Black Lives Matter Activist-Turned-Politician Wants You to Rethink the South

khalid kamau wants to prove that you don't have to be wealthy, white or in California for progressive policies to work.
by | August 1, 2017
(The David Brand)

khalid kamau is no stranger to firsts.

He claims to be the first Black Lives Matter organizer elected to public office, and in his new position, he sits on the first city council of South Fulton, Ga., a brand new municipality on the outskirts of Atlanta. Now, he wants his city to be one of the first in the nation to make Election Day a holiday.

kamau (who prefers the lower-case spelling of his name, in keeping with Yoruban African tradition) is a Democratic socialist and former national convention delegate for the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. He campaigned heavily for the incorporation of South Fulton, which has a population of 100,000 and became a city just last November. A few months later, voters repaid him with a spot on their new city's council.

Now he's on a crusade to turn his home into the "largest progressive city in the South."

His first big order of business? Making it easier for people to vote.

kamau proposed legislation to make Election Day a city holiday, which he hopes will increase voter turnout and political participation. The ordinance passed the seven-member council with four votes last month, but it was vetoed by the mayor the following day. Councilmembers will have the chance to override that veto -- which would be another first for South Fulton -- on August 8, but they need five votes to do it.

Governing caught up with kamau to discuss his Election Day proposal, his vision for South Fulton and his experience as an activist-turned-politician.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Walk me through the process of getting this Election Day resolution before city council. What obstacles have you faced?

I introduced the bill in two iterations. Option A was to just add a new holiday to the calendar. That didn't move forward in council because there would be an economic impact to the city by creating a new holiday. Option B, which passed, was to swap the Election Day holiday with Columbus Day, so it would be revenue-neutral for the city.

At the meeting, the mayor said, ‘Whatever the council decides, I will go along with.’ The very next day, the mayor vetoed the bill. I would say there is about a 50/50 chance it passes next week. We need one more vote to override, and one councilperson is on the fence.

Why make Election Day a holiday? 

To increase voter turnout and create a day of political education for the community.

I’m planning a day of classes that will teach residents a variety of things: How do you get a stoplight or a stop sign in your neighborhood? How does the school board work? What does your state senator do? If the bill passes, those classes will be held on Election Day. If it does not pass, they will be held on the Saturday before Election Day.

As far as I know, we would be the second city, after Newark, N.J., to do this. [Several states have some form of a holiday on Election Day]. In Puerto Rico, Election Day is a holiday, and they have 50 percent higher turnout. That hasn’t been the case in Newark, and in my eyes, the difference is that in Puerto Rico, it isn’t just another day off -- it’s a cultural holiday. There's a whole set of traditions around voting. So just giving people the day off doesn't necessarily increase turnout.

So you plan to foster those same types of traditions with the holiday?

Yes. I want to encourage a culture of voting, which we do not currently have. I want kids and parents to be off at the same time on Election Day, so kids can watch their parents vote and take part in these classes we’ll offer.

I represent the most densely populated and poorest district in the city. Many people in my district will tell you that no one has ever knocked on their door and asked for their vote. When I was knocking on doors during my election, three out of four people did not know that we were becoming a city.

So after that, I came to believe that the key to increasing turnout is having more political education. My volunteers went out with a laminated map of the city and our district, and gave out FAQ sheets with very basic questions and answers about city services. People don't know what an alderman does or what the county commissioner is. They don't know what those positions do, let alone who is running for them. So the biggest thing we can do is give everybody the day off so they have time to go through all this information.

There are some criticisms of bills like this, mainly that only government employees would get the day off. Some people say it would actually make it harder for retail employees to take the time to vote because their stores and businesses would be flooded with extra customers who aren't working. What is your response to that?

No matter what we do in this situation, working-class folks will unfortunately get short shrift. If we moved Election Day to a Saturday, it would still be working-class folks having to work that day.

But many businesses set their calendar by the city’s calendar. I wish we could just mandate that, but in Georgia, we can’t because of state preemption laws. But if the city and the school system both secure this holiday, more businesses will secure it as well -- and that's how a holiday grows.

Can you talk to me about the whole process of making South Fulton a city? 

There has been a movement in the South, in conservative states especially, for wealthy areas to incorporate to get more local control over their governments and their tax dollars. There’s state legislation that mandates that income collected within city limits has to be spent within city limits.

In Fulton County, that has really accelerated over the last 10 to 15 years so that by 2007, every square mile had become incorporated except for this 107 square miles on the south side of town. Other cities began to annex the most valuable parts of unincorporated South Fulton, like areas with lots of corporate headquarters that contribute a lot in taxes but don't demand services.

So South Fulton was left with less and less of a tax base, so we ultimately had to incorporate just to stay financially viable. What the rest of the county likely didn’t expect is that we became the third-largest city in the county.

Why did you decide to run for city council?

I went to elementary and middle school in the district that I’m representing. My mom got sick so I moved home to take care of her, and I was living in the house I grew up in. That's where my slogan, "From Here, For Here" came from. [kamau’s mother passed away a few weeks after his city council inauguration.]

This place also really excited me politically. South Fulton is 89 percent African-American with a median income $10,000 less than the median income in Atlanta. We are also really large, nearly the physical size of Atlanta. So there's this huge majority-black city that has the potential to become the largest progressive city in the South.

All this progressive stuff is happening in places like Seattle and California. I really saw this as a chance to show folks that a working-class black city could be progressive, that you don't need to be wealthy and white for these ideas to work. That's a criticism a lot of people have of leftist ideas: that they're not practical. We have to show that these ideas are economically viable and politically effective. I want to show the world and our neighbors that we can have our Election Day holiday and our higher minimum wage, and we can invest more in youth than in prisons.

Your bio says you're the first Black Lives Matter organizer elected to public office. How has your activism carried over to your current role in public office?

A lot of what I have learned about political education and progressive policies for working-class black folks, I learned at Black Lives Matter. I was an organizer for the Atlanta chapter. I'm still involved actually, just not as involved as I used to be.

In general, BLM and the millennial left is still trying to figure out whether they believe in electoral politics at all. There is a set of us that want to dismantle the entire system of government that we have now. I'm not there. My life's work in electoral politics is to make the argument that this system is redeemable and it is up to us, as millennials, to redeem it.