I Went to Demand that Georgia Count Every Vote. And I (re)Learned an Important Lesson about America.

I went to the Capitol to demand that Georgia Count Every Vote. I left with a much deeper understanding of race in America.

When this came across my Facebook feed earlier this week, I immediately cleared my schedule to go:

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I believe that protest DOES matter, that it can change things. And I’ve also come to believe that it is time for white women to shoulder a far more significant share of the burden of protest. Women of color have carried us for far too long. It’s time to step up and do work that benefits ALL women and all people (white feminism is notorious for it’s disregard for the plight of WOC, trans women, poor women).

Protests also connect me with other folks waging an internal war against the injustices in America. They make me feel like I am DOING something. Something tangible. Something real.

I marched through the streets of Atlanta during the summer of 2016 to protest the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. And I believe it mattered. Seeing white faces protesting black deaths changes the narrative. This is not a “black problem.’ It is an American problem. It is a race problem. And white folks must play a role–a significant role–in solving it.

At every big march I’ve attended, with thousands of people protesting impending fascism, blatant racism, & police brutality, I’ve been aware of the potential for violence from the police. When I walked into the Capitol on Tuesday, the thought never crossed my mind. Why would it? We were there to demand that the state of Georgia count every vote. That is a concept SO BASIC to democracy that there couldn’t possibly be an issue.

Right?

The rally/protest began with a prepared statement about why we were there & what we wanted:

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I wish I knew all the social justice activists in these photos. I don’t. They’re doing the hard work on the ground, and they deserve recognition for it.

From there, we headed to the Secretary of State’s office with a demand to, you guessed it, count every vote. That looked a lot like a bunch of folks trying to crowd in an itty bitty room:

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Don’t think my claustrophobia wasn’t in high gear in this situation.

Are you bored yet? Good. Because that’s the thing… NOTHING wild was happening. People weren’t shouting obscenities. Or zip-tying themselves to furniture. But, one of the Georgia State Patrol officers was NOT feeling us being there. He muscled his way through the crowd, insisting that we couldn’t sing or chant because there was BUSINESS going on in the Capitol. (He’s right. Legally, it seems, singing & chanting is a no-go. But the defense of basic democracy is pretty serious business, too)

At that point, the officer said if there was singing or chanting, we’d be removed from the Capitol. Now, maybe it’s my white girl naiveté, but I thought “removed from the Capitol” meant kicked out. What else could it mean?

These are images of the protest in full swing. Clearly, I did not sense any danger lurking. I’m taking goofy pictures of a statue of a dead white guy & my super-cool sign, for God’s sake. Yes, people cheered. And yes, they started to sing. Singing. They were SINGING.

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This woman was the first one SNATCHED up by police. Literally. The photo is blurry because I was shaking.

I could sense the cops, especially the one who’d been on & on about the BUSINESS occurring in the Capitol, getting more tense. And then, suddenly that same Georgia Patrol pushed past me to grab the woman pictured above. I was doing the exact same thing she was. Exactly. Yet, he pushed me out of the way to grab her (roughly. Way too forcefully, since she’d been SINGING and holding a sign just a minute before). She started yelling because her purse had been on the floor next to her, and she was being dragged away from all her personal belongings. He was screaming at her that they’d get her purse to her. Screaming.

I finally pulled my shit together enough to grab her purse for her & start taking pictures. But I was hella freaked out. Hence the burry, shaky pictures.

Knowing, intellectually, that black people are more at risk for arrest is one thing. Seeing that kind of racism play out is another. And, through my head the whole time ran the refrain: What if they kill her? What if they kill her? What if they kill her? And I knew, in that moment, that I didn’t do enough. Because I was scared. But I should’ve put myself between her & the officer. Because he only targeted her because she was black. And I knew it. But I didn’t put myself between him and her. And I regret it.

This is what unfolded as I was processing my own fear & regret:

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This was all happening SO fast. This young man was in the first round of arrests. He’s not resisting.
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And, if he wasn’t resisting, why did it take SO many officers to subdue him? He was upset his glasses got knocked off his face–because he couldn’t see. And he lost his phone. But I’ve seen people behave more intensely in a grocery store checkout line than this young man.
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This is the Georgia State Patrol that manhandled the first black woman arrested (the one he pushed PAST me to get to). He did not like this woman filming/photographing him. So he yelled at her to get back. Then he put his hands on her. For no reason. At all.

None of the arrests that took place yesterday should’ve happened. But the force with which these first arrests were executed by some of the officers was frightening. And illuminating. I know black folks move through a different America than I do. I am privileged simply because of the color of my skin–and that’s some bullshit right there. But KNOWING it and SEEING it are different. And it cannot be unseen.

In the face of all this excessive force and the questionable nature of the arrests themselves, there were 2 officers that I saw trying damn hard to do their jobs with integrity. Both of them are visible in the photo of the young black man being handcuffed above. The black officer made every attempt to de-escalate an incredibly tense and increasingly volatile situation. From where I was standing (and I was close), he appeared to be patting the young man on the back to reassure him and was speaking to him in low tones in an effort to calm the situation. The white officer next to him (with his back to the camera) showed basic humanity by picking up the young man’s glasses and phone and handing them to one of the man’s acquaintances, ensuring that they didn’t get lost or broken.

After the initial round of arrests, the police presence remained tense. They were prepping for more arrests on their walkie-talkies. NOT preparing to ask folks to leave. Preparing arrest them. And arrest them they did. One after one, they paraded out black protesters. And apparently, even being a state senator didn’t offer any protection:

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But whiteness was enough to protect Representative David Dryer, who was standing right next to Senator Nikema Williams, from getting arrested. He knows it. Anyone who was there yesterday has no doubt that it’s true. Listen to him tell the story:

Nothing I experienced yesterday was unique. Not in America. The idea that somehow we live in a post-racial world grows more absurd by the day. And it is only my privilege as a white woman that has kept me from experiencing this type of police aggression and blatant racial targeting before now.

Black folks have been telling us what’s up for years. Good for you if you’ve been listening. But as racism and aggression grows in America, it’s not enough to be intellectually opposed to racism. As white people, we must become virulently anti-racism. We must put our bodies between black bodies and the aggressor that seeks to harm them. And I’ll be the first to tell you that’s going to be scary as hell. But the future of our country depends on it. Be certain of that.

Author: Kendra Lee

I am smitten with Atlanta. I believe Black Lives Matter. I care deeply about housing justice, education, and transportation. I am a huge MARTA fan. I've got the most adorable second grader, an incorrigible Boxer named Delilah, and a pretty amazing husband named Simon. I've been sober for 9+ years. I heart coffee. On any given day I may write about all--or none--of those things.

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