Brian Kemp, Governor of GA, poses with known white supremacist at campaign rally.
I was asked to contribute to this issue because of my activism in Georgia state politics, a recent and unexpected turn in my poetry career prompted by the Georgia GOP’s ultimately successful years-long effort to legalize the concealed carry of firearms in my creative writing classroom and elsewhere on Georgia college campuses. My civic engagement at the state-level began successfully at first. In the spring of 2016 during my third year as an English professor I worked feverishly with a small group of dedicated university faculty and staff to organize locally the general opposition to HB 280, the guns on campus bill. The bill was sitting on Governor Deal’s desk awaiting either a signature into law or a veto. For the better part of the spring of 2016, we campaigned ardently for the veto.
The fight was personal for me. During my student years the literature classroom had been a space of freedom, a line of flight (to use an academic cliché), and this law threatened the possibility of my classroom ever serving as such for my students, whose educations were often already compromised by their efforts to manage the financial burdens of school. Our grassroots group had held several rallies against the law that had gotten us on the news and we had run a day-long twitter storm in which hundreds of students, faculty, and community members had tweeted the governor images of themselves holding signs demanding a veto. The twitter storm had gotten us on all the local news shows and a fair amount of national press, mostly because local hero Michael Stipe of R.E.M. had given us a photo of himself to tweet. 1 That May Governor Deal did in fact veto the law. But the following year in the spring of 2017, the NRA was holding its annual convention in Atlanta. Trump, who had only been president for a few months, was scheduled to speak. Governor Deal serving out the final months of his last term signed the bill into law, caving to the gun lobby and ensuring that the GOP’s nominee for his job in 2018 would be seen as a pro-gun, pro-Trump candidate.
What I want to try to articulate here is what I learned about the political culture surrounding guns in Georgia as I fought the gun law in 2016 and later as I volunteered for candidates for state office who promised to repeal guns on campus. It appears obvious to me now, especially after the gubernatorial race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, that the politics of guns is inextricable from racial politics in Georgia and given the recent rise in right-wing extremism this is likely true in the country as a whole.2 Brian Kemp became nationally known for two things: pointing a gun at a teenager in one of his campaign ads,3 and for refusing to recuse himself from his position as Secretary of State.4 Like Trump, Kemp bucked long-respected norms and by doing so he ensured he would be supervising his own election. Stacey Abrams, the Georgia house minority leader, who would have been the first black woman governor in the entire country, won Page 143 / April 2019 the Democratic nomination handily. I was an avid Abrams supporter because she promised to repeal guns on campus. I had met with her over the issue in 2017 at the beginning of her last session as minority leader, shortly before she declared that she would run for governor. In that meeting she told me that if the bill passed, the only way to repeal it would be to turn Georgia blue. So in 2018 I volunteered for several campaigns working towards that end.
If you followed the 2018 elections in Georgia at all, you know that part of Kemp’s victory strategy was to disenfranchise black and other voters of color. Abrams had made clear that to win she wouldn’t be attempting to woo moderate GOP voters to the Democratic ticket, the usual strategy of GA Democrats that has never been successful. Instead, she would run a campaign to inspire inactive voters, namely millennials and people of color, to turn up at the polls. Kemp used his position as Secretary of State to make voting for people of color as difficult as possible. On election day for instance wait times in majority black counties near Atlanta reached four hours. A Time article posted online the day after the election elaborates on some of Kemp’s tactics: Much of voters’ and advocates ire has been aimed at Kemp. In early October, he faced a lawsuit from civil rights groups for blocking the registrations of thousands of minority voters. Just last week, a judge ruled that new citizens whose voter registrations were flagged5 under the state’s “exact match” law should be permitted to vote. Some 3,000 voters could be affected by that decision. And on Tuesday, a group of five Georgians filed a last minute lawsuit6 to keep him from engaging in counting votes or certifying the results of the midterm election. The suit cites Kemp’s recent unfounded allegation that Democrats had attempted to hack the state’s election system as well as the other challenges he has faced throughout the election.7
What was happening in our state was obvious, even for a newcomer like me. The white conservative political machine that had ruled here seemingly from the beginning of time worked tirelessly to ensure it wouldn’t lose to a black woman. Demographic studies often cited in the press8 have Georgia on schedule to turn blue within the next few years. To stave off this threat coming early, Kemp used voter suppression strategies that harkened Page 144 / April 2019 back to Jim Crow and the civil rights era, a luxury afforded him by the Supreme Court’s recent repeal of the Voting Rights Act. The battle for Georgia between Kemp and Abrams is absolutely part of a much longer fraught and violent history of the south, which several stories emerging around the election made clear. Newsweek, The Daily Beast and The Root, for example, all reported on a Georgia Militia that had posted a recruitment video online in which images of members shooting semi-automatic rifles were spliced against images of Abrams: In mid-September, a Georgia based-group calling itself the “III% Security Force” spliced footage of members shooting guns with pictures of Abrams, who would be the first black female governor in the nation if she defeats Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state. “Declaration of war against all domestic enemies,” the video says.9
An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution from September 27, 2016 reports that this same group served as “the camouflaged and heavily armed security for a series of proConfederate flag protests at Stone Mountain” shortly after a white supremacist murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston.10 The group also trained extensively during the 2016 presidential campaign, fearing the election of Hillary Clinton, who they believed would take its guns. The New York Times argues that such militias had been emboldened and inspired by Trump’s racial politics: “The Georgia Security Force is one of scores of extremist militias nationwide that have rallied around the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, heartened by his harsh attacks on immigrants, Muslims and Syrian refugees.”11 Of course, such militias wouldn’t be nearly as lethal, if it wasn’t so easy to purchase the high capacity semi-automatic rifles they carry. In Georgia, it’s particularly easy to get one of these. It would take me about 30 minutes to get back home with one, if I left the house now. To put it crassly: Georgia’s gun laws have made it so that within 100 miles of my home and my campus white nationalist militia men are training in the woods for a war. They see people of color and gun control laws as their enemies.
