ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
By Jane Kennedy
In a wide-ranging discussion among lawmakers, activists, policy experts and former Obama administration officials about the state of civil rights in the Trump administration, on Capitol Hill, the consensus was unanimous that the current climate for civil rights is the most dangerous that has been experienced in decades.
The April 6 event was hosted by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), ranking member of the House Committee on the Judiciary.
“Although the Trump presidential campaign promised changes that would benefit minorities in the areas of crime, equal justice, and economic equality, his political allies and surrogates have sent a different message that has served to heighten national divisions and anxiety,” said Conyers, the longest-serving member in the House, who is also known as “the dean” of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The forum took place only a few days after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would review all of the consent decrees that the Obama administration entered into with law enforcement agencies that had demonstrated and documented histories of abuses and misconduct.
“The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement agencies perform in keeping American communities safe,” the DOJ memo said. In February, Sessions, who admittedly was unfamiliar with the details of the reports that led to decrees with police departments in Ferguson and Chicago, for example, nonetheless described them as “pretty anecdotal.”
Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a former assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department under President Barack Obama, described the first 76 days of the Trump administration’s civil rights record as “harrowing,” which she said was being “charitable.”
Recalling the immense challenge of getting a consent decree to reform the Los Angeles Police Department in 2000, despite years of abuses that included beating a homeless woman, lying to judges, planting drugs on innocent people to secure convictions, racially based stops and assaulting citizens that Sessions’ decision was a signal of the “low value” the new administration places on civil rights, she said.
“It was only through federal involvement that conditions [in LA] materially improved and that provided the impetus for real change for communities that were desperately in need of it,” Lhamon said. “The one ray of hope remaining now is that the federal courts have to approve the end of consent decrees that have already been implemented.”
This week, U.S. District Judge James Bredar denied the Justice Department’s request to delay the implementation of a consent decree for the Baltimore Police Department
“The administration consistently uses its signaling to demonstrate disregard for civil rights. When it announces that it will reconsider the value of police consent decrees, withdraws support for transgender students, slashes the [budgets of agencies] that protect civil rights, the administration unilaterally sends a chilling message that it not only is not striving to secure civil rights for all but is in fact striving to not be a federal partner in that effort.”
Roy Austin, former director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity, delivered an equally pessimistic assessment.
“In my humble opinion, the greatest current threat to civil rights in this great nation is this current administration,” he said. In record time [it] has already shown not simply a willingness to not defend civil rights, but it has shown an intent to violate civil rights, and at a minimum make it easier for others to violate civil rights. “No marginalized, struggling, excluded, discriminated against, or protected individual or group is safe from what [it] has already done or appears to be planning to do,” Austin continued. “Everything that people have fought for, and that some have died for in recent decades, is at risk. Hopefully the will of the people, of representatives like you, and the courts will continue to ensure that the current administration cannot accomplish all that they desire.”
According to Austin, the Trump administration “could not move fast enough” to remove guidance that literally helps to save the lives of transgender individuals. In addition, he had harsh words for the White House’s “Muslim ban,” which in his view not only endorses religious discrimination but also diminishes public safety.
“When the federal government announces it will side with bigots and those with irrational fears, we all lose some of our humanity,” Austin said.
He also criticized the “orchestrated photo-op” that President Trump had with the leaders of the nation’s Black college and university presidents in February. While the White House may have celebrated it as a successful meeting, the students who depend on and thrive at these historic institutions, must not be fooled by the administration’s false promises, Austin cautioned.
“Many of us in the Obama administration used to say that we wanted a nation where the color of your skin, the God you pray to, your ZIP code, or who you love did not determine your chances of success. It saddens me to see an administration that is trying to make these characteristics even more important and determinative,” Austin lamented.
Following eight years of near radio silence when it came to criticism of the White House to avoid publically finding fault with its first African-American occupant, the Congressional Black Caucus has been quite vocal in calling out actions by the current administration that members consider unjust. After its meeting last month with President Donald Trump, the group announced plans to also meet with key members of his administration to find common ground and at least attempt to smooth out differences.
But given Session’s previous civil rights history during his time as a lawmaker and the record he is currently building at DOJ, the hope for common ground appears bleak.
Said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, “We may be seeing the most dangerous Department of Justice that we have seen in decades.”