“Rights Not Safeguarded Can Be Eroded Or Lost”: Nation’s Voting Rights Laws Headed In Wrong Direction
One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were thrice as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.
“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas face the same problem.
Iowans Return to Freedom Summer, depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.
“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” reflected Miller at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”
For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in West Side Story) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.
There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”
The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.
But the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place was being unable to vote. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.
Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.
Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.
It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come, but on where we’re going, and what it will take to stay on track.
By: Rekha Basu, The National Memo, January 21, 2015
“Are Police Stealing People’s Property?”: Policing For Profit, An Unconstitutional Cash Cow For Law Enforcement
“Don’t even bother getting a lawyer. The money always stays here.”
That’s what the Tenaha Police Department told 27-year-old Arkansan James Morrow after they confiscated $3,900 from his car for “driving too close to the white line.” The police reported the “odor of burned marijuana,” though no drugs were found in the car. Morrow was carted off to jail, while the car was impounded.
Eventually Morrow was released with no money, vehicle, or phone. “I had to go to Wal-Mart and borrow someone’s phone to call my mama,” he told The New Yorker. “She had to take out a rental car to come pick me up.”
Law-enforcement agencies at all levels of government provide a valuable and often thankless public service in their communities. There are, however, systemic problems that must be addressed. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples is the abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws.
The Fifth Amendment makes it abundantly clear that “[n]o person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” But for far too long, some law-enforcement agencies have used the law for their own benefit, seizing property suspected of use in a crime often without ever charging or convicting the owner of any wrongdoing.
The burden of proof, unfortunately, falls on the owner, ostensibly rendering his or her property guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the law, with little concern for the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. And since most people don’t have the financial means to fight a lengthy legal battle, the confiscated property often remains in the possession of the law-enforcement agencies that seized it.
What was originally intended to be an effort to combat organized crime has sadly morphed into an unconstitutional cash cow for local law enforcement and the federal government.
The New York Times recently reported that there are seminars that law-enforcement officers can attend that provide “useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals.” A video shown in one seminar quotes the city attorney of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who called items that could be seized “little goodies.”
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” Harry S. Connelly Jr. says in the video, according to the Times. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’
While law-enforcement agencies may have their wish lists of “little goodies” they covet, essentially “policing for profit,” civil asset forfeiture has serious ramifications for those whose property is taken from them.
As the co-founder ofand president and CEO of FreedomWorks, we don’t agree on many things, but this issue is one that should move progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and frankly any citizen who is offended by abuse of power to take action. Thanks to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), there is an opportunity before us to put our ideological differences aside to stop this blatant abuse of police power that erodes our civil liberties and our trust in police.
Earlier this year, Paul started a national conversation about civil asset forfeiture when he introduced the Fifth Amendment Restoration Act, or FAIR Act. This proposal would require federal law enforcement agencies to present “clear and convincing evidence” connecting seized property to a crime.
Though many states have reformed their civil asset forfeiture laws, some state and local law enforcement agencies still use federal statutes to seize property. The FAIR Act puts a stop to this loophole by requiring these agencies to abide by laws of the states in which they’re based.
The FAIR Act also removes the incentive that law-enforcement agencies have to police for profit by redirecting seized assets from the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the value of which has swelled from some $500 million in fiscal year 2001 to nearly $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2012 (PDF).
While some may attempt to spin efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture laws as a “soft on crime” position, law-enforcement agencies don’t exist for the purpose of enriching themselves by taking property of the very people they are charged with serving.
When our elected representatives assume their respective offices, they take an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution.” This isn’t some feel-good suggestion; it’s an obligation, one that has been ignored by too many on Capitol Hill for far too long.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must show the American people that their civil liberties matter, and they can send a crystal clear, bipartisan message by ending this pernicious practice of law-enforcement agencies through the restoration the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
By: Joan Blades, Co-Founder of MoveOn.org and Matt Kibbe, President of FreedomWorks for America; The Daily Beast, January 2, 2014
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”: Beyond Selma – Writing The Next Chapter In American Civil Rights History
In November 2012, I worked with the Obama campaign’s anti-voter suppression efforts in Florida. I was shocked when I saw that voters in largely Hispanic and African-American areas were forced to wait hours and hours to vote by design. The state had cut early voting from 14 to 6 days and added 11 constitutional amendments to the ballot (some written out in full) to make it more time consuming to vote such that one legislator compared the ballot to the Book of Leviticus. I also was told authorities did not deploy all available ballot boxes.
Tasked with encouraging voters to wait for over 3 hours until 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I was struck with how little needed to be done. They knew why they were waiting and that only made them more determined to vote. I was reminded of the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and the voting rights marches in Selma during the Civil Rights era and thought how sad it is that here we stand nearly 50 years after Selma and African-Americans still had to fight for their right to vote.
The next year, the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that enabled the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting restrictions in Shelby County v Holder. The Act had been reauthorized in 2006 without a single vote of opposition in the Senate, but in the Obama-era a bill to revive the provisions got nowhere last year despite bipartisan support.
