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Mokah Johnson wasn't planning to go into politics. She liked being an educator and a music promoter.
But when a bar in Athens, Georgia, launched a drink called "the n****rita", the 45-year-old couldn't ignore the deep-rooted bigotry in the supposedly progressive college town any longer.
Johnson is a candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives in District 117. Pollsters are now calling it a close race between her and the incumbent, Republican Houston Gaines, who Johnson said has campaigned on racist smear attacks.
Johnson is running on a platform based in equity—from police accountability to education to access to health care.
"They're talking about me being a radical, but [Republicans] are defunding the schools," Johnson said in a recent interview.
Originally from Jamaica, Mokah and her husband, Knowa Johnson, moved to Athens in 2012. A naturalized citizen, Johnson had already raised a blended family of seven children and worked at Athens Technical College as an adult educator. But working as a music and event promoter with her spouse, she was running into trouble booking hip-hop showcases. To Johnson, discrimination was evident within the local music scene—known for producing successful alternative rock acts—but it wasn't always easy to explicitly pinpoint. She soon found racism was an undercurrent throughout the town's culture.
Then in 2015, news of the racist drink broke. The beverage was featured on a proposed menu for Confederate-themed Athens bar General Beauregard's. When no action was taken by the Athens-Clarke County government, Johnson and her husband organized their first protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, and attracted a large, diverse crowd.
"I think that started a new wave of activism within Athens-Clarke County," Johnson said.
Soon after, Johnson co-founded the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM), a racial and social justice advocacy group that provides tutoring to at-risk students. Johnson helped pass an anti-discrimination ordinance in Athens-Clarke County, which requires bars to post their dress codes publicly, keep a record of public and private events, and allows citizens to report discrimination to the county attorney.
That bill led to a diversity and inclusion task force, which Johnson served on. After years of organizing in the community, she announced her campaign in January.
"Here I am now running for politics. Before I didn't think that my voice mattered."
In July, following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police, Johnson organized a rally to demand Justice for Black Lives, one of the largest peaceful demonstrations in the history of the town.
In September, she was endorsed by former President Barack Obama.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: You have been the focus of several racist attack ads. Last week, I received an unaccredited flyer which claimed you wanted to use our kids as "lab rats" for your "defund the police agenda." I've seen attacks that accuse you of being a felon. Can you discuss this?
Mokah Johnson: I'm not surprised by the attempts to discredit me as a Black woman; to slander me. The most disgusting part is the attacks started three days after my father passed. The first attack was a polling survey where they said I was a felon, served time in prison, and bribed a judge to get my record expunged. Then the attacks came that I'm radical and trying to defund the police.
To me personally, it's ridiculous and funny because it's so untrue. They are pulling for straws. Some people are going to fall for it because they can't do their homework.
I've actually done the work. I have a track record: From organizing to end the school to prison pipeline conferences (via AADM), from working collaboratively with the police in order to create better solutions for Athens-Clarke County residents—such as the pre-arrest diversion program—[to] working with the solicitor general.
I'm hoping that people who know the work I have done and know my track record will stand up. This is really a people and the power fight. It's not as if I haven't put in the work. You can Google me.
The language of defunding the police—this is their way of distracting people. You can look at what is happening in America. They just tear gassed protesters in Athens-Clarke County over the summer. Isn't there a better way to use those resources? They're talking about me being a radical, but they are defunding the schools. They are taking away money. They won't pass a healthcare plan so that everyone can have health care. These are the things I am fighting for.
Sugiuchi: How does your platform focus on justice, equity, and education?
Johnson: How can we protect people's rights? How can we have a restorative as opposed to a punitive system?
We advocated for cash bail reform on a local level. I want to continue to do that kind of work throughout the district.
How can we decriminalize marijuana?
I want to make sure that people are protected from gun violence. I want to focus on protecting people's rights and making restorative changes.
When it comes to equity, we are looking at affordable housing and expanding healthcare.
With COVID-19, what is it going to look like in 2021 and in 2022? The unemployment rate is still going up. People are dealing with the housing crisis.
Recently, the Georgia education fund was cut by $950 million. Education is the biggest equalizer. I want to make sure that K-12 and early education programs are being funded, that alternative education programs are being funded, that teachers are being paid, and that educator's retirement plans are not being impacted.
Sugiuchi: I was a teacher. We need more services to support our students, and they don't need to be for more surveillance or policing. We need mental health services in the schools to help the kids. They kept cutting all that funding.
Johnson: We know as teachers that some of the problems would be cut down if we had support staff. If a teacher needs two assistant teachers, then that's what they need. Look at the ratios of the class sizes to students.
We are missing the mark when it comes to reading comprehension and literacy skills, and then they wonder why in high school kids are getting arrested. Why don't we teach the kids how to have social skills, how to deal with bullying, whatever it is? Just punishing them in that manner is not going to address the problem.
Sugiuchi: Part of your platform is that you want people to work together to solve these complex problems and advocate for people to unite against hate. How do you intend to do this?
Johnson: I want to change the culture of politics.
If I am going to be a politician, I am going to be a politician who brings people together. I want to be the politician who tries to work across party lines. Let's put our differences aside and do what we can to help the people.
I launched my campaign to unite against hate, advocating for the hate crime bill HB 426 to be passed. I wanted to send that message of unity. I didn't say unite against any person or class. It's just, 'unite against hatefulness and stand up for humanity.' That is the type of message I wanted to push throughout my campaign and continue to push when I take office in 2021 because I already know it's going to be hard for me.
I will work with whoever is going to stand for what is good for the people.
If you aren't, I don't have time for that.
I just want to continue to promote that message because I have seen things change.