Election day, finally. The big day, but this one feeling bigger than midterms past.
I found myself in a small out-of-the-way bar in Georgia, watching the results trickle in on a floor-to-ceiling screen which encompassed one wall of the establishment.
It was, ostensibly, a Stacey Abrams watch party, meaning the bar was filled with younger people in their Sunday best, and older, more grizzled veterans of campaign season with jaws firmly set and laptops open.
But it was also a Tuesday night in Georgia, meaning that aside from those interested in the election results, a smaller group of regulars had turned out as they would have on any other day – good old boys with rippling forearms exposed by the rolled-up sleeves of plaid shirts, and women drinking whiskey straight, no ice.
I shouldn’t say that the regulars were entirely disinterested in the election results. Many had come decked out in Trump gear. I spotted two or three “Make America Great Again” hats and at least one “Hillary for Prison” t-shirt; one man was wearing a shirt which said, “She Wants The D,” with President Trump’s wide-mouthed face in the middle of the letter D.
Or maybe that was just how they dressed every day, I’m not totally sure. They didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the election coverage, instead, playing darts, taking shots, and watching sports on the patio – a noticeable contrast to the Abrams supporters who sat with steel gazes locked intently on the giant screen.
Propped under the screen were a handful of campaign signs – for Stacey Abrams and a few other local Democratic candidates; likely the organizers of the watch party had placed them there. I noticed two men standing off in the corner pointing at these signs, whispering, giggling. I did not mean to eavesdrop, but the sound of a good old boy giggling can make even the most stoic turn their head.
“Let’s do it,” they whispered, “it will be funny as shit.”
They were holding a Brian Kemp campaign sign. That would be Abrams’s opponent in the race for Governor.
Confidently, the two men walked up to the screen and put their sign next to the others. Well, not exactly next to the others, as they conveniently positioned theirs so that it covered half of the sign which said, “Vote Stacey Abrams.”
“No! No! No! NO WAY!” a woman started yelling from the crowd.
One of the men turned toward her with a smirk and said, “That’s called free speech, woman.”
People sat momentarily in shock as the men strode away. They were already ordering their next round of drinks at the bar by the time a man amongst the Abrams supporters managed to get out, “Did he just call her woman?”
The Kemp men likely would have constructed a defense something like this: What is a worse insult, a worse affront to civilized society – being sexist or trying to restrict someone’s free speech?
The easy response would be “yeah, but if you use your free speech to be an asshole, then who’s the real hero here?” or, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should; I could jump off a bridge tomorrow if I wanted to.”
But it goes further than that. “White Privilege” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, to the point where, as sometimes happens with popularized terms, it can teeter close to losing its effect. But at its core it is about an inherent sense of entitlement – not only to resources or positions, but to situations, to experiences.
The (white) men who placed the Kemp sign over the one for Abrams, who dropped in the casual misogyny, were unable or unwilling to consider that what for them was just another drunk night out, was, for other human beings in the room, a pretty major and important life moment – the chance to elect the first female African American Governor in the country, in Georgia; the culmination of so many years’ work by so many heroic people, many of whom gave their lives.
The men were unable to imagine a world where for even one night they were not the center of the universe.
Which brings me to Brian Kemp, the would-be good old boy white man running against Stacey Abrams for the Georgia governorship.
Since 2010, Kemp has served as Georgia’s Secretary of State – a position he refused to resign from while running for Governor, meaning he would be the referee in his own election. During his time on the job, he purged more than 1.5 million voters from the rolls, and blocked tens of thousands of new registrations. He oversaw the closing of over 200 polling places, mostly in minority and poor neighborhoods. Shortly before the election, Kemp suspended 53,000 voter registration applications, 70% of which belonged to African Americans.
As if this was not enough, on election day the shenanigans continued. Multiple counties were shorted voting machines, leading to the “longest lines in years.” In some precincts, the voting machines that were there had so many technical problems that they had to resort to paper ballots, which were predictably understocked. In Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second largest, machines were sent without power cords, and one polling location was offline altogether when the doors opened.
Yet despite this chicanery ladled generously on top of the years-long effort to disenfranchise voters and rig the election, what the Boston Globe called “an attempted strong-arm robbery,” something curious happened – Brian Kemp didn’t win on election night.
In fact, votes are still being counted as of this weekend, and lawsuits have been filed to ensure all absentee and provisional ballots are also counted. Kemp currently sits just above the 50% threshold that is needed to avoid a runoff election (the Libertarian candidate has about one percent), with most of the yet-uncounted votes coming from, surprise surprise, heavily Democratic areas. Should Kemp drop below this threshold, he and Abrams will go one-on-one in a special December election.
Yet what did Brian Kemp do with this reality, in which every major media outlet in the country – including Fox News! – says the race is still ongoing. Without having, you know, won, he declared victory and resigned as Secretary of State in order to begin the transition to Governor.
See, whether or not he won the election, Brian Kemp feels entitled to be the Governor of Georgia, certainly subconsciously and probably consciously as well. He cares not for the tides of historical inevitability, there is simply no reality Brian Kemp can imagine in which a black woman is the Governor of his state and he is not.
Forget “Hillary for Prison,” you’d probably do pretty well in Georgia selling a “Kemp for Prison” shirt right about now.
Of course, it will take more than t-shirts to overcome the ingrained thinking of people like Brian Kemp. For their part, a group of three men approached the two who had positioned the Kemp sign and been casually sexist, to confront them about these things, I presumed.
They started to argue, until one of the Abrams supporters said, “I was in the Air Force, you know?”
One of the Kemp men replied, “Yeah? Well I was in the Marines.”
“Well then I thank you for your service,” the first man said.
“You too,” the second replied.
Conversation apparently over, the groups went their separate ways.