepare for this when we came to Georgia. We like this. How y’all got. OK, we’re good.

Advertisement

S1: So, Latasha, there are some unique things that Georgia has that have helped in this fight against voter suppression. You got metro Atlanta, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. I think the metro area gets about a thousand new residents a week. And that’s not the case in Alabama. That’s not the case in Mississippi. So when you don’t have that influx of new people and young people and folks from all over the country to build coalitions with, how do you apply the strategies that you guys have used in Georgia to states like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana who don’t have a metro Atlanta to start the fight from?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Excellent question. I think that’s why it’s important that we have an analysis as we’re doing this work in the state and that we’re operating from this framework of helping communities build power as they see that power. As we’re looking at these other states, there’s a number of things that I think one, I think about activating. How do you activate black voters really recognize? How do you have a strategy that is really not centered on political candidates or political parties, but centered on how does that community itself be a power that’s made the difference? Right. Right. Because there are some changes. There’s some shifts. And when you see the opportunity to make those shifts, how can you take advantage of it?

Advertisement

S1: There is a theory that these kinds of voter suppression laws like we’re seeing in Georgia, like we’ve seen in other places, actually have the reverse effect and they make people pay attention and get more organized to actually go out to vote. Do you think that there’s anything to that? Do you think that results in higher levels of engagement?

S2: I don’t think that voter suppression in the South moves, folks. You know, that whole notion that people have to be oppressed like that, that works in our favor for us to be oppressed. There’s something fundamentally I think that that is wrong about that anyway. Right. You but I do believe that what you have to do is take in the in these moments that we’re seeing that we have to actually exploit these moments. We have to take these moments to use them in a way that we’re actually politically educating our communities. I don’t believe that you stop there, for example. The truth of the matter is the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a compromise that it in itself was not enough for us that at this moment that we shouldn’t just say stop the bill and repeal the bill, that ultimately we’ve got to take it further, that what we need is we need the immediate restoration, the John Lewis advancement. It needs to be restored so that we have the immediate restoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We also need H.R. one for the people A.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on Georgia voting rights with activist Latasha Brown. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about fighting voting restrictions in Georgia with Latasha Brown. Joe Biden has been asked a lot of questions about voting rights. Joe Biden has been asked a lot of questions about Georgia. Here’s how Joe Biden recently responded when he was asked about the new law in Georgia. I want us to talk about what that means on the other side of

S2: the new election after that

S3: atrocity. The idea you want any indication that it has nothing to do with fairness, nothing to do with decency. They passed a law saying you can’t provide water for people standing in line while they’re waiting to vote. You don’t need anything else to know that this is nothing but punitive designed to keep people from voting.

S1: Do you have any confidence or are you more enthusiastic that Joe Biden’s in the office? Do you see anything so far that leads you to believe that he’ll be helpful in helping the fight for voting rights?

S2: Listen, I certainly believe that that Joe Biden is going that is like he and Trump. That’s like talk about Mars and Earth, those two completely different planets. I certainly believe that Joe Biden is going to be very different around this particular issue, I think is going to require people putting pressure on the Biden administration and the Senate to end the filibuster and to be very aggressive with this. Part of the concern that I have is I wasn’t terribly excited, quite frankly, about his pick for DOJ as a civil rights person. We weren’t that excited about Merrick Garland. He had no real history of civil rights, none, no history of civil rights over you in the time that I think we need someone. This is when I really need Eric Holder, right? Well, we need someone to really fight and take a stand around kind of voting rights and civil rights. We’ve got he appoint someone to DOJ, who I think is that’s his area of weakness. And I think you’re right. Let me just kind of be honest that, you know, the bottom line is I don’t know anybody that fights for democracy, you know, in a ways that black people and communities of color have fought for democracy. But I actually think this is the most critical issue facing this country, not just because of black people, but what happens. Those laws that are designed to impact black people also have a measurable impact on the entire country. And that when you actually in France, the rights of black folks, that you are actually putting democracy, not just the black vote, you’re putting democracy in jeopardy.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So, Latasha, people see what’s happening in Georgia and they’re in different places. They’re there in Pennsylvania. They’re in Michigan, they’re in Ohio, they’re in Arizona. And they they want to participate. They want to help. They want to help fight voter suppression, Georgia. But sometimes they’re facing similar problems in their own backyard. So what is your advice to people who both want to be involved? They want to help, but they also may be facing these issues at home?

S2: Well, let me say this. While we’re based in the south, we’re in Michigan. Let me be real clear where black people were in this last election cycle. We were in Michigan. We were in Pennsylvania, like where we’re in those south states, too. But I think the way that people can actually support one, I think it’s important to really be able to support our work, followed by our work with support, our work. So go on. Black voters matter. Find that one of the things you can do, we always have opportunities for volunteers. We do text message parties, we do postcard campaigns. We’re always campaigns that are going on that you can get involved and get engaged. But the second thing that what we believe is also that all power is local and that is important whether it’s a black voters matter, it may not be a black voters matter in your community, but there’s some organization that is on the front lines doing this work. That’s what our premises our premise as an organization is that there is already existing infrastructure. How can we build the capacity that and we know that to be so because last year we were able to identify over 600 organizations that are actually doing work in the 15 states. And we were able to invest over 10 billion dollars in those 600 organizations. So they are there. They are on the ground, black grassroots groups. And so what we ask is that you take time also to reach out and find out who’s doing work in your community, because we do believe that all politics are local and support. Find a political home that you can be involved in, that you can be engaged in. Right. A five dollar check or five hundred dollar check. You will be amazed at even those small donations, how they actually are affirmations. They’re saying that you’re doing a good job, right? They’re saying that we’ll work with you. We’re standing with you. The third thing is that we’ve got to make sure this voter suppression is not just coming. Whatever happens in the south, I’m telling you, is coming your way. Right. And so I think it’s really important that you all literally reach out to your senators, your congressional delegation, and let them know that it is critical that they support and do everything that they can to support the passage of H.R. one and H.R. four to get it out of the Senate, if that means in the film. Something, you got to end the filibuster, and I don’t see any other way to do it without ending the filibuster, so we have to really take this as not a Georgia issue. This is a democracy issue. This is a human rights and a civil rights issue.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Latasha Brown is co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Thank you so much for getting on today with us.

S2: Thank you. Jason, thank you for having me.

S1: If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. Did you know you could be listening to this show ad free? All it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month. And it also helps us keep making our podcast sign up now at Slate Dotcom a word. Plus, the show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcast. It’s Lee June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.