This week, Washington is playing host to the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening protests in which thousands are marching on the capital — some 400 of whom were arrested Monday after a long march towards the nation’s capital from Philadelphia — to make the case for campaign finance reform, voting rights protections and the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. As they do, we’ll be reaching out to a range of experts on these issues, some of whom are participating in the actions and some of whom are not, to ask what they think it will take to effect real change.
Cornell William Brooks is the 18th chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest grassroots civil rights organization. A fourth-generation ordained minister, Brooks describes himself as a graduate of Head Start and Yale Law School and an heir and beneficiary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision won by legendary NAACP litigator (and later, Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. He spoke about voting rights, money in politics and why he sees both as civil rights issues.
We spoke with him earlier this month about the planned protests in Washington, DC. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Kathy Kiely: I wanted to talk to you about all of the activities happening in April, and tell me a little bit about the NAACP’s role in this.
Cornell Brooks: Sure. The NAACP has had a historic stake in the franchise — coming into being at the turn of the century, when an infinitesimally small fraction of African-Americans in the South were permitted to vote. We led the nation well before the Voting Rights Act, in terms of securing the franchise, going back to a case called Smith vs. Allwright outlawing the all-white Southern Democratic primary, back in the days when the Dixiecrats were king, much to the detriment of the civil rights of African-Americans, but also working class people all across the South. And in that case, parenthetically, my grandfather, who when Thurgood Marshall took that case up to the Supreme Court and won in the late 1940s, mid-1940s, my grandfather subsequently ran for Congress in 1946 to get people to join the NAACP and to register to vote.
So you have a personal stake in this?
Brooks: Very much. Very much so. I grew up hearing about my grandfather running for Congress, running to get people to join the NAACP, hearing my grandmother talk about as a child seeing a Ku Klux Klan get on the bus in his robe and having her, as she put it, she got to the back of the bus without her feet ever touching the ground she was so afraid. So the NAACP has long fought to secure the right to vote, and whether that be in terms of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making real the promises of the 15th Amendment, and at every point where the Voting Rights Act was re-authorized, the NAACP has been in the forefront. Where we — in the last battle under a Republican president, George Bush, we were told that it couldn’t be re-authorized, the legislative odds were difficult if not impossible.
The NAACP has a convention in Washington. We turned the people out from our convention into the halls of Congress, and what happens? The Voting Rights Act is re-authorized on a near-unanimous and bipartisan basis. So here we are in 2016, post–Shelby vs. Holder. And we remain optimistic. Why? Because we’ve done this before. We’ve seen the Voting Rights Act imperiled in the past, in terms of re-authorization, not to the degree it is now. But we were able to secure its passage. And in 1965, I like to remind people, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Martin Luther King and a cross section of the best of the country crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not in 1945, not in 1955, but in 1965, which led to that Voting Rights Act of 1965. The point being is it’s the same year that they crossed that bridge with much blood, much sacrifice, it was the same year they secured the passage of the Voting Rights Act. So we don’t need to wait well into the next century to make this happen.
But, to your point, we have a traditional stake in the Voting Rights Act. It is, as I like to remind people, the closest thing we have to a civic sacrament, the right to vote, and within the ranks of the NAACP among our supporters and sympathizers, the right to vote is sacred. It is enshrined in our temple of democracy. The Voting Rights Act polls at north of 90 percent in terms of the American public regarding the Voting Rights Act as a crowning achievement of democracy.
So why do you think — given all of that history and what you’ve said about public feeling about the Voting Rights Act and the right to vote, why are we at the place where we are now?
Brooks: I think part of the challenge is there is this very dangerous mythology that has been crafted and created by people intent on suppressing the vote. For example, there’s this whole notion of voter fraud. Now, we know statistically empirically that one is as likely to meet the Tooth Fairy standing next to Santa Claus at the voting booth than encounter an actual incidence of voting fraud. We know that among literally hundreds of millions of ballots cast, a literal handful of instances of voter fraud. On the other hand, voter fraud that’s perpetuated — or perpetrated, I should say — by politicians, that we have more than a few examples of. So the point being here is we have a group of folks who created the mythology that we need government-issued photo IDs to suppress this civic scourge of voter fraud.
Who are these people? Who wants to suppress the vote? Let’s name names.
Brooks: People who believe that they have something to lose with an electorate that is younger, more diverse, and perceived as more progressive. Now, this is a problem — where we have today going into the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. One out of every four African-Americans does not have a government-issued photo ID. Eleven percent of all Americans don’t have a government-issued photo ID, I should say of voting age. Sixteen percent of Latinos. This is no small minority, people of color problem only. This is a profound challenge and assault on our democracy. Nothing less than that.
In the marches that are going to be taking place this month, this issue is yoked with campaign finance issues.
Do you see them as connected? And why?
Brooks: Shelby v. Holder and Citizens United are two sides of one ugly coin. We have the folks who are suppressing and stealing votes before and during an election in collusion with the people buying and selling legislative votes after the election. Note this: The same people were trying to maintain power, the same people who were trying to stay in office have been given a rather clear choice — with a changing, diversifying, younger electorate, we could persuade or we could cheat. They have in fact chosen to cheat. Now, you can persuade people to vote for you, you can make better arguments, you can speak to their interests. But what do we do? We engage in this effort to suppress the vote. Now, the reason this is very much linked to the buying and selling of votes is because where Shelby essentially says in terms of impact and consequence, certain people’s votes mean less or they deserve less protection.
