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What We Lose When We Win: Exhaustion and the Fight Against Racist Repression

I’m exhausted. It’s the same exhaustion I feel every year around this time. Until it’s over, my mind betrays my body into thinking that I don’t need to rest. As soon as the legislative session ends, tiredness creeps into my bones. But I’m not just tired in my body; my heart is also exhausted.

My story is not unique. I am an organizer who works countless hours, day and night, to fight for my community in Alabama. The level of exhaustion I feel is one that I’ve heard many Black organizers in the South talk about. We are here doing unsung work, defeating one dehumanizing bill after another, often with little to no resources.

In 2014, I founded Project Say Something in Florence, AL, to confront anti-Black systems and ideologies, promote reproductive justice, and fight against patriarchal violence using education, community empowerment, and advocacy. But I’ve always known that while the fight is local, it’s also national because the South has always been the zeitgeist of this nation. What happens here, good and bad, influences the rest of the country.

 

Defining (and Redefining) Protest in Alabama

In response to the 2020 protests in defense of Black lives, Alabama retaliated by attempting to pass legislation that criminalizes peaceful protest. Alabama is not an exception. Anti-protest bills are popping up all over the country. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit law, 245 anti-protest bills have been introduced and 38 enacted since 2017. While these bills have been introduced in nearly every state in the country, the vast majority of the bills that have passed are in Southern states.

I like to say that our Alabamian ancestors are the ones who set it off with the Selma protests—from there, so many iconic protests followed, from the protests against the Vietnam War to Stonewall and the second-wave feminism protests of the 60s and 70s for women’s rights. Thus, when we fight anti-protest bills every year, we do so with unwavering commitment to our history and with an awareness of how critical our ancestors’ fight for freedom was for the trajectory of, not just our lives, but the destiny of the entire country. This knowledge fuels our drive to push back against any and all attempts to rob us of our freedom to come together and protest for change.

This year, we fought and won against two anti-protest bills, HB2 and SB3, which attempted to redefine a riot to mean five or more people coming together to engage in any activity that could cause danger to people or property damage. This would mean that anyone attending a protest—redefined as a riot—would be criminalized and face mandatory jail time. Additionally, the bills would have made any type of collective action and civil disobedience—such as walking on a highway to block traffic—illegal and would have penalized any jurisdiction that reduced police funding.

Furthermore, Alabama followed Trump’s call to action by running with the false narrative that white children were in danger of self-hate and loathing, and so, we also found ourselves fighting another attempt at repression and censorship, House Bill 312, which sought to ban educators from teaching “divisive concepts”—yet another euphemism for race. We defeated this bill using the same organizing strategy as the one we used to fight the anti-protest bills because they shared a common denominator: they sought to disenfranchise Black and other communities of color in order to perpetuate white dominance.

 

Learning from the Past

We need only go back to 2013 and the US Supreme Court case, Shelby County, Alabama v Holder, to understand the South’s influence on the rest of the country. After that decision, which invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, more states ramped up their attempts at voter suppression, limiting the ability of Black and other communities of color to cast their votes. The Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks state voting laws, wrote in 2021 that, since the Shelby decision, “389 bills with restrictive voting provisions” had been introduced in 48 states.

On the flipside, in 1965, protestors undertook a 50-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, AL, to protect Black people’s constitutional right to vote. This had implications for the entire country; protestors’ bold action led to legislation that protected, not just Black people’s voting rights, but everyone’s rights at the ballot box. It also resulted in tens of thousands of Black and other people of color being elected to public office.

Today, the hard-fought rights to vote and protest—along with other core principles of our democracy—are under attack. Unscrupulous legislators target communities that look like mine because they fear our power, particularly in light of shifting demographics and predictions that, by 2050, communities of color will become the majority of the country’s population.

But history shows us that attempts to repress one segment of the population invariably impact everyone. After all, while these laws are aimed at censoring Black and brown people, their enforcement will eventually target anyone expressing their dissent to people in power.

 

Fighting for the Future

Year after year, we have defeated a slate of anti-freedom bills with resilience, grit, and strategy, while also squeezing time and resources we didn’t have to advocate for policies that would improve the lives of countless Alabamians, such as increased government spending on subsidized childcare.

But we can’t go on like this because winning isn’t always winning. Yes, we may often come away victorious, but there is so much we aren’t able to do while on the defensive. Legislators will continue to introduce such legislation because they know the bills are both a way for them to consolidate their power through political posturing and racialized scapegoating, and they are a distraction to progress.

In 1975, during a keynote address at Portland State University, Toni Morrison said that “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” This statement captures exactly the rationale behind these bills: they exhaust us, sapping us of the time and energy needed to proactively organize our communities for the world we actually want and deserve.

When we are constantly in fight mode and can’t catch our breath, we are forced to put our creative ideas on the backburner. This is exactly what these legislators want. They want us to lose steam. They want to maintain the status quo by usurping our capacity for progressive change.

But this isn’t just a game designed for distraction; it is a relentless pursuit to strip us of our hard-won rights and maintain a system that benefits only a few.

If we are going to break the cycle of fighting to exhaustion—if we want to win without losing—we must do the following:

  • Pay attention to states that don’t make the news or are seen as a lost cause. The focus can’t just be swing states. States that don’t receive attention are the ones where legislators believe they can get away with doing what they like, which has ramifications for the entire country.

  • Community organizing groups in states like Alabama need sustained investments. And these investments must be made with trust. Funders must relinquish control and not impose how they want us to work or what they want us to work on.

  • Black organizers need to be supported—not just the Stacey Abrams of the world, whom funders seem to want to clone. That’s not fair to Stacey or the many other brilliant Black organizers across the South. All of us must be empowered to continue this fight.

  • We have no time for white solidarity and elitism. We have seen white-run organizations and large prestigious nonprofits that are not from the South receive more support than local, Black organizing groups. However, local organizing groups are doing the heavy lifting because we have the connections and cultural knowhow to mobilize our people.

  • Give us what we need to breathe and be creative. If we have adequate resources, we will be able to dedicate more of our collective capacity to positive interventions and solutions rather than always focusing on the problem. After successfully challenging the problem, we don’t want to crash; we want enough energy to grow our vision.

  • We shouldn’t have to code switch. One major reason we have been successful in defeating these bills is because we have shared our stories with one another and elected officials. We come as we are, sharing our stories in the tradition of storytelling in the South, on the porch, over a glass of iced tea. We don’t ask our people to change how they tell their stories. But when we’re not in our communities or the spaces we have cultivated, there is an implicit requirement for us to present ourselves differently. Those seeking to support us should let us be our authentic selves because this is exactly what has helped us to win as much as we have for our country.

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