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Police Called on Georgia State Representative After Attempt to Ask Karen Handel Questions (Updated)

Ally Boguhn

"The hostility that LGBTQ Georgians face is heightening and as an elected official attending a congressional debate, I did not expect to be faced with adversity," said Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) of the encounter.

Georgia State Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) told Rewire that staff from local radio station WABE called the police on her after she attempted to speak with Republican candidate Karen Handel following a debate between Handel and Jon Ossoff, her opponent in the June 20 special election for the open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cannon’s question had been about issues of concern to Georgia’s LGBTQ community; Public Broadcasting Atlanta, which oversees WABE, responded to Rewire post-publication, explaining that it was “honoring the security protocols established with the campaigns.”

“The hostility that LGBTQ Georgians face is heightening and as an elected official attending a congressional debate, I did not expect to be faced with adversity,” said Cannon of the encounter in an email to Rewire. “However, this is indicative of what happens when marginalized people speak up. I will continue to advocate for queer visibility and acceptance in the south despite occurrences like these.”

“I told [Handel] great job and that if she is elected, I look forward to working with her. Additionally, that I am a part of the LGBTQ community and her statements on gay marriage and adoption affect many Georgians,” said Cannon in a quote posted to her campaign’s Facebook page on Thursday describing the incident.

Speaking with Rewire by phone, Cannon said, “I was extending my hand to possibly someone who will be elected to a very important office,” referring to Handel, and that she “was scoffed” at.

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“I told her that if she’s elected, I look forward to working with her and that additionally there has been coverage on her stance on gay marriage and gay adoption, and I believe that that affects many Georgians,” said Cannon. “At that time, somebody stepped in and tried to move [Handel] out of the debate space, even though the other candidate was still there—he was shaking hands, talking to people—and you know, I guess she left.”

Later as Cannon was making her way out, she was approached by a white male staff member of WABE, the radio outlet that had hosted the morning’s debate. According to Cannon, the staffer “held his hands up against the door so that I could not exit the building,” and questioned her about “thumbs up”  and “thumbs down” gestures she made to the candidates. She affirmed that she did this in reference to the candidates’ positions in regards to the LGBTQ community. He “proceeded to call one police officer, and that police officer called another police officer.” Cannon then left the building.

In a follow-up email to Rewire, Cannon said that she believed the man who interrupted her conversation with Handel was also the man who blocked her at the door, and that he was wearing a “WABE” name tag.

In a statement on behalf of the network emailed to Rewire after publication on Friday afternoon, Hilary Silverboard, senior vice president of marketing and business strategy at Public Broadcasting Atlanta—which oversees WABE—said:

It was our agreement with the campaigns that there would not be an audience Q&A after the debate. Based upon this agreement, all audience members were asked to remain in the studio until the candidates had left. WABE also agreed to provide security for the candidates while they were on premises, and for this reason several Atlanta Police Department officers were on site.

We were honoring the security protocols established with the campaigns. WABE staff escorted Secretary Handel from the studio to the front door and asked for assistance from an officer when an audience member (whom we later learned was Representative Cannon) followed rather than remaining in the studio as requested. The actions we took were consistent with what was communicated to the candidates and the audience, and was by no means an effort to suppress the views of Georgia State Representative Cannon.

“I still hope we can continue to discuss the issues that she brings up in a candid video that is still publicly viewable on Youtube and provide a safe state for families of all kinds as we remember those affected by violence against the LGBTQ community in the South,” said Cannon in the Facebook post.

The post to Cannon’s campaign Facebook page linked to a YouTube video posted in 2010 that appears to show Handel discussing issues relating to the LGBTQ community, including marriage equality and adoption. According to a 2010 report from ThinkProgress, the clip depicts an interview between Georgia 11 Alive’s Doug Richards and Handel during her failed gubernatorial bid.

Over the course of the interview, Handel repeatedly voiced her opposition to marriage equality, telling the interviewer that she had “made it abundantly clear that I think that marriage is between a man and a woman” and was also against civil unions for same-sex couples.

She also voiced her opposition to allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, seeming to agree with the notion that “gay parents aren’t as legitimate as heterosexual parents.”

During that gubernatorial race, Handel was criticized for falsely claiming she had not been a part of Georgia Log Cabin Republicans, a membership that she has apparently tried to play down after having previously courted LGBTQ voters while running for a spot on the Fulton County Commission in 2002. According to 2010 report from the Savannah Morning News, Handel “and her staff have repeatedly denied she ever joined the Log Cabin group, an organization of gay-rights supporters. When a former officer in the group supplied copies of e-mails to reporters, her spokesman said they were manufactured. When a copy of her check for $75 dues turned up, he said she had never lived at that address and that wasn’t the amount of the dues.”

Handel has since seemingly attempted to moderate her tone on LGBTQ issues, reportedly telling a press conference during her campaign launch that while she is “called to a different place, maybe, for some of the beliefs in the LGBTQ community because of my faith … I’m also called to be accepting and compassionate.”

Cannon told Rewire that she was not able to say everything to Handel that she had intended to.

“I definitely, if she becomes elected, will request a meeting with her more formally to talk about gay adoption,” said the state legislator. “As many people know, we just had a [state] house bill here in Georgia that just barely did not make it out of session, and that was largely because there was an amendment to allow private adoption agencies that receive state funding to refuse to place children in LGBTQ couples.”

“So, I do think this is a timely issue, and I wanted to speak with her further about the harmful effects of the words she has put in the media before and how I may be a resource for her, as a young person on the ground here in Georgia, for making those positive changes,” Cannon said.

UPDATE, June 9, 5:13 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include remarks from a Public Broadcasting Atlanta spokesperson.

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