“If for some reason they were still intent upon some crazy suppression bill, then we were going to need a bigger plan,” said Texas state Rep. Jasmine Crockett of the discussion that led her and dozens of Texas Democrats to fly out of the state in an effort to prevent the passage of legislation that makes it harder for Texans of color to vote.
“I was unlawfully arrested,” Georgia state Rep. Park Cannon explained to Blavity about her arrest at the Georgia Capitol in March. “And in violation of the constitution of Georgia, the capital police officers continued to show their commitment to a supremacist system.”
As Blavity previously reported, Crockett and Cannon were among a number of legislators and activists who have responded to a multipronged Republican-led assault against voting rights in this country, aimed at making voting harder for mostly Democratic and Black and brown communities. In this, the second of a three-part series on the fight for voting rights, we highlight some of the many politicians, activists and professionals who have been leading the charge to defend our most basic political right.
Lawmakers in state capitals and Washington stand up for voting rights
For Cannon, a Georgia state representative since 2016, Georgia’s Senate Bill 202 — the so-called Election Integrity Act — was produced in an unusually secretive way. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there were less public hearings and fewer state legislators involved in crafting the bill than in normal times. The bill was passed and signed only an hour later, in the evening, “so they could sign the bill at 6:30 p.m. without all the lawmakers knowing,” Cannon said. When Cannon knocked loudly on the locked door in an attempt to get into the chamber where Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was signing the bill, she was arrested by Georgia Capital police. Felony charges were initially filed against her but were later dropped.
In Texas, Democratic state lawmakers eventually decided to leave the state to prevent Republicans from having a quorum necessary to pass restrictive legislation. This drastic step only occurred after Democrats attempted to negotiate with their Republican colleagues, but “those negotiations proved to be fruitless,” recalled Rep. Crockett. Despite “over four hundred [people] testifying against this bill and giving specific stories,” the Republican-led government officials pushed through a slate of voting restrictions. And so, as Blavity previously reported, Crockett and dozens of other Democrats boarded two private jets and left the state for Washington, D.C., where they stayed for several weeks, delaying Republican efforts to pass the Texas restrictions and lobbying Congress to pass federal voting rights protections. Despite the efforts of Crockett and her colleagues, however, Texas eventually passed the new restrictions.
Politicians, pastors and activists have been marching on Washington
When Crockett and her fellow lawmakers arrived in D.C., they joined an active coalition of activists and politicians who have been drawing attention to the urgency needed to pass voting rights legislation. Georgia Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock has emerged as a moral leader on the issue, using his pastoral skills to deliver rousing speeches on the need to pass voting protections and to alter the Senate’s filibuster rules so that Republicans cannot continue to block such legislation. “The most important thing that we can do this Congress is to get voting rights done,” Rev. Warnock urged from the Senate floor last week in a speech that has been shared on social media numerous times.
Warnock calls for filibuster change for voting rights: “The judgment of history is upon us. Future generations will ask, ‘when the democracy was in a 911 state of emergency, what did you do to put the fire out?’ Did we rise to the moment? Or did we hide behind procedural rules?” pic.twitter.com/nJYyTy3sAm
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 14, 2021
But Warnock isn’t the only member of Congress or the only pastor to publicly push for protections. Protests for voting rights became a regular occurrence in Washington D.C. this year, with hundreds of activists arrested at various times throughout the year. Among those taken into police custody were Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
A number of prominent Black clergy have engaged in marches, speeches and civil disobedience, and have been taken into police custody as well — these include civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. William Barber II., co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Joining these politicians and preachers have been activists like Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, and Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
Activism on Capitol Hill and beyond
In August, Blavity interviewed Albright weeks after he and several other protesters had been arrested in one of many demonstrations. “We blocked the doors. And we locked arms, 10 of us, locked arms in front of the Senate office buildings; civil disobedience, and we got arrested,” Albright described when talking about his July arrest. Such direct, in-your-face activism is a necessary part of the fight, Albright argued. “Phone calls are cool. Text messages are cool. Emails are cool. All that activism is cool, but we’ve got to be willing to escalate our level of activity on these to let them know how serious we are about the voting rights.”
The other key to this fight, Albright argued, was to avoid solely concentrating on Washington D.C. In addition to the work that he and others have done in Washington, Albright detailed various actions that his networks have carried out across the country. On their way to Washington, “we did a whole freedom ride, which had us go to 10 states in nine days, talking about voting rights and talking about the spirit of the 1961 Freedom Rides and trying to get people to recognize that we are in a historic moment.” Much of the energy of the current movement, Albright noted, has come from “the smaller communities, the rural communities where people are so glad that somebody is coming to them and acknowledging the issues that they are dealing with, both the voter issues as well as the other issues.”
Such cross-state activism has helped to spread awareness of the assault on voting rights and build resistance to these measures. Another aspect of spreading the message and stirring up action has been through the media. In the midst of so many other issues — COVID-19, police reform, the housing crisis, education, economic hardships and more — there’s been a danger that voting rights would be lost in the shuffle, both in the government and in media coverage.
One person who is stepping in to fill the gap is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Howard University faculty member Nikole Hannah-Jones. When Blavity spoke to Hannah-Jones in July about her move to Howard, she discussed her motivations for founding a new Center for Journalism and Democracy on the campus. “One of the reasons I’m founding the Center for Journalism and Democracy [is] because I don’t think that journalists are covering this with the proper urgency and the proper historical insights,” she said of the current movement to limit voting rights and censor academic discourse on issues like critical race theory. She compared the current moment to the period after Reconstruction, during which Jim Crow laws were put in place to undo the progress that had been made in securing rights for Black Americans.
This has just been a sampling of the many individuals, organizations and movements that are mobilizing to defend voting in America. There are many more stories to tell. Students from across the country have spent the last couple weeks engaged in a hunger strike aimed at pressuring lawmakers to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. This protest began in Arizona, where students met with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, one of two conservative Democratic senators (along with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia) who have stated their support for voting rights reform but have objected to changing Senate filibuster rules to pass the legislation. Meanwhile, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has called for the holiday that bears his name to be turned into a day to protest for voting rights legislation — “no celebration without legislation.” Countless other stories could be told from this year of people descending upon Washington, mobilizing in their local communities and even pressuring corporations to act to protect the right to vote.
While all these people come from different locations and occupations and employ different tactics to fight for voting rights, they are united by a sense of civic duty. “On that day, I was doing my job,” Rep. Cannon said of her motivations for objecting to Georgia’s voting restrictions and getting arrested in the process. “It has never been about me,” said Rep. Crockett when discussing her efforts to protect Texans’ rights. “It’s been about being a voice for the people of my district.” Hannah-Jones holds similar lofty expectations for her profession. “I do believe strongly that journalism is the firewall for our democracy. That journalists are the ones who expose the way that power is wielded against the vulnerable,” Hannah-Jones told Blavity.
The other thing that has united elected leaders, clergy, journalists and activists has been a shared sense of urgency. Hannah-Jones argues that “we’re seeing more voting suppression laws being introduced than we’ve seen since the 1960s.” In the face of such a concerted effort against voting rights, especially for Black people, Hannah-Jones warns that “we need to look right now at what’s happening and ensure that we are fighting back before it’s too late.”