A Q&A With Georgia Representative Renitta Shannon
Georgia Rep. Renitta Shannon is an outspoken member of organizations like 9 to 5 Working Women and the Fight for $15 campaign. She is also a previous executive vice president of the National Organization for Women. You may also remember her as the Black woman who made the Georgia Legislature drag her from the podium while protesting Georgia’s anti-woman abortion ban a couple of months ago. The Georgia legislature, under White supremacist ally Gov. Brian Kemp, passed the abortion ban, despite the unconstitutionality of the law under Roe v. Wade—and possibly at great risk to the Georgia Republican Party, which will suffer blowback from female voters. The law bans abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy.
Shannon took a few minutes to speak with The Lighthouse about why she stands against the abortion ban, and why the mostly-White and male Republican Party in Georgia is digging its own grave.
The Lighthouse: Did you walk in expecting to get escorted from the podium like that?
Shannon: I did. That was my intention. The bill moved rapidly through the House and there was some question about whether it was going to make it through committee because the chair of the Health Services Committee was behind the scenes saying that she really didn’t want to put the bill on the floor through the committee. But the governor was making her do it, and her party was really making her do it, so … I made a comment to myself that if this bill passes to the House floor I will literally make the Speaker physically remove me. We don’t have a filibuster in the state of Georgia, so I had to do the next best thing. … The allotted time I had to talk was 10 minutes, and I knew that anything beyond that was against House rules, and out of order. For me, this felt like a big enough issue. We have a lot of terrible bills every year, but this one endangers Black women so much, and women of all races. It endangers everybody, and I was not going to let them pass it like some kind of tax bill.
The Lighthouse: You said Gov. Brian Kemp usurped the chairman’s power in this, and forced her to pass the bill to the floor?
Shannon: Absolutely. He forced the hand of the entire House of Representatives. This is my third year serving, and in previous years the Speaker of the House had let bad stuff pass, but he had tried to stay away from the most egregious things. He avoided conversations about Confederate monuments and abortions and explosive bills that would turn off suburban Republicans. In previous years, you would have abortion bills and Confederate bills proposed, but they would never go anywhere. This year, you saw both an abortion bill and a bill to double down on making Confederate monuments permanent. I’m working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to get that second one overturned.
The Lighthouse: Whoa, that sounds like a freedom of speech issue right there. If the local Black, majority population wants some rancid statute dedicated to the owners of Black slaves removed, that’s their right under the Constitution, is it not?
Shannon: It violates the First and the 14thAmendment. As you said, it’s a freedom of speech issue. How can a state tell the city to keep up monuments of any kind? That’s local tax money. You can’t do that, but Georgia already has a law on the books that says if you remove any statue from public property then you have to keep it on public property, and you’re not allowed to cover it, so I’m sure they’re already breaking the law with that one. But nobody’s taken it to court yet.
The Lighthouse: So if a city has a demographic change and that new population hates the idea of revering dead people who wanted to own them, they can do nothing about it?
Shannon: I represent the city of Decatur, and the city council and the residents have said they don’t want a Confederate statue in front of our old courthouse and they cannot take it down because of this state law.
The Lighthouse: Even though they’re the ones paying the property tax around it?
Shannon: Exactly. And that was the law that was already on the books—but now, this year, they’ve gone and passed a new law that doubles down on that old law. Now they want to make it so you not only can’t move it to another location, but you can’t ever take it down at all. Previously, the Speaker would usually stay away from bills like that, but this new governor ran as a super right-wing type. He was campaigning with known white supremacists. When there were threats on Stacey Abrams’ life when she was running for governor, Kemp didn’t say a word about it. He’s even taken pictures with one of the guys who made the threats. He did not shy away from white nationalist support. He made the Speaker and all the Republicans do his bidding. He was twisting arms to pass this abortion bill. In fact, one of the Republicans—a woman from the north Fulton (County) area—when that bill went to the floor, she went in the back row and started crying.
The Lighthouse: Crying?
Shannon: Yes, because a lot of Republicans will say they don’t support abortion, but they don’t want to vote on it because their districts are competitive and they don’t want to lose their seat. This woman’s constituents are going to hit her at the next election, and she knows it. They all know it. The governor definitely forced the Speaker and other Republicans to move forward with this, but you know I have no sympathy for them. They’ve been campaigning on these things for years. It’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is and see how that turns out for them.
The Lighthouse: What are abortion bills like this really about? Are they really about protecting the lives of unborn infants?
