Eric Holder, who resigned Thursday, kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the American public that set the tone for his six turbulent years as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder in his first public speech after being sworn in.
When the remark drew an uproar from conservatives, Holder shrugged and doubled down. “I wouldn’t walk away from that speech,” Holder told ABC News. “I think we are still a nation that is too afraid to confront racial issues,” rarely engaging “one another across the color line [to] talk about racial issues.”
And true to form, Holder — a tall man who carries himself with the relaxed, quiet confidence of a corporate attorney — seldom backed down from a confrontation, on racial justice or other issues.
He pressed Credit Suisse, and the Swiss bank eventually paid over $2.6 billion to settle claims it was illegally helping wealthy Americans avoid paying taxes. Holder took the lead in pushing banks and other financial companies involved in the mortgage crisis to pay $25 billion to federal and state governments, a record civil settlement.
And Holder famously sparred with members of Congress such as Darrell Issa and Louie Gohmert as the television cameras rolled. In one heated exchange at a Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013, Issa and Holder talked over each other, with the attorney general concluding, “That is inappropriate and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”
In another back-and-forth, Holder trash-talked Gohmert with lines that could have been taken from a comedy routine. “You don’t want to go there, buddy. You don’t want to go there, OK?”
While the history books will note Holder was the first African-American attorney general, a more relevant biographical fact might be his status as possibly the first attorney general who, as a college student protester, occupied a campus building: In 1969, as a freshman at Columbia University, Holder was part of a group of black students that took over a former naval ROTC office for five days, demanding that it be renamed the Malcolm X Lounge. (In a sign of the times, the university complied.)
Echoes of Holder’s activist history could be heard years later, in the middle of a high-stakes battle with leaders of several Southern states over voter-ID laws and other rules changes that Holder deemed an attack on black voting rights.
“People should understand that there’s steel here, and I am resolved to oppose any attempts to try to roll back the clock,” Holder told CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin in an article for The New Yorker.
Not all of Holder’s crusades have worked out well.
The Supreme Court, despite Holder’s efforts, voted to strike down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and conservative senators blocked Debo Adegbile, Holder’s preferred choice to run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.
The attorney general has launched or joined legal battles against restrictions on voting rights in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina, but it’s unclear whether those efforts will end up back at the same Supreme Court that weakened the original law.
In 2012, House Republicans voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress for stonewalling on information requests in the bungled Fast and Furious gun-smuggling operation in which 2,000 weapons went missing. It was the first time in U.S. history that a sitting Cabinet member was given such a severe sanction. (The case will continue after Holder’s resignation, although his successor will inherit the fallout, not Holder personally.)
But history will surely judge Holder a success at broadly expanding access to justice for groups seeking acceptance and fairness. He announced the federal government would no longer defend laws banning same-sex marriage and told state attorneys general they could do the same.
And Holder made good on his initial commitment to change the conversation on race. He traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, and assigned dozens of Justice Department personnel to investigate law enforcement practices after the police killing of Michael Brown triggered street riots.
He has also called for voting rights to be restored to formerly incarcerated Americans, and pressed for a reduction in the prosecution of low-level marijuana users.
For one clue about how history will regard Holder, go back to 2009. In the effort to battle terrorism, Holder called for five accused terrorist’s suspected of participating in the 9/11 attacks to be tried in federal courts in New York — only to see the proposal scuttled after a political uproar.
“We need not cower in the face of this enemy,” Holder told skeptical members of the Senate. They didn’t buy the argument, but it was classic Holder: Once again, the battler leaping into the arena and daring others to summon the nerve to fight alongside him.
By: Errol Louis, CNN Opinion, September 26, 2014
On September 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. He made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general and will most likely be remembered for his vigorous enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. He deserves equal accolades for his leadership in working to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system. Since his appointment as attorney general, he has consistently criticized the draconian federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases and has decried the unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, calling the phenomenon “a civil rights issue … that I’m determined to confront as long as I’m attorney general.” And he certainly kept that promise.
Before becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, there was no indication that Eric Holder would ultimately become an advocate for poor people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. After all, Eric Holder spent most of his professional career as a criminal prosecutor. He started out as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section where for 12 years he worked to put away corrupt public officials. During his five years as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he earned a reputation as a tough sentencer, locking up countless young African American men for long periods of time.
