“We organized our first rally on MLK Day, and I’ve been marching ever since!”
Over the past four years, Mokah Johnson has discovered that individuals are able to have greater influence on policies at the local level than at the state and national levels. “We look at politics federally, but our local government may be more open to meeting the needs of the people.” This inspired her to run for Georgia House District 117.
Mokah Jasmine Johnson was born in Jamaica and immigrated with her family to the United States in the early 1980s. Seven years ago, she and her husband, Knowa, moved their blended family of seven children to Athens, Georgia.
Having previously lived in large cities, Johnson had concerns about moving to a smaller, less culturally diverse area. Upon arrival, the Johnsons discovered Hip Hop culture to be lacking, so these music and art enthusiasts brought Hip Hop to Athens. They established the marketing and music promotions company, United Group of Artists Music Association, as well as the successful Athens Hip Hop Awards, now in its 8th year. “As African Americans, we feel connected to African Americans everywhere, and when there’s not a presence being represented in this particular place, we just felt like we should use the skills that we already have to try to bring people together, uplift and inspire them,” Knowa Johnson told Flagpole in March 2019.
A Photo. A Protest. A Movement.
Johnson’s foray into local politics began with a picture posted on social media by a University of Georgia student. The photo of a drinks menu from a local Athens bar showing a cocktail called “N****rita” surfaced on social media. Johnson was stunned,“I know there’s discrimination in America, especially in the South, but I didn’t expect this.” When the local government failed to act, the Johnson family decided that something needed to be done if they were to continue living in Athens. Johnson contacted the NAACP and after getting an unsatisfactory answer, she took matters into her own hands. “My husband and I know how to organize events and concerts, so I just took those same skills and applied them to organizing my own rally.” Johnson reached out to activist groups, churches, musicians, friends, family and neighbors. “I’m like a transformer bringing people together.” Sure enough, on Martin Luther King Day 2016, over 500 people showed up to the first annual Athens Anti-Discrimination Rally.
Three years later, the protest had expanded into a music festival and parade complete with marching bands. By 2020, it had become a movement. Three days before the Georgia primary, 1,500 people — masked and provided with hand sanitizer — peacefully protested in downtown Athens. “We will not stop until we have justice,” Johnson told The Red and Black.
Gov. Brian Kemp was in Athens that day. He tweeted “With @accpolice as they work to ensure peaceful protests in Athens this weekend. Appreciate their hard work!” Not a peep about Black Lives Matter, or Ahmaud Arbery. Kemp was not listening to people of color that day, but thanks to Johnson and the Athen Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM), former Athens Mayor Nancy Deason was listening.
In November 2016, a year after the racist bar photo made headlines, the city of Athens passed the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance, now known as Alcohol License Ordinance, to ban discrimination in bars. Johnson was pleased with the progress her movement had made, but there was still much to be done. “So now bars can’t discriminate, but what about restaurants and stores?”
In December 2016, AADM established an in-house civil rights council available to assist anyone experiencing discrimination in the Athens area. In July 2017, Johnson was also asked to serve on Mayor Denson’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.
Cash Bail Reform
One of Johnson’s most important goals on the Task Force was the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. Johnson researched the Athens-Clarke criminal justice system and spoke with judges, law enforcement officials, and those whose lives have been negatively affected by the cash bail system. Because it can keep individuals who have not yet been tried in jail, the system has devastating outcomes, including the separation of families; loss of income, jobs and homes; emotional and physical scars, as well as higher rates of recidivism.
When the cash bail amendment was up for a vote, Johnson spoke first. But only one side presented their case that day. No supporters of the cash bail system showed up to defend it. In a unanimous decision, the amendment passed, eliminating cash and bond bail for low-level offenders in Athens-Clarke County. Johnson’s determination and hard work had paid off.
“The key to ensuring your community has equitable, non-discriminatory policies is persistence,” explains Johnson. Government officials often ignore the wishes of the people. The commissioners, the city officials, the mayor all think, “[T]he people are angry now, a week later they’ll forget. Two weeks later they’ll forget. We can just go back to the way we were doing things.” But Johnson says, “I’m gonna show up every Tuesday. I’m going to email you and I’m going to get other people to email you.”
Johnson points out that when local elected officials know you’re watching, they respond. In local elections, every vote counts and gives voters more power over their communities. A recent election was won by just 14 votes.
The Call to Serve
As long as Johnson has been living in Athens, she has been serving and representing her community. Over the years, she has been asked to run for office, but she didn’t think politics were for her. “I’m not changing who I am.” She changed her mind when the Georgia Congress passed the “Heartbeat Bill,” making abortion illegal once a fetus’s heartbeat is detected. “Our leaders are trying to take us back to times before 1964…They’re trying to uphold a racist, discriminatory, inequitable, exclusive system.”
In addition, Johnson is very concerned about Governor Kemp’s systemic stripping of power from local governments. All the work she and her movement have accomplished over the past four years in Athens is in jeopardy. “Now you’ve got my attention!” Johnson heard and accepted the call to serve. “It’s time for me to fight for working class people, it’s time for me to fight for women’s rights, to fight for the things that you don’t see that matter to our community.”
The Top Three – Criminal Justice Reform, Healthcare and Education
Of the top three issues Johnson wants to tackle as Georgia’s HD 177 representative, criminal justice reform tops that list. Georgia’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country. Johnson wants to develop programs that will significantly lower that rate, especially for people of color who are disproportionately imprisoned.
Next is healthcare. Georgia ranks 41st in the country for healthcare access with approximately 1.5 million uninsured residents. Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate. “People shouldn’t be worried about getting healthcare during a pandemic,” Johnson said. Expanding Medicaid would benefit working people, like the Johnson family who are self-employed but can’t afford health insurance.
As an educator, a mother of seven and a “glamma” of five grandchildren, improving Georgia’s education system is another top priority. She has ten years’ experience as an educator and was an Adult GED instructor at Athens Technical College. Johnson has led youth development workshops and “Know Your Rights” seminars for public schools while building unity and understanding. Johnson believes Georgia’s schools should be fully funded.
Mokah Johnson is fighting for ALL Georgians. Her tenacity, intelligence, passion and extraordinary ability to bring people together will make her a force to be reckoned with in the Georgia Congress.
For more information about Mokah’s platforms, experience and biography visit her website.
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