Citizens, Start Your Engines
ATLANTA—Letting students pack heat on college campuses. Banning legal immigrants from serving on local government councils or panels. Bringing flowers to your local legislators’ offices. The Georgia Capitol was jumping in February. Controversy and friendliness were side by side.
Volunteers with the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America visited state senators on Feb. 24. “Passing legislation that forces our colleges and universities to allow anyone with a concealed carry permit to carry a gun on campus is a shame for student safety,” said volunteer chapter leader Lindsey Donovan, in a statement. The House has passed HB 859, to let students carry guns. The Senate has not voted on it.
“Once again, four out of five Georgians believe guns have no place on campus. We urge the Georgia Senate to reject this dangerous bill and to not add guns to environments rife with alcohol, drugs, and academic pressures.”
Sen. Hunter Hill said that the logic behind the bill is that “law enforcement can’t be everywhere, so you should be able to have a gun.” He chairs the Veterans, Military and Homeland Security committee. He came from the chamber to talk to his constituent Carol Allen. She opposes the bill, and the two had a civil and searching conversation about gun sense.
It encouraged me. He appeared to listen and consider her ideas. She appeared to respect and consider his. That’s the quality that seems to be missing in national politics.
But a glimmer of civility is alive. I think one way to nurture that glimmer into a brighter state is by grass-roots engagement, like the kind Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta (AAAJA) is working to build.
At first, the AAAJA legislative breakfast happened in a discreet, small, blue, side room at the Georgia Railroad Depot. On Feb. 17, their fifth annual legislative breakfast nearly filled the cavernous main room, home to the famous Wild Hog Supper that kicks off each year’s legislative session in Atlanta. Tickets to the event sold out.
I’ve been invited every year. Every year I have covered it, because I love to see democracy at work at the grass roots. I love that a nonpartisan group is working to encourage a fast-growing minority to engage in civic life. AAAJA trains candidates, registers voters, and runs a multi-language immigration and citizenship hotline.
They’ve had their work cut out for them. While AAAJA advocates for immigrant-friendly policies, the state legislature considers bills some would describe as anti-immigrant. For example, one would make English the official language and not allow an immigrant to take a driver’s test in his or her native language.
One would forbid non-citizens from serving on local panels or commissions. That’s House Bill 781, sponsored by Rep. Brad Raffensperger (R-50, Johns Creek). According to AAAJA, “it would require proof of U.S. citizenship to serve on any local or state governing body, commission, or council, thereby restricting participation by legal permanent residents.”
It’s ironic that Johns Creek is a fast-growing, affluent magnet for highly educated Asian immigrants. I know law-abiding, advanced-degree-holding Asian folks, not yet citizens, who have a lot to offer to civic life. But HB 781 would stop them from some participation, if it passes. It all looks like an uphill climb, but the vibe was exuberant at the Freight Depot. People were eager to climb that hill.
“The strength of our system is it’s so open and inclusive,” said Stephanie Cho. She is the interim director of AAAJA.
Cho is right. No matter how much we disagree with a law, we can go straight to our representatives and tell them. If enough of us disagree with something, we can go to the ballot box and change the person who represents us.
“Politics is about relationships. Advocacy is about relationships. If you have a relationship with your elected official where you call them to express your concerns, you won’t have to come here once a year,” said Rep. B.J. Pak. A Republican, he is the first person of Korean descent to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly. He urged attendees at the breakfast to vote. “I guarantee you once you start expressing your voice at the ballot box, you won’t have to invite legislators to speak” at the breakfast.
As the group finished their pastries and began to move to the Capitol, another group was unloading flats of hot pink and white cyclamens. The Georgia Growers Association was building relationships with their elected officials. They were delivering flowers to every office in the Capitol. Because they with their actions also celebrate democracy.
Mary Silver lives and works in Atlanta.