Georgia electoral regulation criminalizes the work of activists like me

I became a suffrage activist when I was a student at Georgia State University. As a black, I entered this field to help my community achieve justice and equal representation. After graduation, I started the Georgia Youth Poll Worker Project to help young people have a bigger stake in our electoral system and find work during a major economic downturn. I never would have thought that five years later parts of my work would be forbidden by law. I’ve worked my whole life to stay out of jail, but thanks to a new voter suppression law passed by Georgia state lawmakers, aspects of my job – like handing out water to voters in line – have become – made a criminal offense.

When I was young I wasn’t allowed to buy or play with toy guns. I watched my friends and other children shoot nerf arrows and water pistols at each other. At that age, I just wanted to have fun. I got angry with my parents, not knowing that they were protecting me from those who might see me as a threat to holding a toy. Growing up, my parents, extended family, and church kept reminding me that I had to do the right thing: get good grades, go to college, and avoid drugs. Everyone I met seemed to share knowledge about something I couldn’t understand, like a secret I was too young to understand.

As I got older, I realized that all of these programs were designed to keep me and other young black men out of jail. Imprisonment and even death are always threatened in the black community. The common belief was that if I stayed out of anger, I could avoid such a dreaded fate.

In the summer of 2020, thousands of black youth took to the streets to protest racist injustices and were asked to vote instead. There was historic black voter turnout and strong youth participation in the 2020 elections. But now we are being punished for helping people vote. Society tells us that problems arise in our communities because we don’t participate, but that’s not true. These problems are structural and systemic. Laws like Georgia’s SB 202 criminalize the work of many voting rights activists who vote in every election. As a volunteer citizen and as an election worker, I distributed water to the voters. It is inconceivable that something as basic and impartial as giving water to the thirsty is now illegal.

Throughout American history, the law has prevented target communities from enjoying the benefits of free and fair democracy: during slavery, blacks had no right to vote; During the Jim Crow era, there were legal barriers such as white primaries and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. Georgia is now trying to bring us back to those bleak times with the introduction of SB 202.

People who fight for the right to vote are now targeted and punished as in the past. The civil rights activists we raise – those whose names adorn our buildings, whose birthdays we celebrate as holidays – were once considered criminals in the eyes of their governments. Activists like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were brutally killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi, for registering black voters in the 1960s. One of Georgia’s own congressman, the late John Lewis, was beaten for simply crossing a bridge to protest the disenfranchisement of blacks. These men, and people like them, have been viewed as disruptive to the status quo of an unjust, racist system.