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Will Your Life Matter To The Trump Department Of Justice?

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

In the first few days after Donald Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report showing a shocking rise in what it called “bias-related” crimes. The report revealed spikes in anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-white, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBT incidents around the country.

The outpouring of hate has spared no one. Every day we see new evidence that Trump and the reaction to his election have emboldened racists and hateful bullies on every corner. They’ve come out into the daylight to see if anyone is going to stop them, and Trump only continues to egg them on.

One thing that has helped curb hateful, racist crime in the past 50 years of American history is when communities work with institutions like the Department of Justice. But if Trump—the president-elect who attacked civil rights hero John Lewis on Martin Luther King weekend—gets what he wants, the person in charge of the Department of Justice will be Jeff Sessions. This is a chilling thought for anyone who cares about civil rights.

Sessions has a history of racist, reactionary behavior in his personal life that has already prevented him from becoming a federal judge, and he has advocated for racist policy in his professional life. Sessions says the NAACP and the ACLU are groups that “shove civil rights down the throats of people trying to solve problems on their own.”

This is especially troubling because the Department of Justice, the NAACP, and the ACLU have been in the past what stands between vulnerable communities and mob justice.

In 1961, for example, a group of people wanted to ride a bus; a racist mob didn’t want them to. In Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch explains what happened next:

“The Greyhound escaped down Highway 78 at a high rate of speed, spurred on by reports from the back that the mob was in hot pursuit. About fifty cars, containing as many as two hundred men, soon were stretched out behind them as the Freedom Riders headed for Birmingham. Not far outside Anniston, the bus began to list to one side, and the driver realized that some of the slashed tires were going flat. Helpless, he pulled the bus off the highway, shut down the engine, and scampered off into the countryside. The sounds of slamming doors and shouts from the converging posse were amplified by the quiet of the bus.

“This time the mob used bricks and a heavy ax to smash the bus windows one by one, sending shards of glass flying among the passengers inside. The attackers ripped open the luggage compartment and battered the exterior again with pipes, while a group of them tried to force open the door. Finally someone threw a firebomb through the gaping hole in the back window. As flames ran along the floor, some of the seats caught fire and the bus began to fill with black, acrid smoke.”

This was the first Freedom Ride, conceived in part by Rep. John Lewis—the man Trump attacked for being “all talk, no action”—and carried out by courageous activists and organizers who were willing to risk their lives for justice. To sit where they wished was a civil right afforded them by the Supreme Court. (In case you wondered, in 1961, Donald Trump was dodging the draft and abetting hazing at his posh academy.)

Robert Kennedy was Attorney General then. The reports of this incident and those that followed spurred Kennedy’s Department of Justice to take action, to make sure there were consequences for mobs that broke the law. Kennedy took on the mantle of protecting federally protected civil rights, ultimately playing an instrumental role in the eventual passage and legacy of enforcement for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Without the Justice Department, there would only have been more mob justice.

These victories did not stop racism in America, but they helped alleviate suffering and empower people to participate in democracy. It was progress toward a more equitable and just America.

Trump and Sessions are part of a right-wing wave dedicated to rolling back civil rights protections. The idea of what can happen without the protections of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act does not keep them up at night.

Ripe for whitelash

In Patrick Phillips’ extraordinary book Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, he describes the conditions of post-Civil War Forsyth County, 40 miles north of Atlanta, in 1912, before the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the courage of the Freedom Riders. He describes conditions in which the status of poor white men had become increasingly precarious:

“All over north Georgia, the war had left devastation in its wake, and the decades after the surrender at Appomattox brought a crippling shortage of credit to a region struggling to recover….In the wake of emancipation, this meant [white farmers] competing not just with other white renters but with a whole new class of free blacks, who many owners saw as more appealing tenants and employees than poor whites. In a Jim Crow South where African Americans were disenfranchised at the polls and powerless in the courts, landowners could hire and rent to poor blacks, secure in the knowledge that if there was ever a dispute over rent payments, crop shares, or wages, the white man’s word was sure to prevail.”

Forsyth had a destabilized white working-class with a disenfranchised minority, all in the midst of rapid, foundational change in the national economy. The uneasy region was ripe for a “whitelash.” And once provoked, white Forsyth residents succumbed swiftly and horrifically to mob violence.

That fall, after the still-unsolved murder of a Forsyth teenager, white vigilantes rose up. In just a few short weeks, they used the murder as an excuse to lynch, terrorize and ultimately drive the entire black community out of the county. Thousands of people, many of whom had been there generations, were gone nearly overnight.

The racist mob created a de-facto white separatist colony inside the United States—one that lasted for decades.

Phillips writes,

“The purge was so successful that within weeks there was no one left for the mobs to terrorize, and whites who had either taken part in the raids or simply stood aside as they passed now settled back into the rhythms of farm life….Generation after generation, Forsyth County remained ‘all white,’ even as the Great War, the Spanish influenza, World War II, and the civil rights movement came and went, and as kudzu crept over the remains of black Forsyth.”

