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Black Lives Matter thought they had Washington’s ear. Now they feel shut out.

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Black Lives Matter thought they had Washington's ear. Now they feel shut out.

Now, leading Black activists say those issues aren’t getting the hearing they deserve.

“It was grassroots and base building organizations that put our issues at the forefront. That’s who delivered this win to the administration,” said Amara Enyia, policy director for the Movement for Black Lives. “At minimum, those folks should be given an audience.”

Part of the disconnect may be the cultural gap between activists — for whom justice is an absolute, but attainable ideal — and politicians, who deal with the messy realities of governing, forging compromise, and accepting incremental wins. Many BLM leaders, for instance, pushed to “defund” city police departments, only to find little appetite among lawmakers for what was widely seen as a politically suicidal position.

On Sunday, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) signaled that he was willing to water down qualified immunity, which currently shields officers from civil liability for misdeeds, in order to pass some sort of policing reform legislation.

“Well, I will never sacrifice good on the altar of perfect. I just won’t do that,” Clyburn told CNN. “I just won’t do that. … Sometimes you have to compromise.”

So while, at the outset of the new Congress, movement leaders stressed they wanted to play a role in enacting policy change, and insisted they weren’t interested in empty rhetoric or piecemeal reforms, they’re now reassessing that approach as frustration sets in.

Now, where there was once more momentum behind the push for sweeping systemic change, bureaucratic policy hurdles and political calculations have pushed activists with the Movement for Black Lives back to the sidelines.

While this has forced activists to refocus their efforts, they maintain that their organizing is multi-dimensional. And they’ve amassed a sizable war chest. The Black Lives Matter Global Network, armed with more than $90 million in fundraising following last summer’s protests, has channeled those funds into initiatives and campaigns. One, launched in February, targets police unions and police budgets–efforts that have the most heft at state and local levels.

They’ve also used that funding to publicize their assessment of Joe Biden’s performance as he passed the 100-day mark. A recent advertisement paid for by the Black Lives Matter Global Network, criticized the administration’s handling of police reform. The ad, which aired in Washington, D.C., for a limited time, specifically condemns what they see as Biden’s lack of action on the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement.

“We are the people who elected Biden,” the ad says. “It’s time he started acting like it.”

When asked for comment, a White House official did not specify where talks with movement leaders stand. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly explain the administration’s stance, said there is an “open and ongoing dialogue” between senior White House officials and leaders of the movement as well as with legacy civil rights organizations.

Movement leaders also met with members of Congress early in the planning stages for the Justice in Policing Act last summer and asked for a platform to outline the BREATHE Act, several activists said. However, even those they view as allies on the Hill — including Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who is spearheading police reform discussions — were unwilling to diverge from the bill’s core tenets.

As members of Congress continue to hash out a bill to pass with enough Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, activists say they have not been included in any of those discussions.

Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and one of the movement’s first lead organizers, said movement leaders have not abandoned their national advocacy work.

She pointed to a number of allies in Congress like Bass with whom she and other leaders have had “critical conversations” in the past about the movement’s role in policymaking.

“One of the things we’re looking at moving forward is having a better relationship [with lawmakers],” Abdullah said. “So rather than lawmakers making laws without the input of a movement that gives traction to them, we want to do a better job of coordinating on the front end.”

But complicating things is the fact that movement leaders stand vehemently against the Justice in Policing Act, which Congress drafted as a response to their protests. They argue that instead of holding officers accountable, the bill — which passed the House in March — actually gives more funds to law enforcement. Moreover, activists say, police de-escalation training, universal body cameras and data to track use of force, all provisions of the Justice in Policing Act, don’t go far enough.

The bill “requires that police be the fixers of their own problems,” said Karissa Lewis, national field director for the Movement for Black Lives. “And we know that that just has not been a successful strategy.”

Still, the Movement for Black Lives has come out in favor of some national policies that have implications for the work they do on the state level. Activists point to both the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act as critical to their work. If passed, the bills would curb a number of the provisions in state laws that limit access to the ballot.

Organizers said they were happy to hear Senate Majority Leader ´ say that he would like to pass a major voting rights bill by August, though it’s not clear how he would do so without reforming Senate rules.