Eric Holder left the bench to become the first African American United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Holder was appointed to be D.C.’s chief prosecutor, I was the city’s chief defender. As Director of the Public Defender for the District of Columbia, my interactions with Holder’s predecessors were very adversarial. Holder was determined to change that. Soon after his appointment, he visited my office and promised a change in policies and practices. Although he instituted a number of programs in his office, he did not make efforts to reduce the prison population or address racial disparities. He was more polite than his predecessors, but there was absolutely no indication that he would ultimately lead the charge to reverse the nation’s shameful record of incarcerating more of its citizens than any western nation in the world.
In 1997, Holder continued his career as a prosecutor when he became the nation’s first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As second in charge at the Justice Department, Holder supported and championed Reno’s positions on criminal justice issues. At that time, sentencing laws required judges to sentence those in possession of five grams of crack cocaine to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison while that harsh sentence could only be imposed in cases involving powder cocaine when the amount was 500 grams. The enforcement of these laws resulted in much harsher sentences for African Americans. Although Reno was in favor of narrowing the disparity, she strongly opposed eliminating it, and, as her deputy, so did Holder.
At the end of Clinton’s second term, Holder went into private practice before returning to lead the Justice Department that he’d worked in for most of his career. From the beginning of his term as attorney general in 2009, Eric Holder began to champion vigorous reform of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts, and the Attorney General has no supervisory power over state and local cases. However, Holder consistently used his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform and took direct action to order reforms in the federal system throughout his tenure as attorney general.
As early as June 2009, Holder spoke at a symposium on reforming federal sentencing policy sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In his remarks, Holder announced that he had ordered a review of the department’s charging and sentencing policies, consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. He stated that “the disparity between crack and powder cocaine must be eliminated and must be addressed by this congress this year.”
The following year, Holder gave remarks at the Justice Department’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense, where he spoke passionately about how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not being fulfilled for poor people charged with crimes. He pledged his commitment to improving indigent defense, stating that he had “asked the entire Department of Justice … to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need.” And he fulfilled that pledge. In October 2013, the Justice Department awarded a total of $6.7 million to state and local criminal and civil legal services organizations that provide defense serves for the poor. Most recently, Holder filed a statement of interest expressing his support for a lawsuit against the state of New York that challenges the deficiencies in New York’s public defender system.
Holder’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts were announced in a speech he gave at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting in 2013. In these remarks, Holder said, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He also decried the unwarranted racial disparities, stating that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. … [b]lack male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable—it is shameful.” Holder then went on to announce sweeping reforms, including ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from charging low level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences; a compassionate release program to consider the release of nonviolent, elderly, and/or ill prisoners; the increased use of alternatives to incarceration; and the review and reconsideration of statutes and regulations that impose harsh collateral consequences (such as loss of housing and employment) on people with criminal convictions.
We have yet to witness the positive effects of Holder’s criminal justice legacy, and some may suggest that he didn’t go far enough. But few will disagree that his efforts surpass those of any previous attorney general. Did Holder’s views on criminal justice evolve over time? Or did he always believe that the system was broken and in need of reform? Perhaps both statements are true. What matters is that at the end of the day, when he was in a position to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, this former prosecutor became a champion of liberty. And for that, this former public defender will forever be grateful.
By: Angela Davis, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law; The New Republic, September 27, 2014
President Obama’s announcement of the resignation of Eric H. Holder Jr. as U.S. attorney general was a deeply personal event. The nation’s first African American president was bidding adieu to the man he elevated as the nation’s first black chief law enforcement officer. And if you didn’t know it before yesterday, you certainly know now that the men and their families are close friends. You not only saw the bittersweet emotions of both the president and his attorney general, but you also felt them.
The extraordinary moment at the White House yesterday took me back to a moment I experienced with Holder last year. The image of this attorney general is one of forceful and unwavering resolve in the face of persistent and withering Republican criticism and even an unprecedented congressional vote of contempt against him in 2012. But on this particular day in his office, I observed that the emotions the nation saw yesterday lingered just below the surface. Within an hour of our meeting, I raced to a nearby restaurant to write down what happened. The moment was too powerful to me to entrust to memory.
Holder gave me a tour of his very lived-in office. Memorabilia everywhere. Lots of pictures. One of him at Normandy taken by his former communications director, Tracy Schmaler, he said, was his favorite. There is also a picture of himself with his favorite basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And there’s a photo of his three favorite boxers, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and the other escapes me at the moment.
But there was a series of four photos that caught my attention at his door. It was Holder interacting with a little boy. In one photo, Holder is seen kissing the crying boy on the head. It was from a Drug Enforcement [Administration] memorial event in May 2009, he told me.
As Holder talked about what was happening in the photos, his voice cracked. The family [two boys and their mom] was having a hard time with the loss of their father and her husband. The young son was too young to comprehend what was going on. But, Holder said, the other one was a little bit older and understood the gravity of losing his father.
