Antonio Travis told a crowd of voting rights and prison reform activists gathered outside of New Orleans City Hall for a voter registration drive today that when he first saw voter registration advocates visit communities like his, he was skeptical.
“To be honest with y'all, when I see people who walk into my community and tell me I need to vote, they look like the teachers who told me I wasn't going to be nothing,” Travis said. “They look like the principals who told me I wasn't going to be nothing. They look like the police officers who labeled me before they even walked up to the car.”
But the crowd in front of Travis, who is now a youth leader for Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), included mostly black people and many individuals who served time in prison. Travis was one of about 40 people present to kick off the final day of a four-day statewide bus tour aimed at registering black people and formerly incarcerated people to vote.
A table at the event was covered in flyers informing attendees of the passage of Act 636, a law that went into effect on March 1 that allows people who have been out of prison for five years but are still on probation and parole to register to vote. The law gave an additional 40,000 Louisiana residents the right to vote.
The bus tour — organized by Voices of the Experienced (VOTE), Georgia-based Black Voters Matter and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice — began in Baton Rouge and included seven cities including Lafayette, Opelousas, Alexandria, Shreveport and Monroe. New Orleans stops were located at South Galvez and Thalia streets, A.L. Davis Park on LaSalle Street, Thalia and Liberty streets and the Ace Hotel on Carondelet Street.
Some 36,000 felons who haven't been in prison for at least the last five years will have the opportunity to register to vote when a new law ta…
Many of the organizers were still abuzz from the previous night’s stop in Monroe, where turnout was much higher than expected — between 50 and 100 people, they said. Organizers said that while they had not gotten a high number of people impacted by the new law registered to vote, they were encouraged by their ability to spread awareness of it.
“A lot of people didn't know the details or didn't know that [the law] passed at all,” said Cliff Albright, founder of Black Voters Matter. “So the number of people that just came, collected information, said, ‘Look, I'm going back. I'm going to tell five people, 10 people.’ — It was just the energy (that) was really incredible.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said the turnout in Monroe was symbolic of high incarceration rates in rural areas. “We have to recognize that rural America is not synonymous with white America,” she said. “Our community is in rural America, and oftentimes, those folks are actually [overly] incarcerated.”
Travis said the best way to convince black people in both rural and urban communities to vote is to discuss voting’s relationship with power.
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“They try to take power from our community, and it's our job to remind our community that we always had that power,” he said, “because they try to do a good job of [streaming] us through the school-to-prison pipeline. They try to incarcerate us. My folks that are formerly incarcerated can vote. They're scared of that. They're scared because they know now when we hit the streets, we're coming stronger.”
Albright said that Black Voters Matter has brought voter registration buses to states across the South. One of their largest campaigns involved efforts to mobilize voters during the Alabama Senate race in 2017, when Democrat Doug Jones narrowly beat Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women — several of whom were teenagers at the time. (Moore has announced he will run again for the seat in 2020.)
“We've been going around, basically in the old Confederacy, in this bus that we call the ‘blackest bus in America,’” Albright said. “We are going to change the state, we are going to change the South and we are going to change the nation.”