And there are activists who are continuing their work locally. A national platform, they say, was never one of their chief goals. Following an unsuccessful effort to reallocate police funds in Minneapolis last summer, activists there say they’re doubling down on their push for more comprehensive public safety plans that give community members more power.

“We know the history of the failure, where we’re expecting [police] to reform themselves,” said D.A. Bullock, a lead organizer with the Minneapolis-based group Reclaim the Block. “We know that’s not possible. We’re looking to a more fundamental change in the way we do public safety.”

Nor do they see Derek Chauvin’s conviction as the final chapter following last year’s organizing against police violence and systemic racism under the umbrella of a “racial reckoning.”

“People are still asking this question of, ‘is anything coming?’ Yes, it’s coming. It’s happening on the local and state level,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and lead organizer with the Movement for Black Lives.

Still, Mitchell added that he and other lead organizers feel they are “duty bound to ensure that [police reform] happens on the federal level.”

Mitchell called for Biden to issue more executive orders and make full use of the bully pulpit to pressure Congress to act quickly on criminal justice reform as discussions around the Justice in Policing Act seem unlikely to conclude in time for Biden’s May 25 consensus deadline.

Federal legislation, activists argue, should address the root causes of the issue: A system of law enforcement that disproportionately harms communities of color. And that means they’ll continue to push for a public safety overhaul — and lobby those members of Congress willing to hear them out.

“We’re not interested in easy solutions, and we’re not interested in nibbling around the edges,” Mitchell said. “This is an urgent and real crisis for us.”

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Opinion | The Republican Case for Federal LGBT Rights

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Opinion | The Republican Case for Federal LGBT Rights

For the national Republican Party, this issue gives us the chance to do some good, win back millions of voters we’ve alienated, and move on to other important areas where we still have the moral high ground.

Some Republican operatives think they’re better off continuing to fight on this front of the culture war, and plenty of Democratic operatives think the same. The partisan vote in the House reflects an unwillingness—on both sides—to negotiate. But gay and trans rights are no longer the wedge issue they were in the early aughts. Times have changed, and Republicans’ best bet now is to reach a negotiated peace with the other side.

Democrats know the current version of the Equality Act could never pass in the Senate in its current form. And it might seem that in the current environment, common ground is out of reach. But senators of both parties have no chance of portraying themselves as reasonable unless they make a good-faith effort to reach a deal. Democrats cannot clear this hurdle unless they deal fairly with Republicans like Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, as well as conservative Democrat Joe Manchin. As for Republicans, they need to be willing to back an alternative rather than just saying “no.”

For religious conservatives, and by extension the Republicans who represent many of them, the problem with the current bill is that it appears to threaten their religious freedom and fails to adequately grapple with First Amendment concerns. They cannot support legislation that would imperil their operations, including the vital social services they provide in underserved communities around the country.

Several states have enacted laws similar to the Equality Act in recent years, but always with religious liberty protections. For instance, Rhode Island has a robust anti-discrimination law with reasonable protections for religious groups. These protections ensure that Catholic Social Services—and any other religious groups—can continue to provide valuable services in the state.

Similarly, Utah’s success in passing anti-discrimination legislation offers a path forward. Although its state government is controlled by Republicans at every level, Utah has some of the strongest protections for gay and trans people in the nation. In 2015, with the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and state LGBTQ leaders, Utah’s Republican legislature passed a comprehensive non-discrimination bill with reasonable protections for religious organizations.

I worked on the campaign to pass it, and found that Republicans were far more open to gay rights if a bill simply respected these protections, and Democrats were able to get behind it as well. It was a fair outcome that both sides liked. As a result, the law has enjoyed widespread support among the public. The people of Utah are tied with Vermont for the second-highest rates of support for LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.

In Congress, instead of working toward such a deal, many Democrats grandstand and posture, insisting—wrongly—that they can pass the Equality Act as currently written. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, for instance, has never complained about the religious exemptions in his own state’s anti-discrimination laws, yet for some reason he draws a line in the sand at the federal level, denouncing any effort to provide similar exemptions in the Equality Act. Meanwhile, most Republicans complain about these missing provisions without offering their support for a bill that included such guarantees.

Utah should serve as a blueprint for both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. The Fairness for All Act, an alternative version of the Equality Act, draws from the popular Utah law. Senate Republicans should introduce this bill and use its language to amend the Equality Act.

Support by Republican lawmakers for these types of changes would deliver a broader win to religious conservatives as well: Perhaps surprisingly, the best and possibly only way to achieve robust religious-freedom protections nationwide is by agreeing to LGBTQ non-discrimination protections, codifying an expansion of civil rights for religion alongside protections for sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

This move would also help Republicans gain back some of the ground they lost with voters over the past several years. Public opinion polling shows that support for LGBTQ civil rights continues to climb, particularly in more educated, suburban districts.

With public support at sky-high levels, a version of the Equality Act will pass eventually. The question is: Which version? And will Republicans take the opportunity to shape it?

Religious conservatives should seize this chance now to influence the process before the culture shifts even more decidedly against them on LGBTQ issues. By making peace on this issue, religious conservatives could get the legal protections they want while also showing themselves to be decent and reasonable people—winning them political goodwill for any future disagreements that might emerge, and allowing lawmakers to move on to pressing issues like the crushing federal debt, defeating coronavirus, unaccompanied minors at the border, human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party, crumbling infrastructure and energy independence.

Responsible legislation is within reach, but you can’t win if you don’t play. Reaching a settlement on these issues is better for people of faith, better for LGBTQ people, and better for the country. Republicans should sit down with Democrats and insist on a deal that works for both sides. Common ground is possible.

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Coronavirus restrictions spark mutiny against GOP governor

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla on April 30, 2021.

The Idaho State Capitol has become a reflection of GOP infighting in the age of Trump and Covid.

“We are so bipolar right now. We are one of the big strongholds for the ultra-conservatives and they’re looking to make this their kingdom,” she said. “Moderates and a lot of the people who had the money and the power are aging out and losing interest. They’re not interested in supporting a party with radicals.”

In Idaho, as in a handful of other states, the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run on the same ticket — they are separately elected. Little hails from an older establishment line of Idaho Republicans. McGeachin, by contrast, flourished as a new tea party conservative and gained more influence with the rise of Trump-era conservative populism, which went into overdrive during the pandemic.

By at least two key metrics, Idaho was a pandemic success story under Little: It has the sixth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation and ranks 41st in Covid death rate. With the good economy and Republicans largely in lockstep about low taxes, gun rights and fewer regulations, McGeachin’s campaign has instead centered around mask mandates, appeals to personal freedom and bashing the federal government — even when she benefited from coronavirus relief money.

Early on in the pandemic, McGeachin spoke at rallies protesting the governor’s brief stay-at-home order issued in the spring of 2020.

“The tension between the governor and the lieutenant governor is to be expected because they are of completely different political persuasions,” said Dean Mortimer, a Republican and former state senator and representative. “So we got a conservative lieutenant governor and a middle-of-the-road governor and there is going to be a difference of opinion.”

China Gum, who advised former GOP Rep. Raul Labrador’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Little, said the governor opened himself to a primary challenge because of what many conservatives saw as a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. McGeachin, she said, is more of an heir to the brand of conservative politics practiced by the tea party, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose laissez-faire approach toward keeping Florida open contrasted with Little’s policies in Idaho.

“A lot of people were saying he’s not DeSantis enough … DeSantis is a lot more symbolic of what Idaho Republicans want,” Gum said. “I don’t understand why Brad Little has been more California in his approach, more shut-down on this issue.”

DeSantis was the first governor in the nation to essentially ban local governments from implementing mask mandates, which McGeachin highlighted when she issued her short-lived mandate once Little stepped out of state. Local conservatives loved it.

“Half the party or more is on the DeSantis train. We would like a DeSantis,” said Boise County GOP Chair Eric McGilp.

Rebecca Crea, the GOP chair in Lewis County, said there’s a feeling among many in the party that Little was too strict with pandemic restrictions. She said Little was a RINO (Republican in Name Only) who won his office in 2018 thanks to slick ads and a crowded GOP primary that siphoned votes from the more conservative candidate, Labrador. Little beat Labrador in the primary by 37-33 percent.

“People are paying attention now,” she said. “You had people not paying attention [in 2018] and they vote for people simply because they have a cowboy hat, and Little is a rancher … We want him to be more of a governor than he is. Janice has been for the people all the time. She’s on the ground. She knows the people. And everyone loves her.”

An adviser to Little, who did not want to publicly weigh in on the divisive primary, said the governor’s team believes he’ll win because McGeachin represents a vocal minority. But the primary revealed how politics are changing in the state.

“Everybody says, ‘oh, it’s about the economy, about the economy, about the economy.’ Sure. But it looks as if the Republican Party is moving away from economic issues, because in a place like Idaho, it’s already so strong,” the adviser said. “So where do you go next? I mean, there’s been critical race theory discussions here in Idaho, discussions about diversity programs in Idaho. The conversations are starting to change in this Republican primary. The litmus test is no longer, ‘did you vote for a tax increase? Are you Pro Life? Are you Pro Gun?’”

McGeachin isn’t Little’s only challenger on the right — her message is amplified by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, a vigorous opponent of Little’s stay-at-home order and other Covid-related legislation.

Bundy gained a following after a 2016 standoff with federal agents at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and last year zip-tied himself to an office chair during a protest of coronavirus restrictions at the Idaho state Capitol. Police promptly wheeled him out; he has been banned him from the building for a year.

The state Republican Party has disavowed Bundy as too extreme, saying in a statement “we do not support his antics or his chaotic political theater.”

In a state with a robust militia movement, McGeachin has her own ties to radicals — and, indirectly, Bundy. In February 2019, she signaled support for a state Capitol rally organized by the Real III Percent of Idaho militia group protesting the conviction of a Bundy associate.

McGeachin was photographed making a heart symbol with her hands as she was flanked by two militia members flashing an “OK” hand symbol that some associate with code for “white power.” She posted the photo on her Facebook page but then took it down and issued a statement disavowing racism.

More than a month later at another militia rally, McGeachin administered an impromptu oath of office to members of the Real lll Percent of Idaho Militia that’s usually used to swear in a member of the state’s National Guard. At the time, Gov. Little was traveling out of state, leaving her in charge. McGeachin again took advantage of Little’s absence to issue the mask rule when he traveled to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Tennessee.

“The tension between some legislators and the governor has been there for a while,” said state Sen. Mark Harris, the Republican caucus chair, who worries about further division in the party as the primary races continue.

“It seems in years past if Republicans had a Republican governor, they came in and supported him,” Harris said. “This year is different in the fact that we have had a Republican lieutenant governor that has announced that she is going to run against the sitting Republican governor. And there is going to be a split in the party.”

Dan Cravens, GOP chair in Eastern Idaho’s Bingham County, pointed out that Idaho has had a recent history of far-right candidates, notably Rex Rammell, who won about one-quarter of the GOP gubernatorial primary vote in 2010 after touring the state with a giant inflatable dinosaur — designed to symbolize his intent to “take a bite out of the federal government.” He became politically active following a confrontation with state officials.

“There’s a greater populism and a greater activism in the party than in the last few years,” Craven said. “We have a profound split in Idaho. It’s our constant battle within the Republican Party between one faction and another.”

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Opinion | What Senate Democrats Should Learn from the Texas Walkout Over Voting Rights

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Opinion | What Senate Democrats Should Learn from the Texas Walkout Over Voting Rights

First, there is a proper role for a minority caucus to play in preventing an out-of-control majority from abusing its power, but it has nothing to do with an archaic filibuster that lacks accountability. In the weeks prior to breaking quorum, Texas Democrats used every tool at their disposal to engage in the legislative process. They participated on committees, asked questions, encouraged testimony and proposed amendments. On some days and nights, this participation in the process forced them to be present in the chambers until 3:00 or 4:00am.

At times, they even demonstrated they understood the text of the proposed voter suppression bills better than the bills’ sponsors. This was evident when Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia questioned Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain and informed Cain that the bill’s explicitly stated purpose, “to preserve the purity of the ballot,” was in fact Jim Crow-era language that was designed to prevent Blacks in Texas from voting.

In spite of these efforts, the Republican majority in Texas repeatedly used tactics designed to prevent the minority party from fully engaging. These tactics included releasing versions of bills and the conference committee report with little time for legislators to review what were often significant and lengthy modifications. The final version included a major provision that would have made it easier to overturn election results, even though this provision had not been included earlier in either the House or Senate versions of the bill.

In short, Texas Democrats in the legislature engaged in all the ways that Republicans in the U.S. Senate fail to do, and in ways which the current filibuster rules allow the minority party to avoid. Currently, U.S. senators are not required to debate their positions when they filibuster. They are not even required to be present, let alone cast a vote. Last week, as Republicans filibustered the creation of a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, nine Republicans missed the actual vote.

There should be no confusing the process used by Texas Democrats with that being abused by Senate Republicans. The former is an example of democracy at work; the latter is an example of democracy in decline.

Second, when dealing with an opposition which has proven that it is committed to maintaining its power at all costs, you cannot hold back because of potentially negative consequences in the future. Or to put it another way, senators should not fail to stop bad actors today out of concern that they may act even more badly tomorrow. The strategy of appeasement has never worked.

In the case of Texas, there was concern by some Democratic lawmakers as well as a few activists that a legislative walkout could open the door to a special legislative session, and that any resulting voter suppression bill could be even worse than the version that was ultimately defeated. Indeed, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already announced his intention to call such a session. Nevertheless, in spite of this potential threat, Texas Democrats decided that it was far better to defeat the current attempt to restrict voting rights and then regroup, even if that is two or three months later.

In so doing, and with millions of voters having been inspired by their actions, they may find themselves in a stronger position to avoid a special session, or to defeat future voter suppression attempts, than had they not taken a stand.

The same applies to the battle over federal voting rights legislation and the demand to end the filibuster. There are those who worry that ending the filibuster will open the door for Republicans to do bad things if and when they regain power. But this concern about future possibilities ignores that fact that Republicans across the country are doing really bad things, particularly on voting rights, right now. It does little good to be overly concerned with future attacks on democracy while we are watching democracy under attack right in front of our eyes.

In fact, the excessive concerns over what Republicans will do if they regain control of Congress runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. These concerns will lead to a paralysis and failure to pass major legislation, and this failure will in turn create the environment for Republican victories. The only way to protect an even-handed voting system is by taking bold action here and now.

Third, there must be a strong relationship between the legislative process and grassroots organizing. While the decision by Democratic legislators to break quorum has received the bulk of the attention in recent days, it should not be forgotten that the stage had been set by months of grassroots organizing ahead of the walkout. Organizations such as the Texas Organizing Project, MOVE Texas and many others had been attending hearings, texting voters and facilitating phone calls to legislators. My organization, Black Voters Matter Fund, along with Fair Fight Action helped provide lessons from our corporate accountability campaign in Georgia, and groups like the Communication Workers of America and Next Generation Action Network led protests outside of AT&T offices.

This has always been the case when it comes to protecting and expanding voting rights in America. There would be no voting rights for women without the suffrage movement, and Lyndon B. Johnson would not have been able to wrangle votes for the 1965 Voting Rights Act if not for the voting rights movement, which in Alabama led to Bloody Sunday and ultimately the Selma to Montgomery March.

Similarly, in order to survive the current attacks on voting rights, legislative and grass-roots activism needs to work together. The U.S. House has begun the legislative process, and hundreds of grassroots groups across the country are joining forces to advocate for federal legislation. From the John Lewis National Day of Action on May 8, to the upcoming Freedom Ride for Voting Rights culminating on June 26 and other actions planned for later this summer, voters and activists are doing our part. But we need help from the White House and from the Senate.

Finally, the Texas example shows that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Texas Democrats recognized that the current debate over voting rights is already far beyond any traditional disagreements over policy. The current battle is an existential one, as the Big Lie has been buttressed by a million little lies, including the recent Texas Republican claim that an attack on Sunday voting used largely by Black churches was the result of a “typo.”

In contrast, in both the U.S. Senate and, to a lesser extent, in the White House, there is still a sense among some that senators blocking voting rights protections simply need to listen to the better angels of their nature. Even President Joe Biden, who has clearly stated that the wave of voter suppression bills represents an “assault on democracy,” has not quite put the full force of his office behind thwarting that assault. The selection of Vice President Kamala Harris as the point person on passing voting rights is a step in the right direction, but is still a rather traditional approach to what is far from a traditional situation.

If Democrats in Washington, particularly those from West Virginia and Arizona, heed these four lessons, there is still time to pass the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R.4), and cut off ongoing attempts to restrict voting rights at the state level. But if they ignore these lessons, there’s a good chance we will have allowed the U.S. experiment with democracy to be damaged, perhaps fatally.

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