An otherwise uneventful Student Government Association election season heated up on Thursday with two of the three executive tickets garnering social media backlash for messages and posts on day four of campaigning.
On Thursday, the SGA Bridge executive ticket released a campaign video that featured campaign staff arm in arm, marching on Herty Field to “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.
Presidential candidate for the Bridge ticket, Jeremiah de Sesto, shared the video from the campaign’s Instagram page to his personal story accompanied by a message.
“55 years ago, my hero John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus BRIDGE for change. Today, we strive to do the same for this campus and our community. Let’s @bridge.uga,” de Sesto wrote in the story.
Both the original posts and the accompanying since-deleted Instagram story drew negative attention from members of the University of Georgia community.
Vice presidential candidate on the Voice SGA executive ticket, junior Will Harris, said he felt a responsibility to share his upset about the content of the post.
“These are conversations on our campus that deserve to be heard. So I posted my opinion, just as a student, and as a Black student, who was also upset at the post,” Harris said. “John Lewis is someone who I've also looked up to. I'm an international affairs major, I have political aspirations and just as a Black student, I would never compare, even my life, to the things that John Lewis went through at my age. I'm sitting here running a SGA campaign at UGA, but John Lewis was literally out there risking his life, to fight for my right to even be here at the university.”
The Civil Rights Movement was not a feel good story. It was daily violence where people were lynched, killed, and thrown in jail. People sacrificed every day for the opportunity we have today, so be careful when you try to compare yourself to what they did. There is no comparison— VOICE BABY ‼️ (@suburban_will) February 18, 2021
Jasmine Gresham, junior and vice presidential candidate for the Belong SGA executive ticket, also spoke out against the comparison on Twitter, specifically referencing UGA’s own fraught history of racial injustice and slavery.
the civil rights movement isn’t comparable AT ALL to an sga election. intention or not. the hardship, struggle, and violence that civil rights leaders endured for Black people to have equal rights is wayyyy bigger than uga: an institution built off the back of slaves/racism— jasmine is for BELONG ♡ (@jazzyliyana) February 18, 2021
Later in the day, the Bridge ticket posted a series of apology videos on the ticket’s Instagram story that featured all three candidates standing side by side. The stories have since been deleted.
“I want to apologize about my Instagram story and how it hurt you,” de Sesto said in the story. “This campaign and my intention especially was never to compare ourselves or the bloodshed and lives lost during the Civil Rights Movement. It comes nowhere near it, and we understand that this is just a SGA election and we will never compare ourselves with that.”
In a statement to The Red & Black, de Sesto elaborated on his regret about the Instagram story post.
“I apologize for comparing this Student Government campaign to something that it is not. I understand and acknowledge that I will never know what it feels like to be Black on this campus and in this country,” de Sesto said. “My intentions were not to cause hurt, but I recognize that I impacted people negatively: I take responsibility and apologize for my mistake.”
The Belong ticket also caused controversy after screenshots from an internal GroupMe message were shared on Twitter. The message was scrutinized for its laissez faire approach to going to bars amid the pandemic and came from Belong’s staff member.
“I know today is Thursday so some of y’all might choose to go out tonight! We are totally cool with that, but just want to remind everyone that if you do go downtown, please DO NOT campaign while you’re there,” the staff member said on GroupMe.
Later on the same day, Belong’s presidential candidate Carter Marks attempted to clarify the message in the same GroupMe.
“When [the staff member] said we're totally okay with you going downtown, we were not supporting it,” Marks said on GroupMe. “We simply meant we cannot regulate what people choose to do and where they choose to go on their Thursday night. As a campaign we in no way encourage the act of going downtown especially during a pandemic …”
In a written statement to The Red & Black, Marks further clarified, “The executive candidates and executive staff of Belong did not approve the message sent by our general staff member. The message had not been seen by the candidates until it started circulating online. Once seen, the executive candidates of Belong clarified our position and reminded staff members that they should not be going downtown at all.”
In their 340-word statement, the ticket also recognized the severity of the pandemic, and emphasized the importance of social distancing and other health precautions. They said the staff member was reminding people not to campaign downtown, as it would go against an “SGA Elections Code for staff members to campaign downtown.” In a text message to The Red & Black, SGA Attorney General Jack Henry Decker explained that there is not, in fact, an election code that bars individuals from campaigning downtown.
The Belong ticket then clarified their statement.
"We established that as a guideline for our staff because it goes against our values as a ticket," said Marks.
Marks, speaking on behalf of the ticket, urged members of the UGA community to stop harassing the staff member who misspoke for the campaign.
“This staff member understands that their position was worded poorly and was held accountable by the Belong executive candidates and executive staff,” Marks said. “Finally, we would like to ask that all harassment toward this staff member cease immediately. This staff member does not deserve personal threats due to a simple miswording in a text message.”
Jake Drukman and Shelby Israel contributed to this reporting.