When the Georgia governor recently signed sweeping new election restrictions, Park Cannon, a 29-year-old state official from Atlanta, knocked on his door.
Cannon wanted to see Brian Kemp sign the bill, but was refused entry. She was handcuffed, dragged out of the state capital and charged with two crimes, obstructing law enforcement and disturbing the General Assembly.
Images of her arrest spread around the world, alongside a picture of Kemp signing the bill, surrounded by white men and under a picture of a slave plantation. It was a remarkably strong echo of the Jim Crow era – and the struggle for voting rights in America.
The Guardian spoke to Cannon about her arrest and the new Georgia electoral law.
Guardian: I wanted to ask how you are and how the last week has been.
Park cannon: Well thanks for asking first. As a black woman, self-care is a catchphrase that many of us try to internalize and act on. Therefore, I am very blessed to be with my family at this moment. We don’t have a full medical report on my injuries yet. However, I continue to hope that I will soon be healed and be with the people again.
Take me back to last Thursday night and walk me through what happened. What was going through your head?
I am elected as that internally [state Democratic] Caucus secretary, like Rosa Parks at the [local] NAACP. In this role, my job was to monitor legislative events such as the signing of bills and to keep minutes. I have pens from Governor Kemp and Governor [Nathan] Deal to prove it. And these bills are important to Georgians when they are enshrined in law. They are important for the issues we represent.
When I was informed infrequently that Senate Bill 202 had been signed, I knocked on the door as usual. I reached out to law enforcement to say the transcript and so we could go into the room and sign the bills. I just wanted to give information back to the members.
I no doubt wanted to witness the signing of Senate Law 202 because I was part of the trial.
Let me ask about the picture of Governor Kemp surrounded by six white men under the picture of a plantation. How was it for you to see this picture?
When I see the photo of Kemp in his office, perched at his desk and strategically positioned under a nefarious painting of a plantation in South Georgia, I immediately think of the Georgians who turned to me to say, “Oh my God my good family had worked in this place for years. ‘In addition, he was flanked by a group of six white lawmakers, all of whom were men. Decades of sacrifices, marches … and the tears that Georgians shed when they voted in dangerous times were erased with the stroke of a pen.
So if I compare that to the photo of [my] illegal arrest, it’s painful. Both physically and emotionally. I really feel like time is moving in slow motion.
What do you mean by that?
It feels like a regression of our rights is taking place. And there are so many steps needed to revive our democracy. But we want to go forward and we want to be united, so the Americans have to keep knocking.
Why was it important for you to be in this room?
This wouldn’t be my first time being the only person of color or black woman in the room.
As secretary for 78 members, it is my job to be present at meetings, signing of bills, press conferences and meetings of the General Assembly in order to protect the professionalism of our state. Given the persistent lack of professionalism and neglect of people’s voting rights, this reflects the lack of concern of other elected officials for the civil rights and human rights of black and brown citizens.
The provision in the bill that a Georgian cannot bring water or food to his friends or family while they are in line – that is a human rights violation. It is more important than ever to be in the room to witness these violations.
I’m curious if you heard about this from the governor’s office, or from the speaker, or from someone who was in the room.
Gerald Griggs, Cannon’s attorney: We have not heard from the governor, the spokesman, or anyone regarding this. We are in the process of reaching the prosecutor, we heard from her. But as for the members who were in the room, we have nothing from them, apart from the public comments made by the governor.
What did you do with what turned out this week as a company taking a hard line on those bills and saying Republicans say concerns are misinformed and exaggerated?
Park cannon: Make no mistake, Georgians understand corporate responsibility. The reason we are referred to as the No. 1 state by the governor himself is because we are positioned as an international state with a capital city that is too busy to hate. For Georgians, this means that corporate accountability is a historic commitment. This is nothing new.
I’m glad people are watching. I’m glad companies hear people. I trust others will keep knocking.
This video of what happened to you has been seen all over the world. What do you want people to know?
This is America. This is not about Republicans or Democrats. All of our rights are at stake here. We must not lose sight of this issue. We have to protect our right to vote. I encourage you to keep tapping.
This interview has been compressed and edited