Near the close of his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in opposition to the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for attorney general of the United States, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA) told the committee members they had one choice.
Given the outpouring of opposition from civil rights organizations and giants in the movement—like Rep. John Lewis (D-AL), who also testified against Sessions’ nomination—they could either be “complicit or courageous” in their vote on Sessions, he said, and that their colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus would hold them to account.
During the two days of testimony on the Sessions nomination, there was a lot of talk, including from Sessions himself, of Sessions being a “law and order” nominee. He’s endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the law enforcement union that would like to see its members outfitted with more military weapons and power to aggressively police their communities. As Rep. Lewis patiently explained to members of the Judiciary Committee in his testimony, “law and order” has a familiar ring to civil rights advocates as a dog whistle for systemic racism.
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“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” said Lewis. “The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.”
Lewis’ testimony continued:
Segregation was the law of the land that ordered our society in the Deep South. Any Black person who did not cross the street when a white person walked down the same sidewalk, who did not move to the back of the bus, who drank from a white water fountain, who looked a white person directly in their eyes could be arrested and taken to jail.
The forces of law and order in Alabama were so strong that to take a stand against this injustice, we had to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our cause.
There is every reason, given Sessions’ record, that “law and order” means exactly what Lewis and other civil rights advocates have borne witness to it meaning: “a language accompanied by a political movement that succeeded in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place,” as Michelle Alexander put it in The New Jim Crow. And if committee members want to show they intend to stand up to President-elect Donald Trump and fight for those people who will suffer the most under a Sessions-led U.S. Department of Justice, there is no other choice but to oppose his nomination.
This point was exemplified by the content of the testimonies and by the hearing itself. “I want to express my concerns about being made to testify at the very end of the witness panels,” Rep. Richmond said before the start of his testimony, asking that his remarks be made part of the hearing’s formal record. “To have [Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)], a House member, and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”
Booker proved that point as well, breaking with Senate tradition to offer his testimony against the Sessions nomination. Booker made it clear his testimony was not a personal attack on Sessions and closed his testimony by having the members of the Congressional Black Caucus formally recognized by Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA). Normally, it is committee procedure to have the chair recognize distinguished members of the audience. At the start of the afternoon session, Grassley had failed to do so. After Booker made his request, Grassley immediately recognized his mistake and apologized.
Here, 51 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) first passed, the chairperson of the Judiciary Committee, a conservative white man, failed to recognize the Black Caucus’ presence in opposition to the Sessions nomination. It took Booker to make that happen. It took Richmond to condemn the committee and Sessions’ supporters for having Lewis “re-litigate” in his testimony the work Black people did to advance civil rights—including Bloody Sunday, the March 7, 1965 march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, where protesters like Lewis were met by state troopers. There, as Rep. Richmond reminded members of the judiciary committee in his formal testimony, those protesters were “beaten within an inch of their life.”
The culmination of the testimonies of Booker, Lewis, and Richmond tied together completely the threat Sessions as attorney general presents at this particular moment of time. The Department of Justice under his leadership has the potential to roll back civil rights advances decades in the making.
As Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, told Rewire in an interview just prior to Sessions’ hearing, advances made in criminal justice reform hang in the balance with Sessions as attorney general. “An area that we are watching is militarization,” said Bennett. “In the aftermath of Ferguson, where protesters were met with military weapons and equipment, the president issued an executive order to provide for greater oversight and regulation of the military weapons and equipment the federal government gives to state and local law enforcement.”
The police union that has endorsed both Sessions and Trump wants that executive order pulled. Trump has promised to do so.
There is also every reason based on Sessions’ record to believe that being the “law and order” head of Department of Justice will bring nationwide the kind of voter suppression laws passed in places like Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin following the U.S. Supreme Court’s gutting of the aforementioned Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby Co. v. Holder decision.
“Senator Sessions has a history of skepticism, if not outright hostility, to the Voting Rights Act and so various things that the Department of Justice is empowered to do under the Voting Rights Act will either not be done—if his past views indicate how he intends to serve as attorney general—or will be done in a fashion that doesn’t empower minority voters to exercise their rote to vote,” Chris Rickerd, policy counsel for the ACLU’s Legislative Office, told Rewire in an interview.
Despite the Shelby Co. ruling, portions of the VRA remain in effect. Those portions, Rickard explained, will prove to be a test of the Department of Justice under Sessions’ leadership. “There are provisions still in place, like Section 2, which is about discrimination in voting, that the Department of Justice continues to enforce and is required to under the Voting Rights Act. With the new administration [and] with an attorney general who is skeptical of the act itself, the question is how will that enforcement take place? And will it take place at all?”
Sexual violence is also a critical focus area of the Department of Justice, and on the second day of Sessions’ hearing, the audience heard testimony questioning the nominee’s ability to meet the needs of survivors. Amita Swadhin, who recounted in harrowing detail the abuse she experienced at the hand of her father, questioned the degree to which Sessions could be trusted to look out for women, especially those in marginalized communities. “Time and again, Sen. Sessions’ voting record has shown us he’s not the man for the job. Despite his claim to be a champion for victims of violent crime, he has not been a friend to vulnerable survivors,” Swadhin said.
Swadhin’s testimony was in part a response to Sessions’ own statements following the release of the infamous Trump-genital-grabbing video that it would be “a stretch” for Trump’s admitted actions to be considered sexual assault. (Sessions walked back those statements concerning sexual assault and Trump before the committee Tuesday.) Swadhin pressed members of the committee to remember the fact that Sessions’ most recent opposition to the Violence Against Women Act was based in large part on provisions that would extend protections to members of the LGBTQ community and allow tribal courts to prosecute non-tribal members for assaults that take place in tribal jurisdictions. For an attorney general promising to make “law and order” his top priority, excluding vulnerable women and LGBTQ people from domestic violence protections while simultaneously shielding abusers is a very select definition of what constitutes “law and order.”
Each of Wednesday’s witnesses in opposition to the Sessions nomination made it clear: No matter how much Republicans insist the opposition to the Sessions nominations is a character assassination, no matter how hard conservatives try and spin Sessions into a champion of civil rights rather than the man who in his failed confirmation hearing for the federal bench called the VRA “intrusive” and who is enthusiastically endorsed by the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue and white nationalist organizations far and wide, there are a few brave members of Congress who intend to hold this administration responsible for its anticipated crackdown on civil rights organizers, the press, and most importantly, this country’s most marginalized populations.
The close of Wednesday’s hearing was a powerful statement of what exactly is at stake with the Sessions nomination: the lives and bodies of people of color, and the constitutional promise of due process and equal protection under the law.
“It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you,” Rep. Lewis said at the close of his testimony. “We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against.”
Lewis continued: “And it doesn’t matter whether they are Black or white, Latino, Asian, or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian, or Jews. We all live in the same house, the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look for all of us, not just some of us.”