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George on Georgia – Why We Vote

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George on Georgia – Why We Vote

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The John Lewis mural painted by Sean Schwab in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, ,July 29, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.


I met John Lewis three times. As I sit here thinking about what this horrible year has claimed, I wish it had been more. I had excuses to try to be where he was; I’m a high-and-mighty journalist or whatever that means in our digitally-discombobulated world these days. Surely, I could have crafted a rationale.

I wish he were here. Because I would have asked him about the people talking about sitting out the election in January.

The voices out there on both the right and the left, filled with righteous indignation and fertilizer, keep belching raw sewage into the political pool.

On the left, I give you Tamara Johnson-Shealey if you’ll have her. Take her, please. A perennial candidate, she ran for the U.S. Senate — one of the long list of candidates we had to wade through to get to Warnock or Loeffler or someone more sensible than her — on a platform calling for reparations for the American descendants of slavery.

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Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether such a thing makes sense or who should benefit, or what it might look like in practice. Reasonable people, in fact, disagree strongly about such things. Hell, reasonable people who believe reparations are justifiable disagree strongly about such things.

Reasonable people do not suggest, because Rev. Raphael Warnock chooses not to adopt the American Descendants of Slavery [ADOS] position on reparations, that Black people (specifically non-immigrant Black people, because that matters apparently) should boycott the runoff. She’s arguing that Black voters should demonstrate their political power by withholding the vote. She’s made this argument before when she lost a state senate runoff to someone who could actually win an election. No one listened to her then, either.

Johnson-Shealey placed sixth in the U.S. Senate race last month with 2.2 percent of the vote and more than 100,000 voters and I don’t know any of them. I have to wonder how many of them actually knew her. But hey: she raised $50,000 and got other people to pay for a trip to Chicago out of it.

She’s an edge case, I suppose, when compared to the agitation on the far right. There, we have white nationalists taking to the steps of the Georgia capitol, calling for a boycott of a “rigged” runoff election. And yes, they were actually white nationalists, Proud Boys and followers of Nick Fuentes’ “groyper” movement, and cannot be mistaken for anything else. The fellow in one viral video runs a white nationalist blog called Red Elephants out of California. (L. Lin Wood, Trumpist and mediocre attorney, is also calling for a boycott and is quite local, but I sense his connection to those guys is tangential at best.)

They’re saying that the election is rigged and that neither Kelly Loeffler nor David Perdue are willing to … well, you know, violate the Constitution … to give God-Emperor Trump a second term. So, screw ’em. Republicans should be reminded that they will lose elections if they fail to pay homage to the fringes of their party, especially in close races.

See a theme here?

John Lewis was about participation.

“The right to vote is precious. Almost sacred,” he would say, over and over again. “People fought for it. Bled for it. Died for it.”

Lewis didn’t say the right to vote for people I like. He wouldn’t have been making snide jokes hoping that the far-right took calls to boycott seriously. He wanted an honest accounting of the public will. All of it. Everyone.

This was his great gift to us. And that’s because he knew what the alternative would look like, and feel like. It would feel like a truncheon to the skull.

Because that’s the alternative to voting. That’s what happens when people give up on the Democratic process. Voting is what we do so that we don’t settle political arguments in the street. Democracy is an agreement to fight with ballots, not bullets.

The phrase “the bullet or the ballot” comes from a speech made by Malcolm X just before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in which he specifically called out U.S. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia for leading a filibuster against the bill. Malcolm X, too, called for Black voters to withhold their votes … unless those votes would be decisive. Likening a vote to a bullet, he said people should not shoot unless they could hit their target. But he also said — correctly, I believe — that democracy fails when it can’t solve human rights problems with a ballot, and that the alternative is a bloody revolution.

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We saw a piece of that in the street this summer. People saw their political leaders fail to address abusive policing, even in places with overwhelming Democratic and Black majorities. The ballot failed.

That’s what a call to boycott is about. The death threats against legislators we’re seeing in social media? The far-right protesters with rifles before our capitols? All part of the same line; “Democracy has failed you. Abandon the vote and get ready to fight.”

As long as State Sen. Elena Parent has to manage doxxing while people are threatening her life,  I am not going to make febrile jokes about a call to boycott the election, even if we’re talking about the 2 percent fringe on either side of the ledger. I view it as a prelude to political violence that — given the conditions — should be rejected in the strongest possible terms.

If we are going to celebrate Lewis’ legacy, we should be worthy of him.


– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept

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