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Georgia's Olivia Pearson Arrested For Helping Black People Vote. Again.
Oh, sorry, this time it's 'trespassing.' At the elections office.
You might recall the insane story of how Olivia Pearson, a civil rights activist and the first Black member of the Douglas, Georgia, city commission, got arrested and charged with voting fraud in 2012 for showing a first-time voter how to use a voting machine — Pearson didn't touch the machine or tell the voter who to vote for, but she was prosecuted anyway because Georgia only allows helping people with voting if the helper certifies that the voter is illiterate, not just unfamiliar with the voting machine technology. Pearson was also charged for "falsely swearing" that the person she'd helped was illiterate or disabled, although she said poll workers had asked her to help the voter and given her the form to sign afterward.
If you get the sense that there's a bit of bad blood between Pearson and local white officials in Douglas and Coffee County, you would get a nice pat on the head for being observant. She had also been investigated for such suspect activities as driving people to the polls, registering people to vote, and urging them to vote at election time. Such a troublemaker, in the John Lewis "good trouble" mold. And you know how many times he got arrested.
Pearson's first trial, in 2017, resulted in a hung jury; when she was finally able to get the venue moved to another county for her second trial in 2018, the jury acquitted her after just 20 minutes of deliberation, and everyone except the people she made uncomfortable in Douglas cheered. Oh, and don't forget, the prosecutor who went after Pearson over the six years of that case, District Attorney George Barnhill Sr., is the same worthless schmuck who initially decided the two white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery didn't need to be arrested, because "self defense." It's a small racist world, isn't it?
Now that Georgia has gone blue in the 2020 presidential election, thanks to the work of lots of Black women activists who followed Pearson, Slate reporter Joel Anderson, who had covered her trials, wanted to check in and see what she thought. She texted him back, telling him, "SURE I would LOVE to talk about it. [...] AND MY NEW ARREST AT THE POLLS."
Turns out that during early voting, on October 27, Pearson was doing her usual election season thing: driving people to the polls and generally pestering them to vote, because she takes democracy seriously. We'll hand the narrative over to Anderson here:
That morning, Pearson took a former student to the polls and caught the attention of an old foe: Misty Martin, the elections supervisor for Coffee County.
Pearson told me she had signed the form that allowed her to assist her former student "because I know she is illiterate and can't read." But, according to Pearson, Martin rushed in anyway to shoo Pearson away.
"She began hollering and screaming at me, saying, 'These are my buttons, my machines, don't touch them,' " Pearson said. "I kept asking her questions and she hollered, 'Call 911.' "
Pearson and the former student left, but when Pearson came back later with another friend she was shuttling to the polls, she was met by three police cars and handed a criminal trespass warning by one of the cops, because that's how they do things if you upset the elections supervisor who suspects you may have touched, or come near, buttons and/or machines.
"What is the reason I have to leave?" Pearson told me she asked the officer. Martin came outside and the two women went back and forth again before the officers arrested Pearson and placed her in handcuffs.
Someone's buttons were definitely pressed, sounds like. Pearson was booked into the county jail on a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass and released after a few hours; she believes her arrest was intended to scare Black voters from going to the polls. She has a court date scheduled for December 21, but continued taking people to the polls — but parking across the street.
The local news site, Douglas Now, offers a different version of the events in the Coffee County elections office, although it doesn't seem to make a hell of a lot of sense:
According to witnesses, Commissioner Pearson was in the office assisting a voter. After completing the voting process, Commissioner Pearson allegedly began pushing buttons on a machine. Election officials asked her to stop but, said witnesses, she refused. The incident became heated and Commissioner Pearson was asked to leave. She eventually left the premises after officials called 911.
Why would she be "pushing buttons on a machine" and refusing to stop? No explanation at all; you're left to assume Pearson is just kind of an irrational jerk that way. We're sure we're reading more into the terse description than is intended. Was it a big red button? On the machine that goes ping ?
We also like the part where Misty Martin and her contentious history with Pearson vanishes right out of that version. Martin had testified against Pearson in her earlier trials, and in 2016 dismissed the very idea of voter suppression as "a joke."
The Douglas Now story also notes that the police incident report said Pearson "is being banned for disruptive behavior. She may only come to a polling place in order to vote and she has already cast her ballot for this year's election." Her ban from polling places lasted for the "remainder of the 2020 election cycle," so that means she'll be limited to dropping people off in the parking lot across the street for the January 5 runoff elections for the US Senate.
For all that, Pearson told Anderson she's already working on ideas to keep voters engaged for those elections, which will decide control of the Senate.
"I was just thinking today," Pearson told me, "You've got to push, push, push on trying to get the voters back."
Well there she goes with the pushing again. Seems like she just can't help stirring things up. God bless her for it.
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