Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has come to represent the state of our nation. Or that’s the danger.
In less than two weeks, the city has seen a horrifying shooting of a black man, several days and nights of peaceful protests decrying the officers’ use of excessive force and now another targeted killing of police officers – all of which has put an American capital on lockdown.
Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden lamented what he called “this foolishness that’s happening here.” We know this “foolishness” stems from complicated issues that transcend their sometimes Southern borders. And if social media accounts are any guide, views of what the “foolishness” really is vary widely.
But, if you have a Southern mama, you know an appeal to end “this foolishness” is directed to whoever is in earshot. Right now, we need all Americans to be listening.
Which leads me to another Baton Rouge story.
Last year, I was invited to speak at a conference in Baton Rouge. Using the theme “Bold, Not Broken,” I was asked to provide next steps in the South’s queer resilience movement. My call to action was simple: Change begins with voting.
After North Carolina’s low turnout elections in November 2010 and May 2012, this lesson seemed so clear to me. The state’s political landscape took an extreme turn, hurting many of its people and its reputation. “Elections have consequences,” I reminded the audience.
After I spoke, a black transgender woman from New Orleans received an award for her legacy of LGBTQ activism. She used some of her remarks to strike back at my own. Voting was fine, she said, but people like her are being murdered in the streets. “What are we going to do about that?”
One year on, there are still no easy answers to how we stop our friends and neighbors from being gunned down in our communities. But this woman’s words from Baton Rouge stuck in my mind – solutions must go beyond the ballot box. We must rely on actions that will increase the effect of our votes on the state and local level.
In our gerrymandered districts, we’re told our ability to sway our legislative leaders is minimal. And it shows – many of our legislators act as if they are untouchable. For instance, our state legislature proposed a constitutional rewrite to provide more gun access a day after 49 people were slaughtered in Orlando and restricted public access to police body cams after more black lives were lost. This legislature doubled down on discrimination in the wake of national ridicule, raiding our disaster relief fund to defend the undeniably disastrous HB2. And it was our state leaders who penalized the cities and towns in which the community and police were actually working together by removing sanctuaries and jeopardizing popular tools for keeping the public safe.
There have been so many bad laws passed in North Carolina of late that many folks aren’t even afraid of the actual laws anymore. As one white transgender woman put it in the IndyWeek’s “HB2 Issue,” what we’re really afraid of is “the vigilantism that the law perpetuates.” It’s not enough anymore to simply stop bad laws or the politicians who perpetuate them. We must rein in a culture fraught with the division, mistrust and hate that these bad laws perpetuate.
Starting in August, North Carolina communities statewide will be taking to the streets to demand change. People from all walks of life will walk together in a concerted campaign – all unified in a simple notion: It’s harder to hurt me when you’re holding my hand and it’s harder for them to hurt you when I’m holding yours.
On the march, we will focus on major hubs where North Carolinians can make a difference: campuses, faith and community centers, shelters, polling places, boards of elections. We will pledge to repel the culture of divisiveness that has become the hallmark of our state’s worst laws. We will embrace strategies to help build back our thriving communities and tell our success stories to other states that so desperately need to hear them.
Because the lessons from Baton Rouge are clear: It’s not enough to vote. We need your vote plus more. Because we know there are no easy answers. We know that for many our march to the ballot will be far from enough. And they’re right. We also know #enough must begin somewhere.
Jen Jones is a co-founder of March to the Ballot, a voter empowerment campaign that kicks off in North Carolina in August 2016.
To learn more about March to the Ballot, go to facebook.com/marchtotheballot or follow @totheballot.