Holder paused several times recounting that story. Tears were visible in his eyes as we stood side by side. He was able to regain his composure. But when his press secretary Adora Jenkins asked him what he told the little boy, the halting voice and tears reappeared. He said he told the little boy that his father was a hero and that everything would eventually be okay.
After all that Holder has been through, that he is so easily moved by something that happened [then-]three years earlier was telling. As with many things in his office, those photos are a reminder of why he’s in the job he’s in.
Holder loves his job. He takes his duties and responsibilities seriously. He revels in as much as he is humbled by his role in this nation’s history and efforts to have our nation be true to its ideals. And we saw it all in high relief at the White House yesterday.
By: Jonathan Capehart, PostPartisan Blog, The Washington Post, September 26, 2014
I know this sounds absurd—it is absurd—but for some odd reason Labor Day reminds me of my mother. She was a school teacher, and I think she would have a good laugh to learn that so-called “education reformers” are accusing school teachers of being too powerful and protected. My father, who was himself a long-time member of our local school board, would probably snort at the ignorance of highly educated experts.
Together, they could set the record straight on education from the facts of their own lives. They fell in love when they were young and optimistic and talented. This was the 1920s when women had just won the right to vote, and both were newly graduated from four-year colleges—the very first in my mother’s family. My father completed graduate work in chemistry and was hired as a researcher by a Philadelphia manufacturer where he later invented useful products.
They faced one obstacle in their promising lives. My mother had to sign a teaching contract with a local school district in western Pennsylvania that would prohibit her from getting married. This crude violation of a young woman’s civil rights was commonly enforced around the country. Years later, I learned that my wife’s mother had to do the same thing to get a teaching job in Iowa. Recently, I reread the steamy love letters my parents wrote to one another during that school year of frustrated desire. I blushed for them.
At the Thanksgiving break, they abandoned abstinence and broke the school contract. But secretly. On the long holiday, they eloped to West Virginia and got married there. They told no one. My parents, I should add, were no-nonsense conservative Republicans, not given to reckless adventure or inflammatory political statements. I did think of my mother as an assertive proto-feminist. In retirement, both became Democrats because they thought Goldwater was a dangerous crackpot. In 1972, my dad declared early for George McGovern, while Mom held out for Shirley Chisholm.
Keeping the secret of their marriage may have been done to protect her eligibility for many more years as a teacher. It worked. Toward the end of her long life (she died three days short of 100) my mother got a letter each year from Ohio governors, congratulating her on being the oldest living recipient in Ohio’s teacher retirement system.
I tell this intimate story to make a point that the latter-day reformers do not seem to grasp. They have left out the human dimensions of a harsh labor market where women were regularly punished for not being men. School teachers from the beginnings of America’s public schools have been vulnerable to blatant exploitation—lower wages and harsher terms—and they have been exploited. The jobs could be filled by an abundance of educated single young women in need of incomes. Married women might have babies in the middle of the school year—an inconvenience to school administrators—so married women were banned. Similar gender biases affected nursing and other caring occupations, and to some degree still do.
The fundamental power shift for school teachers did not occur until the 1960s, when frustrated teachers rebelled against traditional school systems run top-down by superintendents and principals. As a young reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed one of the early skirmishes in 1962.
One day I got a phone call from an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers who blithely announced that AFT intended to shut down the Louisville schools the following week with a citywide strike. I thought he was joking. AFT was based in East Coast big cities and had no more than fifty members among Louisville’s 2,000 teachers. The National Education Association (NEA) dominated most states those days, and it was run by and for the administrators, not rank-and-file teachers.
The AFT’s strike in Louisville was like a thunderclap—teachers did walk off and virtually shut down the system. Teachers were fed up. They were demanding a stronger voice and power in school affairs and school politics. In rural states like Kentucky, the poorest counties were frequently dominated by matriarchal political machines—women superintendents who controlled more jobs in their county than the men in county offices. The NEA got the message and swiftly adjusted. It became a full-fledged labor union like AFT. Instead of fronting for old-style political bosses, both organizations now try to speak for the interests of teachers and to defend them against political intrusions and other abuses.
These are the relevant facts that self-appointed billionaire reformers skip past. By demonizing the teachers unions and denouncing the tenure laws that protect teachers from arbitrary political reprisals, the do-good foundations have unwittingly cast themselves as a malevolent Daddy Warbucks ready to bury their opposition with tons of money.The Gates Foundation and some others do seem to be belatedly backing away from obvious mistakes, but the reform engine still threatens to undermine the common public school in favor of a deeply fractured system of sectarian and secular private sponsors claiming public money.
