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“Democracy Demands We Participate”: Black Voters Mobilize for Midterms Amid GOP-Led Voter Suppression

StoryOctober 21, 2022
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Image Credit: Julia Sharpe-Levine

We speak to law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and civil rights attorney Barbara Arnwine, who are on an Arc of Voter Justice bus tour of 26 cities across the country to increase Black voter turnout at critical midterm elections in November. They discuss fighting voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, and the high stakes in states where Republicans have instated bans on what they describe as critical race theory. “African American voters are key to all these races,” says Arnwine. “They’re going to vote what’s in the best interests not only of their community, but the entire nation.” Crenshaw says she is handing out banned books and education to voters because “when racism is unspeakable, then democracy — a full multiracial democracy — is unachievable.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The midterm elections, less than three weeks away, will determine the balance of power in Congress, and Black voters could play a key role. Black voters helped Democrats flip two Senate seats that gave them control of the Senate in Georgia’s 2020 special runoff election. Democratic Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock of Georgia now faces Republican challenger Herschel Walker. This comes as Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp is fighting for reelection against Democrat and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams in a rematch, after he signed into law new restrictions that disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color. It was one of many voter suppression efforts in Republican-led states.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s election police unit — that’s right, he has set up an election police unit — has arrested people for voting. Florida law allows formerly incarcerated people to vote unless they were convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. Those arrested say Florida officials encouraged them to vote, and didn’t know about the exclusion. This is police bodycam footage of Tampa resident Tony Patterson and his arresting officer, recently obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

POLICE OFFICER 1: Apparently, I guess you have a warrant.


POLICE OFFICER 1: I’m not sure.

POLICE OFFICER 2: It’s for voter stuff, man.

POLICE OFFICER 1: For voter —

POLICE OFFICER 2: It’s — what it is, it — I think the agents with FDLE talked to you last week about some voter fraud, voter stuff, when you weren’t supposed to be voting maybe.

TONY PATTERSON: This here is crazy, man. Y’all putting me in jail for something I didn’t know nothing about. Why would you all let me vote if I wasn’t able to vote?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests who are on a 26-city Arc of Voter Justice bus tour. They’re joining us from Jacksonville, Florida, on one of their tour stops. Barbara Arnwine is a civil rights lawyer, president of the Transformative Justice Coalition. And Kimberlé Crenshaw is distributing banned books en route as part of “From Freedom Riders to Freedom Readers: The Books Unbanned Tour.” She’s also executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Barbara Arnwine, your hashtag is #10MillionMoreBlackVotes. How are you doing this?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Oh, we’re doing it in two ways. One is we’re registering new voters. There’s something like 6 million unregistered African American voters in this country. And we’re also saying to those who are registered, the 35% who don’t vote, that you’ve got to show up and show out every election. Don’t only vote presidential. Vote in the midterms. It’s so critical. Vote the whole ballot; don’t only focus on the top positions. But no matter what you do, vote. No matter what you do, make sure you’re registered. No matter what you do, vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk, Kimberlé Crenshaw, about how you’re linking these two issues, the banned book tour, From Freedom Riders to Freedom Readers, and why that’s so critical when we’re talking about voter turnout and voter registration?

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Well, Amy, it’s no secret that our democracy is in crises — the efforts to suppress Black voting, the efforts to gerrymander districts. This is all part of a democracy that’s in deep trouble. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the same people who are trying to gerrymander our districts are trying to gerrymander our history. The same people who want to change the outcomes of elections want to change the story of us, the material, the books that tell the full story about America.

So, we’ve decided that because there is no daylight between racial justice and a fully multiracial democracy, we were going to join this tour to provide the information, the books, that those who are anti-Democrats don’t want us to know. So we’re passing out 6,000 books, titles that have been banned in many of the states that we’re in, ranging from the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old who integrated schools in New Orleans, to classics like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

People need to understand what is behind this effort to ban what they call critical race theory. What they’re essentially doing is banning the telling of our history and its contemporary consequences. We think when voters know exactly what they’re trying to do, they will show up, and, as Barbara said, they will show out.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, can you talk about the response? I mean, you’re right now actually in Jekyll Island, Georgia, headed to Jacksonville. Georgia is — to say the least, all eyes are on this state, when you have this race between Herschel Walker and Reverend Raphael Warnock. Reverend Raphael Warnock just won two years ago but now will run for a full Senate term — all of the attention on this. Can you talk, Barbara Arnwine, about the significance of this race and some of the other ones that you’re tracking?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Well, obviously, African American voters are key to all these races, because — and, you know, we’re nonpartisan, and we believe that if African Americans vote, they’ll vote correctly, because they’re going to vote what’s in the best interests not only of their community, but the entire nation. That’s one thing we know about African American voters: They think broadly. Especially African American women voters have a real sense of social justice for all. So, it’s really important to mobilize this bloc.

