Megan French-Marcelin

The Sleeping Giant

On May 17th, the Louisiana State Legislature signed H.B.-265 restoring the right to vote to people on parole and probation, reversing a law on the books for over 40 years. The new law will impact the nearly 70,000 people now under community supervision. JLUSA Fair Hiring Project Coordinator Megan French-Marcelin sat down with Norris Henderson, founder and Executive director of the Voice of the Experienced (fondly called VOTE), whose advocacy led the movement to reform felony disenfranchisement in the state. The passage of this bill is a testament to the degree of change possible when directly impacted leadership is at the helm of a movement, not asking for but demanding their human rights.

MEGAN: This has been a lifetime fight for you to get to this point, this bill, what does the passage of this bill mean?

NORRIS: A lot of the people who have been foreclosed from participating in the voting process will be able to engage, especially around criminal justice issues. It goes back to folks who have been directly impacted and have more of a real sense of the harms of the system. They now have an opportunity to weigh in to that conversation. I can’t even think about the incredible value added because it changes people’s narrative around what they are willing to say now. They thought they could not say anything in reference to criminal justice issues without consequence. Folks had to be mindful of the audience that they were talking to, because it used to be that people couldn’t do anything about these issues, and now we understand that people are more sophisticated when it comes to these issues that are near and dear to our hearts.

MEGAN: You called this the sleeping giant project. Why?

NORRIS: This is the issue that has been sleeping for so long. The analogy is Rip Van Winkle – the day he woke up, that was game changer.

That sleeping giant wakes up and that sleeping giant has a lot to offer and can engage in ways that people never gave thought to. The greatest thing is supporting people as they are waking up to their own power. The other side of it is that there has been a lot of misinformation about who can and who couldn’t vote for years, now that will change that as well. There were people in the community who are formerly incarcerated that could vote but were still going by the urban legend that once you go to prison, you have to be out ten years before voting, or that you are disenfranchised for life, which was never the case. As it came to the 1974 constitution people believed they needed to get a full gubernatorial pardon to vote and some people only knew of that. So the educational work is waking those people up, who have the vote, but don’t know it.

And so when I say the giant wakes up, what that means in our state that leads the nation in incarceration – between 15,000 and 18,000 people a year are released in this state and now every one of those people will be able to vote. So just imagine what those numbers can do to our laws? Roughly 40 years of people being on supervision, some for that entire time, and if they have come off supervision, they certainly are not thinking about voting because they have been barred from the system for ten, twelve, almost fifteen years. Now all of the sudden, all these folks can vote. Hopefully we can get folks engaged in the process and educate them to take on those issues near and dear to them.

MEGAN: How important is that political education component?

NORRIS: It is the MOST important. If people are not educated, if people don’t have the knowledge, if they don’t fully understand the system, then they won’t participate. People need to know how to sign up, what the party system means, and the little nuances that people take for granted. You are free to choose, but there are consequences for every way we engage, or when we don’t.

MEGAN: What does it say about the future of criminal justice reform that the movement of this bill was led by VOTE, an organization founded and led by directly impacted leadership?

NORRIS: Well, no successful movement in this country has been successful without it being led by people directly impacted by the issue. If you look at the Poor People’s Movement, the LGBTQ movement, the immigration movement – all are led by people directly impacted. So this movement, the fight for the franchise, had to be led by folks who had been disenfranchised by the law. Everyone welcomed the allies and associates, but it would not have worked had it not been led by those directly impacted. And case in point, folks were quick to say, we support reentry of “returning citizens.” Our folks are not citizens until they have the right to vote. Some of our folks are comfortable with the language of “returning citizens” because they say, “oh it sounds better,” but it’s a false narrative to project if you cannot vote. If you tell me you are disenfranchised, I am going to stop and say, there is something not right about that because if you are in this country, the “freest country in the world,” and you don’t have the franchise something is wrong with that picture. It’s how we have this conversation among ourselves. For the mass of people across the country, the Floridians, folks in Mississippi and South Carolina, there is no right to vote upon return.

MEGAN: I have heard Daryl Atkinson say this phrase, “where the South goes, the country will.” What do you think the implications of the bill for places across the South?

NORRIS: I would hope that what is happening in Louisiana becomes inspirational to everyone and a call to action for everybody in the sense if we could do this in Louisiana, you can do it too. Louisiana is always the last in criminal justice reform and now we have forced a major step and people should see that as a way forward. When you look across the South, you need to be truth-tellers. The disenfranchisement laws across the South happened because people wanted to uphold white supremacy, this is why this happened. I think if people can be truth tellers, there would be voices that would begin to listen. And now I hope it becomes inspiration, that change can happen, and it can be done by those that are directly impacted by these laws.