The struggle in Selma is now on movie screens across America for viewers to relive the brutality of Bloody Sunday and the ultimate triumphant march that drew Americans from all races and faiths from across the nation to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate.
In March, however, the world’s attention will once again return to the Edmond Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It will be a tempered celebration because it has been a difficult two years for race relations in America. Obama’s reelection victory unleashed a torrent of racist hate across social media, then came the killings of Treyvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York and the divisions their cases brought.
More importantly, throughout the period we have steadily moved backwards on voting rights as states across the south and elsewhere took advantage of the Shelby County decision to enact a number of restrictive voting measures that are designed to suppress the African-American vote.
I have one resolution for 2015 — I’m going to Selma.
As a child of Generation Jones, we always looked up to our Baby Boomer brethren who marched for civil rights when we had no need to for the victory had been won. That victory is in jeopardy. I’m going to Selma.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner among others were killed for this most fundamental right — the right to vote. They cannot cry for justice, instead it is the duty of the living to do so for them. I’m going to Selma.
I do not expect a House of Representatives that has no shame over having a white supremacist in its leadership to listen to our pleas for action on voting rights legislation. I’m going to Selma.
Martin Luther King once said, “[h]istory will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Similarly, Benjamin Franklin said that “[j]ustice will not be served until those who are as unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” I’m outraged and I’m going to Selma.
We are a generous nation that has come together to help those in need as we did after Katrina or to take a stand that we are one as we did after 9/11. The story of civil rights in America is not relegated to our history books or a movie but is still being written today. It is time to write the next chapter for civil rights in America. Once again we are called to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate. I’m going to Selma.
By: Bennet Kelley, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014
I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be in Selma at the start of the March 21, 1965, Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March, but I’ll still be in the ticket line for the opening of the new feature film, “Selma.”
I’m anxious to see how Selma is portrayed by a director and actors for whom it is history rather than personal experience. The college students I teach have only a hazy knowledge of Selma and its impact on the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, though, Selma has taken on new relevance as it approaches its 50th anniversary. The failures of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, to indict the police officers whose actions led to the deaths of two unarmed black men has made the gross injustices the civil rights movement fought against in the ’60s seem part of our times.
I am not nostalgic about Selma, but I am struck by how, despite the explicit racism of the South in 1965, there was more optimism then about America’s racial future than we have today. In New York, where I live, nightly #blacklivesmatter marches protesting events in Ferguson and Staten Island have been able to disrupt the city to a degree unthinkable 50 years ago, but among the marchers with whom I have spoken, their hopes are modest and specific. They want to change how policing is done in communities of color, and they are calling for special prosecutors in cases of alleged police misconduct. Few, though, speak of a new racial day in America arriving any time soon.
In 1965 I was far less sophisticated politically than today’s marchers. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been conducting a voter registration campaign in Selma since January 1965, but my awareness of SCLC’s efforts did not come until the night of March 7. That was the date on which everything to do with Selma changed. Shortly after 9 o’clock, ABC interrupted its Sunday evening movie,”Judgment at Nuremberg, with pictures from Selma that showed Alabama State Troopers attacking a column of black demonstrators while jeering crowds rooted the troopers on.
What shocked me about the attack, which quickly became known as “Bloody Sunday,” was that the troopers made no effort to conceal their actions from the television cameras. They were confident they would not be called to account.
The story of Selma has been told movingly by a number of historians — particularly, David Garrow in “Protest at Selma” and Taylor Branch in “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68.” But in March 1965 when I cut my graduate classes at Brown and headed south, I had little sense that a historic undertaking was about to happen. A second protest march, this one on March 9, had been peaceably turned around, and I worried that the March 21 march might remain small, even with Martin Luther King and a series of celebrities heading it.
I was encouraged by the fact that on March 15, in a nationwide television address, President Johnson announced that he was sending a voting rights bill to Congress, and I took heart from the fact that Johnson followed up his address by calling out the Alabama National Guard to protect the March 21 march. Nonetheless, when I got to Selma on the night before the march, my worries continued.
The arrival of outsiders like me put an enormous strain on the black families in Selma who were supporting the march. The racial tensions in Selma and the surrounding counties — already high — were heightened still more by our presence. I was lucky. A black family opened up its house to me and several others, but many who arrived at the last moment ended up spending the night on the pews of Brown Chapel, the church at the center of civil rights activity in Selma.
In contrast to the end of the march, when 25,000 gathered in Montgomery to hear Martin Luther King speak, the crowd on that first day of the march was just 3,200 — an estimate that still strikes me as high. It did not take King’s assistant, Andrew Young (then Andy Young), long to organize us. Wearing bib overalls and a blue jacket, he stood in the middle of the street in front of Brown Chapel and got everyone into rows that would later fill Highway 80, from side to side.