Shannon: It’s a couple of things, actually. The Republican Party is a majority-White and male party, and that reflects in what you see in their legislation. There are 180 members in our House of Representatives and Republicans have 103 reps. Only 10 of those are women, so you have a bunch of people who really feel like they need to make good on these campaign promises to their White, evangelical base. And they’re trying to force out anybody perceived as a moderate, or not fully onboard, like the Speaker. Also, Brian Kemp barely won the election. I question whether he really even won the election because there WAS voter suppression involved and there are votes missing in Georgia even to this day, so I don’t think he’s even the real governor. He was barely able to prove his legitimacy with those numbers, so he has to shore up his base support because he is such a weak governor. They’ve adopted the Trump plan of appealing to their base at the local level.
The Lighthouse: How will this abortion ban impact Black women?
Shannon: This is an attack on all women, although Black women will have it worse. Outlawing abortion at heartbeat means most any miscarriage will make a woman a suspect in a potential murder. Law enforcement will then have to determine if it was a legitimate miscarriage, or done on purpose. Right after a miscarriage is neither the time or place for law enforcement to step in and make you a suspect in anything. Doctors are very upset about this. They’ve come down to the (Capitol) to testify that they don’t want to have to defend their patients from law enforcement. Doctors would be forced to tell on their patients and say they think this woman tried to have an abortion, or if the woman does attempt an abortion at home, the doctor would now have to report that.
Lighthouse: Sounds like it makes every doctor a potential rat.
Shannon: You would certainly be less likely to see a doctor after botching a home abortion, so you would be less likely to seek medical help if you’ve injured yourself. A lot of women are going to die because of this law. And it’s bad for Black women, in particular, because Georgia is No. 1 in the nation for maternal mortality. (This is the death rate for women dying while giving birth and up to a year after they’ve given birth.) There are a lot of conditions that pop up five or six months into a pregnancy. If you say they can’t have an abortion after six weeks, doctors will be more hesitant to tell a mother that her pregnancy is endangering her life, even when it is. Because if I say that, as a doctor, and you go and find a doctor around the corner who says different, I’ve just criminalized myself for suggesting you abort.
The Lighthouse: So you put yourself in legal peril, just for looking out for the life of your patient.
Shannon: That’s right. And Black women are already three to four times more likely to die in childbirth, so you’re really locking women into a dangerous situation here. In other countries with laws like this, minority women are not protected by the system. What we’ve seen is that White women can afford to pick up and travel to another state to have a legal abortion, or they can pay a local concierge doctor … to keep quiet about the abortion. But if you are a low-income, minority woman and you have a health-care issue, you’re going to end up at a public hospital with a doctor who will not lie for you. Doctors claim they will not work inside this state under this kind of legal threat. … They don’t want to be police officers, as well as doctors. It’s not their job to act as law enforcement.
Lighthouse: Address the poverty-creating aspect of this law, if you will. What can you say about the $200,000 average cost facing a young mother who has to raise an unexpected baby to adulthood?
Shannon: I, myself, am an example. I was unexpectedly pregnant in college, two weeks before my final exam. I wasn’t ready to be a parent, but I also wanted to finish my education, and I would not be where I am today had I not finished my degree. But they don’t really care about the poverty that an unexpected baby creates. … That’s the problem with having a mostly White male government. They can’t understand a perspective that’s not their own.
The Lighthouse: Yeah, about that White, male government of yours. What are you doing to change that?
Shannon: Oh, it’s already happening. This year, we picked up a lot of seats in the House. I work for an organization called Her Term, which works to elect progressive women, and we specifically target competitive seats. We did really well last year. We’ve been gaining on them. Like I said earlier, there are only 180 members in the House of Representatives, and 103 are Republican. It only takes 91 votes to pass a bill. Democrats are already at 75 votes. The state is now past the point where … Democrats are switching to Republican. They don’t do that anymore, so you’ll see people now start to switch back (Democratic), and we’re already so close to being the majority that there’s definitely a lot of Republicans who can’t afford to have this (abortion) vote on their record. Even the sponsor of the bill, Ed Setzler, almost lost his seat in the 2018 election. He only won by 100 votes—and that was before he proposed this abortion bill. That was before anybody even knew him or cared about him. But he’s going to be a target now. He’s in jeopardy.
The Lighthouse: As a member of Her Term, how many heads have you managed to chop off in the last couple of elections?
Shannon: We helped elect four or five women in the 2017 special election. And then, last year, we flipped 14 seats, and 11 of them were candidates that Her Term helped. And I recruited (U.S. Rep.) Lucy McBath, who unseated Karen Handel. So, yeah, we’ve been pretty successful.