Readers could take some comfort in thinking this was a shameful event lost to the past that could never happen again in our enlightened 21st century, but that would be a mistake. The worst of our society need little encouragement to act on their violent urges. The SPLC has given us over 1,000 reasons to think it can happen here. It can happen now.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if we don’t have a strong Department of Justice, there are still ways to stop mob violence. Back in 1912, the violent racial hysteria had a chance to jump across the Chattahoochee River from Forsyth County into nearby Hall County, with the city of Gainesville at its center, but it didn’t. Many of the black citizens of Forsyth fled across the river into Gainesville, where the conditions were ripe for the same response from the white residents. It was also a North Georgia county in the midst of economic turmoil and change, but despite a few isolated incidents, the racial cleansing did not occur there. Why?

For one reason, the white residents of Hall County stood in solidarity with the black residents against the mob, Phillips writes. They protected nearby tenant farmers and families when the “night riders” came, and then, crucially, law enforcement stepped in. The police did not aid, abet or enable the mob.

“Though [Hall County Sheriff] Crow was himself a distant cousin to the white girl who had been murdered just across the river, he told reporters that he had every intention of finding and arresting whites who engaged in violence against black families….[the white vigilantes] were tried and convicted for the attack on Hurse, and soon thereafter five more white men went to jail for driving bricklayers off W.A. Gaines’s jobsite in downtown Gainesville.”

The law was still the law in Hall County. There, as in Forsyth, the law forbade the killing and terrorizing of citizens. But in Forsyth County, the law was enforced by Bill Reid, a showboating demagogue who instead of enforcing the law, whipped up passions for political gain. Instead of bringing justice, Reid “presided over an execution with all the excitement of a country fair.”

While the lynch mobs and night riders of Forsyth were enabled and emboldened by a racist showboat and his flunkies, in Hall County the local law enforcement, led by Sheriff Crowe, worked with citizens to stop the terror in its first instances. And they succeeded.

The law is the law

To keep racially charged imaginations from becoming inflamed to the point of mob violence, we need our communities to work together with our institutions to take a strong hand to protect our most vulnerable quickly, as they did in Hall County in 1912 and in Washington, D.C., in the early ’60s.

The law is the law, but Trump and his far-right cohorts want to change the law to render protections for vulnerable communities worthless. Jeff Sessions is a crucial part of that plan. Don’t let them. Find your senators‘ phone numbers and call them to tell them clearly and politely that you don’t want them to confirm Sessions. Do your part to block Trump’s cabinet.

And if Sessions gets through, don’t just hope for the best. Work for justice. Stand with the vulnerable. Don’t let America take one more step back toward mob violence.

Travis Nichols works for Greenpeace. He is the author of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder and The More You Ignore Me.

IMAGE: Senator Jeff Sessions speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Did We Expect Too Much From Obama On Race?

With less than two weeks to go before Barack Obama vacates the White House, an apparently racially motivated crime has once again ignited debate about how race relations have changed under America’s first African American president.

In Chicago, four African Americans have been charged with kidnapping, beating and tormenting a mentally disabled young white man whom they bound and gagged. They live-streamed the victim’s shockingly cruel ordeal on Facebook.

At one point during the attack, one of the perpetrators cursed “white people” and President-elect Donald Trump. Based on this and/or perhaps his disability or some other evidence, authorities have charged the suspects with hate crimes.

When asked by a Chicago reporter to comment on the incident, Obama called it a hate crime and “despicable.” Yet, in the measured tones that he has always brought to the sensitive issue, he disagreed with the contention that race relations have become worse in his adopted hometown.

As anyone can attest who was around in Chicago in 1985, when Obama first came to Chicago, there’s no question that they have improved. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and a progressive reformer, was besieged by hostile white aldermen in an atmosphere of frank racial animosity. A notorious Chicago Police commander was torturing black suspects to extract false confessions in a series of murder cases. Thanks to gerrymandering, blacks and Latinos were underrepresented in the city council.

Whatever its problems today, race relations in Chicago have come a long way since then — which was Obama’s point to the reporter.

Another change is that mobile phone cameras and social media have made the visuals of various crimes and violent incidents widely available to the public; for the better and, perhaps in some cases, for the worse. Violent crime rates have broadly declined in America since three decades ago — even in Chicago! — yet this is not apparent to many, thanks partly to “viral” blood-and-guts news.

A similarly equivocal assessment of “progress” applies to Barack Obama’s legacy as the nation’s first African American president. Most Americans greeted his election as a watershed for American society. And yet the achievement came with unrealistic expectations for what he could do for America under that label.

It was unfair to expect that Obama’s election signaled a massive turning point to America’s past racial divides, as if the event was a stopping point, a culmination, rather than a milestone on a long historical journey.

This is the fantasy of America as a post-racial society. People of all races, arguably goaded by media, bought into it. We liked the sound of hope and change. And an optimistic America is good thing, as long as it’s honest.

