When the governor of Georgia recently signed sweeping new voting restrictions into law, Park Cannon, a 29-year-old state representative from Atlanta, was knocking on his door.
Cannon wanted to witness Brian Kemp signing the bill, but was denied entry. She wound up handcuffed, dragged out of the state capitol and charged with two felonies, obstruction of law enforcement and disruption of the general assembly.
Images of her arrest spread across the world, juxtaposed with an image of Kemp signing the bill surrounded by white men and under a picture of a slave plantation. It was a remarkably powerful echo of the Jim Crow era – and the fight over voting rights in America.
The Guardian spoke with Cannon about her arrest and Georgia’s new voting law.
Guardian: I wanted to ask how you’re doing and what the last week has been like.
Park Cannon: Well, thank you for asking first of all. As a Black woman, self-care is a buzzword many of us are trying to internalize and to act on. So I’m very blessed in this moment to be spending time with family. We do not have a full medical report on my injuries yet. However, I remain hopeful that I will be healed soon and back with the people.
Take me back to last Thursday night and walk me through what happened. What was going through your mind?
I am internally elected as the [state Democratic] caucus secretary, like Rosa Parks was with the [local] NAACP. In that role, my job has been to witness, and take minutes, on legislative occurrences such as bill signings. I have bill-signing pens from Governor Kemp as well as Governor [Nathan] Deal to prove this. And these bills, as they are enacted into law, they matter to Georgians. They matter to the issues that we represent.
When I was notified, irregularly, that Senate bill 202 was being signed, I was knocking at the door as I regularly do. I was looking to law enforcement to say the protocol and for us to be able to enter the room and sign the bills … all that I wanted to do was get information back to members.
I wanted to without a doubt be a witness to Senate bill 202 being signed because I had been a part of the process.
Let me ask about that picture of Governor Kemp surrounded by six white men, underneath a picture of a plantation. What was it like for you to see that picture?
When I see the photo of Kemp, in his office, perched at his desk, strategically positioned under a disgraceful painting of a south Georgia plantation, I immediately think about the Georgians who have reached out to me to say, ‘Oh my gosh, my family had been working at that location for years.’ And on top of that, he was flanked by a group of six white legislators, all males. In one stroke of the pen, there was an erasure of decades of sacrifices, marches … as well as the tears that Georgians have shed as they vote during perilous times.
So when I juxtapose that with the photo of [my] unlawful arrest, it’s painful. Both physically and emotionally. I truly feel as if time is moving in slow motion.
What do you mean by that?
It feels as though a regression of our rights is happening. And there are so many necessitated steps to revive our democracy. But we want to move forward, and we want to be united, so we need for Americans to keep knocking.
Why was it important for you to be in that room?
This would not be my first time being the only person of color or Black woman in the room.
As the secretary for 78 members, it is my job to be present for meetings, bill signings, press conferences and general assembly sessions so the professionalism of our state is protected. So to see the continued lack of professionalism, and lack of regard for people’s voting rights, it reflects the lack of concern other elected officials have for the civil rights and the human rights of Black and brown citizens.
The provisions in the bill that a Georgian is not able to bring water or food to their friends or family when they’re waiting in line – that’s a human rights violation. Being in the room to witness these violations is more critical now than ever.
I’m curious if you’ve heard from the governor’s office about this, or from the speaker or anyone who was in the room.
Gerald Griggs, Cannon’s attorney: We haven’t heard from the governor, the speaker or anyone in relation to this. We’re in the process of reaching out to the district attorney, we’ve heard from her. But as far as the members that were in the room, we haven’t anything from them, save for the public comments the governor has made.
What have you made of what has unfolded this week with businesses taking a hard line against these bills and Republicans saying concerns are misinformed and exaggerated?
Park Cannon: Make no mistake, Georgians understand corporate accountability. The reason we are called the No1 state to do business by the governor himself is because we are positioned as an international state with a capital city too busy to hate. What that means for Georgians is that corporate accountability is a historical engagement. This is nothing new.
I’m glad people are watching. I’m glad the companies are hearing the people. I trust others will keep knocking.
This video of what happened to you has been seen around the world. What do you want people to know?
This is America. This is not about Republican or Democrat. This is about all of our rights. We must not lose sight of this issue. We must protect our right to vote. I encourage you to keep knocking.
This interview has been condensed and edited