The deadly pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol in January ignited a nationwide discussion about the rise in white, anti-democratic political violence. But Black activists on the front lines of the fight against right-wing voter suppression have witnessed that white rage for years, and they knew well its potential for combustion.
“Seventy-one percent of white voters in Georgia voted for Donald Trump, and he still lost,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. The progressive Atlanta-based organization is focused on voter outreach and activation, particularly in Black and brown communities.
“There’s a realization that you don’t need the majority of white Georgia voters in order to win a statewide election ― that the future of winning Georgia, the future of winning elections in future Georgia requires you to appeal to a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual majority,” Ufot said.
With their 2020 victories, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff became the first Georgia Democrats to serve in the U.S. Senate since 2005. President Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992.
“We knew that there would be a whitelash as a result of it,” Ufot said.
That knowledge wasn’t just a premonition. Ufot said she and the New Georgia Project frequently receive tips from Black activists who organized during the civil rights movement, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“They give us the game,” Ufot said.
This relationship between movement leaders of the past and present contradicts media narratives looking to cast individual activists into simple roles, she added.
“American culture, popular culture, desires a superhero for every story,” Ufot said. “It’s important for us to know how progress was made.”
She noted that archived, historical documents are a vital way for activists to learn strategies from previous generations, but she said modern activists’ typical method of communication ― email ― is less archivable and always carries the risk of surveillance by law enforcement or nefarious groups.
In response, her organization is working with movement leaders and scholars across the country to help activists archive and share communication in a way that is “responsible and right for the movement we’re building.”
“The work that we do needs to be sort of underscored by a serious understanding of history and the political realities that we are currently organizing in if we plan to win,” she said.
Kat Calvin, the California-based founder of Spread The Vote, launched her organization in 2017 to help voters get identification cards they needed to cast ballots. Republicans in states across the country have instituted a raft of new voter identification laws in recent years, despite evidence from voting rights activists showing the laws disproportionately impact poor and nonwhite communities.
Spread The Vote operates in nearly two dozen states, and Calvin is planning to expand into more states to meet growing demand as GOP lawmakers throughout the U.S. continue proposing voter ID laws.
“We get comfortable,” said Calvin, who called Republicans’ nationwide voter suppression push “really shocking and really terrifying.”
“It’s so important for us to remember our wins are not permanent,” she said.
In his 1999 book “The Unsteady March,” political scientist Philip Klinkner examines wins and losses in the prolonged fight for racial justice in America to make the argument that true progress traditionally requires sustained effort. Calvin recommends the book to others because it talks about the inevitable setbacks experienced in antiracist movements.
She said knowing that history is crucial to maintain perspective amid an onslaught of far-right attacks on democracy.
“That doesn’t mean we stop fighting. It means that when we have losses, we just recognize this is the path that history always takes,” she said. “And it just means that you have to just keep on this path, knowing we’re still a little higher and a little better off than what they were 50, 75, 100 years ago.”′
Recently, the national spotlight has rotated to Arizona, where white Republican officials have continued their attempt to overturn last year’s election losses by parroting Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of voter fraud in districts with large nonwhite communities.
Multiple court rulings have upheld the election results and found no evidence Arizona’s elections were impacted by voter fraud, yet Republicans hired a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist to conduct a so-called “audit” of the vote, including a mysterious review of millions of ballots.
Arizona Republicans have also introduced a slew of voter suppression measures to restrict voter access in upcoming races, including a bill that would purge voters from the state’s permanent early voter list.
“The effect of this bill will make it harder for independent voters, seniors, Native Americans, Black, brown and low-income people to vote,” Arizona State House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D) said during debate over the bill last month. The bill was voted down, but Arizona Republicans have proposed reintroducing it once their review of the ballots is complete.
Bolding, who was elected to the state House in 2015, said Republicans are using voter suppression to push back against Democratic wins at the national level, but also locally in Arizona, where Black and brown progressive organizers have successfully wrested political power traditionally consolidated among white, right-wing state officials. Democrat Mark Kelly’s election to the Senate last year marked the first time in nearly 70 years Arizona sat two Democratic senators at once.
“The voter suppression effort we’re seeing in Arizona now is really a culmination of progressive wins over the last 10 years,” said Bolding, who co-founded Our Voice, Our Vote AZ, a voter advocacy group for Black and Latinx communities.
In the last decade, local organizations like Our Voice, Our Vote and LUCHA Arizona, a social justice organization geared toward Latinos, have mobilized Black and brown community leaders with deep ties in the state to encourage voter participation.
In spite of progressive victories, the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol in January ― a violent response to progressive victories ― has brought the issue of political violence in America back to the fore. That potential for violence looms in Arizona, where armed, right-wing protesters appeared at the Capitol days after President Joe Biden’s election victory and, earlier in the year, an arsonist set fire to Democratic Party headquarters.
“As a legislator, but also, as a husband and a father, I think I absolutely have to think through the type of violence that we’ve seen historically here in Arizona and in this country, and what that means for the movement and the push,” Bolding said.
“I weigh that with what needs to be said in the moment to witness actual change here in Arizona. Power has never conceded without a challenge.”
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