It was also unrealistic to believe that a black man waking up every day in the White House and going about the presidential duties was going to suddenly lift all minority-led households.

Many black people, especially those at the bottom economic rungs, became fed up with the lack of change under his watch. They’d bought into the idea sweeping change might come to their lives under Obama. But the problems at the root of the angst — poverty, the state of many urban school districts, gang and drug violence, fragmented and dysfunctional families — started long before he took office and cannot be solved with a stroke of the president’s pen.

There is a second, equally delusional notion that Obama somehow caused race relations to fester and boil. As if his very presence is the reason that Americans are sensing higher racial tensions.

For many, especially white conservatives, any time Obama weighed in on the mistreatment of black people by police, he was “playing the race card.”

It was during Obama’s time in office that these events resonated in the news: the killing of Trayvon Martin; the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and endless other cases of police shootings followed by unrest; the Black Lives Matter movement; and the horrific assassination attacks on police.

It’s naive to believe Obama flipped some switch for these events to occur. As if the problems between police and urban black communities aren’t far more complicated, more long-standing and entrenched. It’s offensive to both police and those communities to see it any other way.

Obama never should have been expected to heal all racial grievances in America. If that is what you expected, sorry, but the last eight years obviously haven’t sufficed.

Obama’s real and lasting impact on race relations in America will be seen in less sensational policy decisions: who he brought to the federal benches, his efforts to protect the Voting Rights Act, measures to expand access to health care and quality schools. None of this can be easily measured at this point.

So we’ll muddle and march forward. And if we admit Obama’s limitations, we’ll also have to see that the work of creating a more perfect union is really ahead. The goal is to take it on — eyes and ears wide open.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech during a visit at the the Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park), where they honored victims of Argentina’s Dirty War on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup that initiated that period of military rule, in Buenos Aires, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Supreme Court On Gerrymandering: ‘Is It Politics Or Race?’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday struggled over how to determine when states have unlawfully considered race in drawing legislative districts as they weighed cases in which Republicans in Virginia and North Carolina were accused of trying to dilute the clout of black voters.

Based on two hours of oral arguments in the cases before the eight justices, it appeared that the voters who challenged Virginia’s plan may win but the North Carolina case’s outcome was less clear. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sided with the court’s liberals in a ruling last year involving Alabama legislative districts, could again be pivotal.

Race can be considered in redrawing boundaries of voting districts only in certain instances, such as when states are seeking to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. That law protects minority voters and was enacted to address a history of racial discrimination in voting, especially in southern states.

In both cases before the justices, voters accused Republicans of packing black voters, who tend to back Democratic candidates, into certain districts to diminish their voting power and make surrounding districts more white and more likely to support Republicans.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to throw out a lower court’s decision upholding a Republican-backed state legislature redistricting plan in Alabama that crammed black voters into certain districts in a way critics claimed lessened their influence at the polls.

The Supreme Court has never said redistricting cannot be based on nakedly partisan aims like maximizing one party’s election chances.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the ruling in the Alabama case, acknowledged the difficulties in assessing when race has been taken into account appropriately in drawing voting districts.

“No one, I think, has a good answer to that question. There is just slightly better, slightly worse,” Breyer said.

Fellow liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that “it’s real easy” for states to say mere politics motivated their decisions “even though there’s a lot of direct evidence that it really was race.”

Conservative justices, often skeptical about considering race in any context, expressed sympathy for the problems states face in trying to avoid lawsuits while also complying with the voting law.

“Maybe there’s no way around it, but isn’t this just an invitation for litigation in every one of these instances?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.

North Carolina appealed a February federal court ruling that found that Republicans who redrew U.S. House of Representatives districts after the 2010 census took race too much into consideration.

Virginia voters who challenged the way 12 state House of Delegates boundaries were drawn by Republicans after the 2010 census appealed an October 2015 federal district court ruling upholding the districts.

Rulings in both cases are due by the end of June.

IMAGE: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

BREAKING: Federal Appeals Court Says North Carolina Voting Laws Discriminate Against Black Voters

A federal appeals court has struck down North Carolina’s new voter ID laws, passed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, saying that the laws “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

“Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways,” wrote Judge Diana Motz on behalf of Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd. All three fourth circuit judges are Democratic appointees.

In addition to North Carolina’s voter ID law, the court also struck down provisions relating to early voting, same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and preregistration, according to Politico.

“The racial data provided to the legislators revealed that African Americans disproportionately used early voting in both 2008 and 2012,” the court’s decision read. “After receipt of this racial data, the General Assembly amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting, shortening the total early voting period from seventeen to ten days … eliminat[ing] one of two ‘souls-to-the-polls’ Sundays in which African American churches provided transportation to voters.”

“We recognize that elections have consequences, but winning an election does not empower anyone in any party to engage in purposeful racial discrimination,” the court wrote.

Read the full decision below: