From slavery, to Jim Crow, to, now, mass incarceration, America has tied Black people's hands behind their backs, refusing to let them practice basic rights, including the right to vote. For those of us with convictions, this is called felony disenfranchisement, and it prevents millions from being able to have their voice heard in the political process. On March 1 of this year, Act 636 restored voting rights to: formerly incarcerated people (FIP) who are off probation or parole; those who have been on parole for at least five years; and those who are on probation and haven’t received a new conviction. From June 30 to July 3, VOTE and Black Voters Matter drove across Louisiana to register anyone eligible under this new law. We learned and were reminded of many things on the road, such as the unstoppable power of the people, the importance of directly impacted leadership, and the depth of love and strength in our communities. Between now and the fall elections, we’ll be taking the following lessons with us as we register even more FIP to vote.
1. The South is rising.
Before we started the tour, we faced some pushback about what we were doing. That pushback promised that the old South is being rattled. For years, southern states have been called ‘backwards,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘not progressive.’ These are excuses for the racism and oppression that happens in these states. Our bus tour dispelled these narratives, showing all involved that the South is not stuck in its racist history. Loud and proud, we drove a giant bus that read “Black Voters Matter” in big letters across the very southern state of Louisiana. This is the new South. Just as the Freedom Riders drove interstate buses into the segregated South to create change, we also rode a bus that challenged the narrative of the old South.
2. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A core principle of VOTE’s work is that those who are directly impacted by oppression need to be the leaders of liberation work. In other words, the ones closest to the problem are closest to the solution, as our great leader Norris Henderson often reminds us. Black Voters Matter, our co-hosts on the tour, is led by people of color who live the reality of racism every day. At each stop, they got off the bus and started a dance party to James Brown’s Say it loud! I'm Black and I'm proud. As leaders whose experiences matched those of the people attending our tour events, they knew what to talk about, rally around, and chant for. They energized fellow Black communities across the state in both rural and urban areas, proving that having leaders who truly represent us can power up lasting change.
3. No matter the size of a community, the strength it holds can make a difference.
We thought the smallest towns would have the least turnout, but we were proved wrong. Monroe has a population under 50,000, but more than 100 people came out to greet our bus. It felt as though the whole town of Monroe has been waiting decades for a moment like this to happen, reminding us that we can’t leave anyone behind. By being acknowledged and reminded of their power to change the way things are, the people of Monroe became an army ready to restore rights back to their formerly incarcerated community members.
4. One person, one vote can make a difference.
At the end of our first day of the tour, everyone was on the bus ready to leave Baton Rouge and get some rest before continuing on. Before we could leave, though, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith--who was instrumental in helping us pass Act 636--needed to give us a pep talk. “You really have the chance to make a difference in your state,” Smith said as she explained why voting is so important. As someone who represents the positive power of the system, her words encouraged us for the rest of the tour. But she wasn’t the only one! Throughout the tour, folks from all over Louisiana showed us that they vote because the know that their voice matters!
5. Voting can help us change our reality.
Even though the majority of people we met along the road wanted to vote, we also meet people every day who don’t make voting a priority because they are struggling to get their basic needs met. As an organization that is led by formerly incarcerated people who have struggled and continue to struggle for their basic needs in some ways, we do not minimize how hard it is to find a job or housing, for example, with a conviction on your back. By electing people who care about us into office, however, we can work with them to end these hardships.
6. Voting can save lives.
After our first stop in Baton Rouge, we took a detour to the corner store where Alton Sterling was shot by the police to pay our respects. On the day he was murdered, Sterling was selling CD’s as he normally did, trying to make some money to support himself. What happened that day is an example of anti-Black violence and the abusive power of the state that allows it to continue. After we parked, everyone got off the bus in silence. Then, immersed in emotions, we held hands in a circle. The sobering moment reminded us how deep the abusive power in this country is, and why we need to do the work that we are doing. People are murdered by state violence every day in this country, and the only way we are going to stop it is if we stop the people behind it. That’s where voting comes in. Who’s in charge of the state? The people we elect. Sterling was murdered because we have elected people who not only tolerate, but support anti-Black violence. But we have the power to elect people who support Black liberation, instead, especially this fall. In other words, our votes can save lives like the one of Alton Sterling.
