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State Rep. Park Cannon probably didn’t expect to be arrested for knocking on a door in the Georgia Capitol. Never mind how innocuous the act: There’s a state law about such things. Georgia’s constitution specifically bars the arrest of a legislator “during sessions of the General Assembly, or committee meetings thereof, and in going thereto or returning therefrom, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace.”
Apparently knocking on a door constitutes a felony. Two, actually: obstruction of a police officer and disrupting a session of the General Assembly. Video from the arrest is going viral.
At least, the Capitol police found a way to charge her with these felonies as five of them hauled her away from the door, behind which Gov. Brian Kemp was busy signing legislation that opponents have likened to the worst abuses of Jim Crow.
“The only thing that’s missing out of this voting bill is a poll tax and the question of how many bubbles in a bar of soap and how many jelly beans in a jar,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP, waiting in the rain under a tornado watch at the Fulton County Jail for Cannon’s release. Behind us, two dozen activists were chanting “No Park, no peace” at mildly irritated deputies.
“I’ve been here before and done this before,” said Cannon’s attorney Gerald Griggs, an anti-racist activist who tends to be the person extracting other activists out of jail in Atlanta. The charges have no merit, he said. “I fully expect that Park Cannon’s name will be cleared.”
Senate Bill 202, now law, requires the use of a state ID to verify identity for an absentee ballot, which might be the least problematic provision. Absentee ballots will only be able to be dropped off during regular business hours at early voting locations. Coupled with strict legal limits on who can drop off a ballot, it effectively makes the use of the drop boxes impossible for people who work nontraditional hours.
While weekend early voting expanded under the law, the overall period of early voting was contracted. The law also allows the State Election Board to remove local election board officials for violations, replacing them with a state-appointed superintendent. Because larger jurisdictions like Atlanta have more voters, otherwise-competent administrators are more likely to err in violation simply as a matter of volume. The provision is a legal fig leaf for a state takeover of city elections.
“This is clear voter suppression, clear racism, a clear manifestation of white supremacy. Georgia is going backwards instead of forwards.”
In an effervescent finishing splash of absurd cruelty, the law makes giving food and water to people standing in line to vote a felony.
“This is clear voter suppression, clear racism, a clear manifestation of white supremacy,” Rose said. “Georgia is going backwards instead of forwards. To them, the Civil War is still going on and this is how they’re fighting it.”
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock got on a plane from Washington, D.C., to help fish her out of jail. Last night around 11 p.m., the two emerged, flanked by progressive activists and other state legislators, to walk her to a car.
“I’ve known Rep. Cannon for years,” Warnock said. “She’s my parishioner. She is understandably a bit shaken by what happened to her. She didn’t deserve this.”
Cannon, 28, is a firebrand progressive representing the trendier parts of Atlanta, an LGBTQ+ icon within the city and widely considered an eventual candidate for higher office. Her star began to rise almost immediately after her election in 2016, when she won a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
I count Cannon as a friend. I’ve been barbecuing with her mother at another state rep’s house. I find her concern about homelessness in the city sincere and her understanding of the root causes deep. Like Warnock, Cannon comes from the city’s progressive protest traditions, where one expects to defy authority in the face of perceived injustice simply to make a point or extract a political cost for intransigence.
Rather than sign the bill in the ceremonial governor’s office, Kemp had taken a nondescript conference room. “There were cops all around this conference room,” said Tamara Stevens, co-founder of No Safe Seats and an Atlanta activist working with Cannon. Stevens recorded Cannon’s arrest.
“Reps. Cannon and Erica Thomas came down, and Park knocked on the door,” Stevens said. “She didn’t bang on the door.” Stevens began taping the moment an officer demanded that Cannon stop knocking, Stevens said.
I’d like to contrast all of this with an infamous photograph of state Rep. Denmark Groover of Macon leaning over the balcony of the Georgia Capitol in an attempt to stop the clock before it struck midnight, which signaled the end the legislative session of 1964. Groover was a Democrat in the vein of Lester Maddox and the architect of Georgia’s runoff system, designed to prevent Black voters from being political kingmakers. He faced no legal consequences for the clock stunt — even though it crashed to the floor — as he tried to prevent a reapportionment that gave Black voters more political power.
Arresting a sitting legislator in the Capitol for anything short of firing a gun in the chamber had been thought beyond the pale, at least until police bundled then-state Sen. Nikema Williams off in handcuffs in 2018. Protesters had been demonstrating in the Capitol over irregularities in the election of Kemp over Stacey Abrams. Williams, tending to protesters, was arrested along with them, her badge plainly visible to police. At the time, she said she believed that she had been targeted by police for her activism. Then, a month ago today, a state trooper grabbed Cannon during a sit-in protest in the halls of the Capitol.
Cannon had been at a protest of Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport when word came down that Kemp planned to sign the bill at 6:30 p.m. Cannon and others sprinted back to the Capitol, about a 25-minute drive north in rush-hour traffic.
Warnock described House Bill 531 — a similar bill making its way through the Georgia legislature — as “desperate” and “democracy in reverse” and said that “the people aren’t asking for this.” Activists have been increasing the pressure on Georgia’s business elite to push back on the legislation, with public protests at the World of Coca-Cola and elsewhere. Threats of boycotts loom, though it’s not clear what form that might take.
Warnock issued a challenge.
“We need Georgia businesses to stand up,” he said. “They too are citizens of this state. I can tell you as someone who is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King served, that come Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the corporate entities will all be falling over themselves to honor Dr. King. If you want to honor Dr. King, stand up to voter suppression right now.”
George Chidi is a columnist for Decaturish.com. A former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and former city councilman for the city of Pine Lake, Chidi also contributes commentary to Fox 5 Atlanta.