And what we’re seeing already in Georgia is an incredible, unprecedented, historic turnout of African American voters. They are 37% of the current early voting percentages. That’s an increase, significantly, from being 29% in the 2018 midterm elections. So, African Americans are hearing us. We’ve been going to communities that have the lowest voter turnout and saying, “Your vote matters. It doesn’t matter if all the candidates don’t come to see you because they don’t consider you high propensity voters; we consider you the most important voters. Register. Vote.”

So, yesterday, when we did our votercade and we went through some of the poorest, most depressed areas in Brunswick, you should have seen the people. This was like what we’ve been seeing everywhere. They came out. They were clapping. They were giving the power fist. They were yelling. They were screaming. They were so excited that somebody considered them important. Somebody was coming directly to them and saying, “Vote. It matters.” It was just beautiful.

That is the experience we’ve had in Richmond, where we were on motorcycles driving through the city with the Buffalo Soldiers in a long, six-block-long motorcade. It’s been amazing. When people see the John Lewis buses, they honk on the freeways at us. They honk as we roll, because people get the message. They’re so happy to see somebody saying “vote” in a positive way, not about candidates, just about the fact that as Americans and the fact that we care and love our democracy, that it demands that we participate, that we vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Kimberlé Crenshaw, you are in Georgia. That other key race is the rematch between the longtime voting rights activist Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp, the governor, for the governorship of Georgia. The significance of this race? And you’re visiting these sites of white supremacist terror, from the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to — talk about the places that you have been.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: Yes. We visited Wilmington, which is the site of a racial coup in 1898. And one of the reasons that was just so significant to us —

AMY GOODMAN: In North Carolina.

KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: — at the African American Policy Forum — yes — was that, when we had the January 6th attempted coup, there were a lot of pundits, including our president, who said, “This is not who we are.” And it is evidence of the fact that when our history has been erased, we don’t know that we’re heading in the same direction. In fact, violent coups are exactly who we’ve been.

But when we went to Wilmington and looked at the site where the coup began, where a newspaper was burned to the ground and countless numbers of African Americans were killed and a duly elected biracial government was deposed, there’s no marker there. There’s no placard. There’s no “this is what happened.”

And that same sentiment, that erasure of our history, is what is behind these book bans and behind the effort to challenge The 1619 Project. It is, in fact, an effort to make racism unspeakable. And our position has been that when racism is unspeakable, then democracy — a full multiracial democracy — is unachievable. There is no daylight between the two. Even though when people think and talk about “Is our country going to the edge? Can it happen here?” a lot of people say it can’t, but that’s just telling us that they don’t realize that Black history and American history are one and the same. It has happened here. And unless we understand its legacy and its implication today, it’s on the way of happening here again. And that’s what we cannot allow to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your plans in Florida. In that video we played in the introduction, astounding story of what the governor has done in having arrested — with his election police, arresting people who were attempting to vote. They said, these men who were in prison and came out, that they can register, and if they qualify — because they didn’t know they did, because they had served time in jail — they will be allowed to vote. And then they were handcuffed and arrested for voting. Your response?

BARBARA ARNWINE: Well, they were handcuffed and arrested for voting while they had in their hands their voting cards. Now, if you’re sent a voting card by your county registrar, wouldn’t you assume that that means you have the right to vote?

So, the fact that DeSantis — you know, people here call him DeSatan — has decided that he wants to use and play the race card by having mostly Black — look at who he’s arresting. It’s not just, you know, whites, because more whites have been affected by these felony disenfranchisement laws than Blacks, but he’s mainly arresting Black people, that he’s playing the race card because he wants to be president. Doesn’t that say something ill about the concept of our democracy, the concept of who we are, that we want a —

AMY GOODMAN: We have —

BARBARA ARNWINE: — person who is using race? Because it worked before, right? With Trump. So they’re saying, “OK, we’ll do it again.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but I want to thank you so much for being with us, Barbara Arnwine, civil rights lawyer with Transformative Justice Coalition, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University, speaking to us from Jekyll Island, Georgia. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much.

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