Impatient hedge-fund billionaires do not attempt to conceal their contempt for the rest of us. They are used to making money—fast—with no excuses for dawdlers. Witness what they have done to large segments of the overall economy. Education does not thrive in those conditions, because there is no standard of perfection in any schoolhouse that can survive brutal suppression of uniformity imposed by clumsy testing. A successful school not only makes room for dissent. It constantly nourishes it.
Of course, I am biased. But I think that was my mother’s teaching style. She taught first grade in an “inner city” neighborhood of Cincinnati where the students were not poor black kids but white kids from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They shared many of the same handicaps. Mom developed her own theories on how to teach reading to such children. It involved hand-eye coordination and other elements I could not follow. I have no proof that she succeeded, but I have a hunch she drove the principal nuts.
By: Wiliam Greider, The Nation, August 30, 2014
“Oppressive Lethargy Of Choicelessness”: What Is The Kerner Commission And Why It Should Be Revisited In Light of Ferguson
What we must remember always — and something I have told many juries in the past — is that the most powerful person in the world, on a day-to-day basis, is not the president of the United States. No, it is a police officer. Your local police officer can engage you — one-on-one, every day of the week, anywhere and any place. Your local police officer has the authority and power to take your life; and more often than not, get away with it; particularly if you happen to be a black or brown male in our society.
And how does it, all too often occur, that a police officer — most often a white police office — happens to shoot and kill or otherwise brutalize a black or brown male? Because by doing nothing when our local police officers engage in everyday minor, but insidious wrongdoing — most often directed at black and brown community residents, we enable and embolden all law enforcement personnel to believe that any wrongful conduct is acceptable simply because they wear a badge. They assume and too many in our society accept that, because they are police officers, our Constitutional constraints, under which they are sworn to perform, do not also apply to them even though they apply to each and every other American citizen.
So when I discuss the civil rights issues we tackled yesterday and the civil rights issues we confront today, including those that focus on law enforcement, I constantly advance the position that, while everything has changed, nothing has changed.
When the race riots of the 1960s occurred in communities across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. My mentor, the Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones, served as an Assistant Counsel on the staff of this commission before he assumed the position of General Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Kerner Commission Report concluded that the trigger for the riots — throughout the country — invariably derived from confrontations between the local police and members of local African-American communities. It also concluded that the residents’ held an often justified perception of the largely white police as an occupying force which was in the community to serve and protect the interests of the privileged white communities rather than to serve and protect the legitimate interests of the local minority residents and that the police inherently harbored racist attitudes toward residents of minority communities that they were also charged to serve.
Moreover, the Commission found that the underlying conditions in the making over decades — in fact, over centuries — in African-American communities provided the context for the precipitating trigger incidents of the unrest in the 1960s: racially segregated communities, inferior schools, high unemployment, and insufficient or inadequate governmental responses and attention to community needs leading those who resided in minority communities to suffer from a societal-imposed color “cast” status. They became victims of what the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her award-winning novel, Americanah, more recently described as the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” — a choicelessness growing out of government sanctioned inequality and second-class citizenship and a choicelessness that was waiting to explode.
Do these findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission sound familiar in 2014?
So, I urge President Barack Obama to revisit the Kerner Commission, some 50 years later; and to ascertain where — if anywhere — we have come since the founding of our nation with its original sin (slavery and its ongoing legacy); and where we have yet to go, since we are far, far from having arrived at a “more perfect union.”
What to do?
I propose that President Obama appoint a Commission, chaired by not one governor, but by two former presidents — Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, under the auspices of the Carter Center and the George W. Bush Library; and comprised of distinguished and diverse members such as Governor Deval Patrick, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Cisneros, Retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, to be supported by a staff of highly respected and renown professionals from all walks of life to address and to courageously face our past and our present in order to plot our course forward.
While everything changes, the one constant that has not changed is the deeply embedded institutional and individual attitudinal racism that pervades our country. The fact remains that the impetus for local community explosions — racism — almost always is triggered by a confrontation between police officers (most often white) and black and brown males — youth and men, alike.
In 1852, at the Friends House in Rochester, NY, Fredrick Douglass stated in his historic address entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, that “We must do with the past only as we make it useful to the present and the future.” Such is as true today as it was in 1852. And it is as true today as it was in the 1960s.
By: James I. Meyerson, Assistant General Counsel in the Office of the NAACP General Counsel, 1970-1981; The Huffington Post Blog, August 18, 2014