7. The system is not on our side as much as they need to be.
Because anyone who is newly eligible to vote under Act 636 needs to get paperwork from their local probation and parole office confirming their eligibility, we need cooperation from those offices. In many locations they did support us by showing up and helping smooth the registration process, but their help was not enough, and we learned that most acutely in Shreveport.
There, we held the voter registration right in front of the parole and probation office. Jimmy Taylor, a person we were helping to register, had filled out the registration form and obtained the necessary eligibility paper from the probation and parole office. Since he already had a valid license, he had all three pieces that he needed to finally register. In other words, that moment that should have represented joy and hopefulness. Instead it turned into frustration and disappointment when we realized that the paper that the parole office gave him was for a person named Wendell Sessions, who lived all the way across the state in Metairie.
If we did not catch that mistake, Mr. Taylor could have easily been reincarcerated for voter fraud. The parole and probation office should have been trained enough on voter registration to make sure a mistake like this would not happen, as the registration process is already hard enough for our people as-is. In other words, we can’t be the only ones to make sure people have everything they need, and are getting registered to vote properly. The system, such as the Secretary of State’s office, needs to do their part. We can help along the way, but there is only so much we can do as a small organization.
8. It is going to be a long fight, but a fight that’s worth fighting for.
“No surrender, no retreat” was a popular rally chant throughout the bus tour, reminding us that, despite the administrative setbacks, we’ll keep fighting. Persistence through hardships always wins. For example, though we received a lot of press coverage of the bus tour, not every outlet spoke about us in the most humanizing ways, reducing us to “convicted felons” and the like. These degrading labels paint us as ‘criminals’ who are being ‘let back into society.’ Narratives like these make it harder for people to change their mindset, which is the first and most important step in creating change. Changing the way people think is hard, but not impossible, and for that reason we will not give up.
9. It’s not just about getting people their voting rights back, it’s about making our communities whole.
This tour was bigger than just getting people to register to vote--it was to affirm our humanity. This was clear when a woman in Baton Rouge pulled her car in front of the bus to stop us in our tracks, find out what we were about, and share her story with us. The woman, Patricia Richard, explained to us how she herself is formerly incarcerated. Though she had been arrested 22 times and struggled with substance abuse, she overcame those hardships and has been clean for 15 years. Even better, she now runs her own organization that gives back to the community, and is a registered voter. She fights on behalf of her brother, who is currently incarcerated at Angola, and doesn’t let her obstacles define her destiny. Her story reminds us that we are people who are more than our past. We deserve to be treated as full human beings. We deserve to practice our freedom by taking actions that better ourselves, our families and our communities.
10. Love conquers all.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” In other words, love is a powerful tool to create the change we want to see. Love is actionable. It is a force of social justice that brings us together and builds people power.
During the bus tour, we made sure to let people know that we wee not just here to register people to vote. We were also there to spread love. “We love you,” LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the crowd at one stop. “And sometimes we don't hear that. We don't see that. We don't believe that. But we drove all the way down here to tell y'all we love you.” And we felt the love in return. At each stop, we were welcomed with big hugs and warm smiles. We didn’t know most of these people and most of us hadn't set foot in any of these towns before, but their love radiated all over and we instantly felt like a part of their community.
We want to create a world where people feel loved and cared for, especially those who have suffered under the prison system. Voting is an expression of love, an expression of caring for ourselves and others. And this fall Louisiana has a huge chance to completely change the political climate and elect people who really care about us. ALL 144 State Representatives and Senators, as well as the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State will be up for election on October 12. In order to vote, the deadline to register in person is September 11th, and the online registration deadline is September 21st.
If you (or anyone you know) are eligible to vote under the Act 636, this is your time to change the course of your future! You can still ‘hop on the bus’ by contacting us to help you register to vote, and making sure everyone you know is ready to vote this fall!