This is America, and white supremacy has an unyielding grip on all of our systems, including our politics, our fundamental freedom to vote and our freedom to protest to hold our elected leaders accountable.
That’s why it was no surprise that after back-breaking organizing during the 2020 elections turned out an unprecedented number of voters — during a global pandemic, no less — conservative legislatures across the country enacted a myriad of voter suppression laws.
As we mark the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, a protest march where some 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., it’s more critical than ever that, as we consider federal voting rights protections, we stay vigilant when it comes to protecting newly activated voters who also participate in racial justice protests.
The anti-protest laws introduced this year are widely considered to be a direct response to the protests of 2020 — where nearly 26 million people took to the streets to demand a new way forward when it comes to finally achieving racial justice in America. Our communities — people of color, LGBTQ folks, women, the working class, immigrants and others — recognized their growing power and came together to stop white supremacy in its tracks, even as it fueled new waves of violence and subversion. Despite efforts to misinform and criminalize our communities, we continue to break into mainstream politics and institutions to demand the structures adapt to meet our needs.
So of course those who cling to white supremacist ideology are doing everything they can to maintain their grasp on power. They witnessed what happens when we take our energy and channel it strategically at the ballot box — and they fear what will happen when we understand our power beyond Election Day. So they’ve decided to criminalize our freedom to protest.
Three dozen states have enacted anti-protest legislation. Another 100 state legislatures introduced similar bills that increased the penalties for arrest during protests to felonies that directly threaten their voting rights if convicted.
Not only are organizers in Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin and so many other states left to figure out how and when we can engage and mobilize would-be voters during election season, we’re also facing the prospect of our people losing their right to participate in elections that determine who holds power in the days afterward. When combined with voting rights, and the prospect of racial, partisan gerrymandering, the need for federal action to prevent these laws is more clear than ever before.
These oppressive laws are attacks on our ability to build political power and the community anchors that support our work — the Black church, college campuses, corner stores, and all the other places where people gather and support each other.
As organizers, we expect — and even welcome — challenges and tension in our work. But we also realize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to out-organize laws that seek to silence us. For this reason alone, it is critical that the federal government monitor, and, when needed, should step in to protect communities rising up against white supremacy even when it feels politically risky.
At re:power we know that long-term, ongoing organizing of people of color and our white allies is what will ultimately loosen the tight grip of white supremacy on our institutions of democracy. We ask ourselves every day, “where is the space for progressive BIPOC leadership? How do we make sure our vision for this country, and the needs of our people, are brought to life?” If and when we can’t find what we need, we create it without hesitation: through our trainings, our Women of Color leadership cohorts and more.
That’s why we’re proud to support the March On for Voting Rights planned in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, August 28. This event, and marches like it across the country, let those who wish to silence our voices and our votes know that the progressive movement will not be bullied or made to feel less than. It also serves as a notice to those we helped elect into power: we can’t be expected to continue to deliver wins and ‘save democracy’ if we don’t have federal protection of our rights to organize, protest, and vote.
Karundi Williams is the executive director of re:power, a national training and capacity-building organization focused on racial justice.