Though Brian Kemp’s alignment with Trump and his support for weak gun laws made him the natural choice of right-wing extremists in the state, it wasn’t until shortly before the 2018 election that Kemp associated himself publicly with a white nationalist. In early October a picture appeared online of Kemp and known White Nationalist James Stachowiak. 12 I was particularly shocked when I saw the image on twitter because a week or so earlier a video was circulating on social media in which James Stachowiak called for people to shoot black women and children in the back. In the video he’s carrying an assault style rifle and wearing a t-shirt that proclaims black lives don’t matter. I hadn’t known that Stachowiak was a Georgian, and now that I did, it seemed possible that - given Stacey Abrams was a black woman - our gubernatorial race could end in violence. I learned that earlier in the campaign Stachowiak had verbally attacked an Abrams campaign worker at an Abrams event. The Kemp campaign claimed they didn’t know Stachowiak and that the campaign doesn’t vet everyone who asks to take a photo with him. Even if this is true, it’s hard to believe that Kemp and his people didn’t know the campaign would attract the support of people like Stachowiak, given Kemp’s embrace of guns, Trump, and voter suppression. Anyone looking at the images of Stachowiak can’t miss his penchant for Trump hats, racist t-shirts, and big guns. In the photo with Kemp, Stachowiak is wearing a very large-font anti-Muslim t-shirt. I presume Kemp can read. He obviously had no problem appearing in a photo with Stachowiak’s message, even if he didn’t know the extent of Stachowiak’s political extremism.
So what does all of this have to do with guns being allowed in my classroom and on Georgia college campuses? Well, it’s apparent to me now that the connection between white supremacism and my adopted state’s extreme gun laws at least partially motivated the push for guns on campus. One particularly elucidating moment for me occurred at the state house one afternoon when some graduate students and I had come to Atlanta to Page 146 / April 2019 testify against the law. Out of maybe a hundred people in the room, less than ten were there to speak in favor of the law, all of whom were members of an all-white Georgia pro-gun group known to be more extreme than the NRA and to have ties to one of the bill’s co-sponsors. In his public statement to the senate committee, one of the members of the group argued that there was historical precedent for a guns on campus law, noting that Georgia permitted guns everywhere two hundred years ago, including in church. This comment immediately and visibly irked one of only two black members on the senate committee who quickly reminded the man that such laws existed in order to control slaves. This was the first time I was forced to consider that Georgia’s contemporary gun culture had its roots in slavery, something that the extremists supporting Trump and Kemp later made sickeningly obvious.13
On and near campus the evidence of gun culture’s roots in white supremacy was less direct, though visible for anyone looking. For instance, I heard a local NAACP leader arguing against the law on the radio as I drove to campus one morning. He noted that statistically speaking, black students were most likely to be injured or killed as soon as a gun was present in any given situation. Around the same time, I had also heard rumors that members of a fraternity infamous for its annual Old South ball (up until 2010, incidentally, the fraternity members were allowed to wear Confederate uniforms to the ball) already kept AR-15s illegally in their frat house. As an educator in America, where so many mass shootings take place in schools, such rumors stay in your memory. So, when I heard that a spontaneous student protest against Trump on election night ended with student chants of “Black Lives Matter” being answered with student counterprotestors shouting, “No they don’t,” I imagined just how easily gun violence could enter the situation. And that scenario took place before we were legally allowed to have guns on campus. As we all know, the divisions of race politics define the Trump era. Our state lawmakers in Georgia have made sure to throw guns into the mix for our students. As an educator I’m expected to look out for the safety and well-being of my students. I deeply resent the politicians here that have had other priorities.
4 https://www.atlantamagazine.com/news-culture-articles/the-complicated-business-of-running-forgovernor-when-youre-the-states-elections-chief /
6 https://protectdemocracy.org/brown-v-kemp /
7 http://time.com/5446916/georgia-elections-voting-problems /