I jumped into activism when a local bar used a racial slur as the name of a drink. The name disrespected and devalued my entire community with no consequences. This wasn’t a hate crime, but the effect is similar—to spread a message of supremacy and scare marginalized communities.
In January, I launched my campaign with a rally in support of a bipartisan, LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill (HB 426) with a call to #UniteAgainstHate to draw attention to the fact that Georgia was one of just four U.S. states without a hate crimes law. On June 23, the Georgia Senate passed HB 426, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law. This victory was hard-won, but it shouldn’t have been. The law should have passed long ago, not just after the public, extrajudicial killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many more.
In 2019, HB 426 passed the Georgia State House, but not the Senate. The bill was sponsored by a Republican, and many Democrats and Republicans worked together to write and pass the legislation. I was alarmed to see that my elected official, state Rep. Houston Gaines, voted against the bill, breaking from his own party’s leadership. To me it is unconscionable that he would vote to increase protection for Confederate monuments (SB 77) but not to provide greater protection to his own constituents who are targeted because of their identities.
In February, I took several middle-school students from my community to meet with every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill was stalled. It was clear that certain members of the committee were content to let the bill fail, forcing activists and legislators to start from scratch in the next cycle.
Then came the protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Arbery, Brooks, Breonna Taylor and so many others. These tragedies brought more Georgians into the movement against hate. After weeks of constant protest, phone calls and lobbying led by the Georgia NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, Maura’s Voice and business leaders, more legislators finally got on board.
I was glad to see my opponent, Gaines, reverse his position and vote for the hate crimes bill the second time around. I would like to believe his change of heart is genuine but, on the same day, he also voted for HB 838, the “police bill of rights.” That bill affords police officers extra legal protections and privileges as a separate class of citizens. The new law would restrict the nature of interrogations when a police officer is under investigation, potentially delaying justice. Not only is this dangerous, but also it’s irrational. “Police officer” is an occupation, not an identity, and it’s insulting to people with marginalized identities for our representatives to draw this false equivalence.
I’ve spent my career calling for justice and equity. In the past few weeks alone, I led two Justice for Black Lives rallies that drew over 2,000 community members. The hard work of local activists—many of whom have been publicly demanding justice every day for weeks on end—is paying off. The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted on June 25 to relocate the Confederate monument downtown, despite the 2019 law Gaines voted for, which intentionally makes it difficult to achieve.
Gaines hasn’t joined any of the rallies in Athens, and he hasn’t communicated any intention to address the issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Instead, he publicly declared his refusal to listen to some propositions to address police accountability. This kind of reactionary, empty leadership is not only disappointing, it’s dangerous.
Without a pandemic to interrupt the legislative session, without Arbery’s murder, the hate crimes bill would have failed, in part because of Gaines. As a legislator, it’s rare to get a second chance. We need elected officials who will make the right decision the first time around. In my activism, I work deliberately with the community, elected officials and law enforcement to create a better system of public safety and transformative justice by dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, ending cash bail and increasing citizen-led police accountability.
HB 426 passed on the day of Brooks’ funeral. The movement that has swelled around him and other victims has been heartbreaking, beautiful and effective. But none of these souls signed up to be a martyr. Their families did not ask for their mourning to be broadcast publicly to force our leaders to step up and do their jobs. But when it comes to advocating for Black lives and safety for our communities, Gaines’ silence at the Capitol speaks volumes.
Johnson is the Democratic candidate for the House District 117 seat. Gaines declined an opportunity to respond to this op-ed.
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