For a moment, the march felt like the start of a small town’s Fourth of July parade, but things quickly turned ugly as we began moving through Selma. I remember the car that played “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” over its loud speakers and a homemade “Coonsville U.S.A” sign that was impossible to miss. Later, the cries of “White N****r,” especially from teenagers who enjoyed shouting in unison as if they were spectators at a football game, became routine along the march route after we left town.
The following day, with a group of volunteers, I helped clear the pasture where the small band of marchers making the complete trip from Selma to Montgomery were scheduled to spend the night. Clearing the pasture meant gathering up the cow manure that was everywhere. It was a thankless job, but in the warm Alabama sun, our work went without incident until early in the afternoon when a caravan of cars with gun racks on their roofs and Confederate flags on their doors pulled up.
There was no place to hide, and in this pre-cellphone era, no way to call for help. Scattered over several acres, we were easy targets for anyone with a gun. The men in the cars cursed us for a while over a bullhorn and tried to provoke a fight, but when nobody reacted, they finally got back in their cars and drove away. For those of us clearing the pasture, it was a lesson in the kind of vulnerability anyone who was black faced for trying to register to vote in Alabama. My fear stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon, but when it went away, I was not relieved. I felt once again how small my role at Selma was. I could count on being safe the minute I got back on a plane and returned North.
When the 50th anniversary of the Selma march is celebrated this year in Alabama, I’ll make sure to stay in the background if I go, but right now I’m leaning toward staying at home. I think the money it will cost for me to travel to Selma might better be spent on working for change in the present.
By: Nicolaus Mills, Professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College; Salon, December 26, 2014
“Some Profoundly Un-American Responses”: The False Choice Of Protesting For Justice And Supporting Our Police
I’m one of the millions of New Yorkers who woke up heartbroken today thinking of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos who were shot dead yesterday while sitting in their car in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
As the news unfolded, we learned the briefest details of the two men’s lives such as the fact that Liu was married just two months ago, and that Ramos has a wife and a 13 year old son who “couldn’t comprehend what had happened to his father”, according to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio who met with the families before a press conference last night. I offered prayers for the men, and their widows and son.
Liu and Ramos were not the only victims of Brinsley’s deadly rampage yesterday. Earlier that day, the Atlanta resident had allegedly shot his former girlfriend in Maryland, who apparently now is in “serious condition“. After killing the two police officers, Brinsley fled and apparently killed himself in a nearby subway station.
The assassinations come at a particularly tense moment in America. Recent deaths of black citizens at the hands of police in Ferguson, Cleveland and here in New York have sparked protests and calls for investigation of racism within our policing and criminal justice system. I have been part of those protests. One week ago, I was in Washington, D.C. along with thousands of other Americans of all ages, races and religions who came together in peaceful protest and to listen to the mothers and wives of those men whose lives had been lost.
Never once did I hear any suggestion of violence against the police either in the march or from the microphone. The consistent call was to work with our elected officials, courts and police departments to improve our criminal system. The goal of this movement is justice — its means are non-violent, prophetic action. When I heard the news about the Ramos and Liu killings, I prayed that it was not linked in any way to the peaceful protests that I had been a part of.
But horrifically, the assassin made the connection himself.
He wrote on an Instagram account: “I’m putting wings on pigs today, They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs #ShootThePolice #RIPErivGardner #RIPMichaelBrown”.
When I saw that I felt sick. And even sicker because the post had 17 Likes, meaning that 17 people read this obviously violent post and supported it and urged him on. And now they have blood on their hands as well.
Unfortunately, the person NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch blamed was not Ismaaiyl Brinsley, or any accomplices that may have known about his alleged intention to kill his ex-girlfriend and two police officers. Instead, he, Pataki, Giuliani and and other pundits declared that the people to blame were Obama, Holder, de Blasio and all those who have been involved in the nation wide protests.
“There’s blood on many hands tonight,” Lynch said last night, “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Lynch went on to blame those who “incited violence on the street under the guise of protest.”
I guess he means me?
The response Lynch and some conservative commentators have had to the horrific killing of these two police officers and the alleged attempt to kill a woman is profoundly un-American. It is meant to chill any criticism or efforts to improve our country and only serves to divide an already deeply divided country and to increase tensions in an already tense time.
Instead of having the deaths of Liu and Ramos further tear us apart, could this serve as a moment of bringing us together? Liu and Ramos are reminders to any who would demonize the police, that our law enforcement is made up of people of all races and backgrounds, who have families and who feel called to this duty to protect and serve.
The families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were among the first to condemn the killing of Ramos and Liu last night. The protests around the #BlackLivesMatter movement was never against the police, but it was a call to acknowledge that we can do better as a society that continues to bear the scars of racism.
That effort must continue; we can and must do better as a nation. But it will only be successful if everyone comes together and recognizes one another as human beings, deserving of respect, dignity and life.
Instead of pitting the deaths of Liu and Ramos against Garner and Brown, we can join them together, understanding them as martyrs who inspire us on both sides of the blue line to work for a more just, safe and united America.
By: Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Executive Religion Editor, The Huffington Post, December 21, 2014