The Citizens United case essentially says that corporations are people, their speech deserves the same degree of protection. And in effect money is speech. Here’s what happens. You have a group of folks in legislatures, both state and federal, whose votes are bought and paid for. They stay in office as a consequence of money coming from well-heeled interests that control their votes and control their influence in elections. So we have a very effective, undemocratic instrument at work in our republic. Namely you keep certain people from voting, you gerrymander districts to ensure you have people who support your views, and then you take as much money as you can to influence people the way you want, to ensure you stay in office. And then on the way out of office as a public official, you then go to work for the very people who subsidized your entire career. It’s very efficient.
Campaign finance has not traditionally been a civil rights issue.
Brooks: That’s right.
What convinced you that it should be part of the agenda? And is it hard to convince other people in the movement of that?
Brooks: Well there’s certain civic false dichotomies. There’s this notion that you have money-in-politics/Starbucks crowd, and the voting-rights/Dunkin’ Donuts crowd. This is the false dichotomy that you have good government, limousine liberals, supporting the reversal of Citizens United and the rank and file of our democracy trying to protect the right to vote. The truth of the matter is, we are all equally — if not equally we are all affected by the corrupting power of money in politics and the corrupting effort of disenfranchising voters in terms of participating in our democracy.
Think about it this way — you have people who are concerned in the environmental movement about coal-fired plants, and they’re concerned about the dominance and the subsidization, if you will, of the fossil-fuel industry. Their interests are being stymied by money in politics, well-heeled lobbyists. Similarly, young people who live in cities like Ferguson, cities like New York, cities like Cleveland, North Charleston, any city across the country who feel like they’re being racially profiled, who feel like we have a prison industrial complex dominated by private prisons.
Private prisons essentially buy off, pay off, state legislators and federal legislators.
So the point being here is no matter where you are, no matter what your issue is on the civic continuum, money in politics influences the degree to which you are able to participate and influence the trajectory of our democracy. This is very much related to the free exercise of the franchise, so the point being here this is not a working-class issue versus middle-class issue. This is an issue for the whole of the country. This is really an unprecedented coming together of environmental organizations, labor rights and labor unions, civil rights organizations, legacy organizations, and also post-millennial organizations. You have a group of young people marching from Philadelphia to DC, 99Rise, Avaaz, NAACP at 107 years old, you have the AFL/CIO, CWA, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club. The point being here is the breadth of this coalition speaks to the frightening breadth of the problem we’re up against.
What do you think has prompted this now? Because a lot of these issues have been — a lot of folks like yourself have been working on bits and pieces of this agenda for a long time. What’s prompted what you’re calling unprecedented coming together?
Brooks: I think the sheer scope and sweep of a problem as reflected in the presidential campaigns. You have Bernie Sanders on the left bragging about the sheer number of donors he has and the fact that he’s not depending on super PACs. You have Donald Trump bragging about the fact that he can self-finance his own campaign and he’s not depending on anyone else. Both of them, interestingly enough, are sending a signal to the American public: “We think there’s something wrong, there’s something you need to be worried about when people and corporations are able to influence our democracy.” You don’t have to be a Republican, you don’t have to be a Democrat, you don’t have to be a Trump supporter, Bernie supporter, Secretary Clinton supporter to get there’s something fundamentally amiss here, and the people see it. They can tell by the absence of a legislative work ethic in Congress. The fact is you can’t pass a budget, you can’t pass bills, you can’t have hearings. The only thing we can seem to do is conduct hearings on whatever’s politically opportunistic as opposed to the people’s business. The people sense that there’s just something fundamentally wrong about that.
Why is there not more bipartisanship in this event? Polls show that something like 80 percent of Republicans also think there’s too much money in politics.
Brooks: I think it has a lot to do with perceptions of what we can do about it. And what I mean by that is younger people and some of those who are most prominent in this coalition are simply optimistic. You have other folks who are equally concerned but less optimistic about the prospects of reform. So it’s incumbent upon us as activists on a bipartisan basis to make the case to the country that we all need not capitulate in the corrupting of the democracy we all claim to believe in. And that’s the case that we have to make. But I just find it interesting that you have one candidate on the right who says, “Look I’m independent because I can self-finance,” and another candidate on the left saying, “I’m independent because you’re financing me with what little dollars you have.”
You had talked about state legislatures. What about the down ballot races? Do you feel that — particularly since you mentioned it several times, state legislatures — is that where you’re seeing more of a corrupting influence?
Brooks: Here’s what I think we have to be concerned about. Where we see, for example in the state of North Carolina, five percent of the vote will be impacted by these voter ID laws. And you have on the influence of money in politics, the margins are closer the farther down the ballot you go. The amount of money necessary to influence legislation goes down. In other words, the closer you get to the people, the less money it takes to influence a vote. But also the closer the margins are. So we have to be concerned about both protecting the right to vote and the integrity of the vote, the closer we get to municipal and state level elections. So in other words, when we’re spending multibillions of dollars at the federal level, money in politics is hugely important. But where $10,000 in a mayoral race or a legislative race can be dispositive, we have to be really concerned.
The other point that I think is important to note here is the issues that many young people are concerned about in terms of criminal justice reform, in the main those take place largely at the municipal and state level. The federal system holds only a fraction of all the prisoners in the country. Of the 2.2 million people behind bars, federal prisons represent a small fraction of that. Most people are in state prisons and jails. So when we talk about the era of mass incarceration, the era of mass incarceration is in the main a state and municipal problem. Racial profiling, largely a municipal problem. And so we have to really be concerned about those down ballot races. For the folks in Chicago who were morally disquieted, revolted by what happened to Laquan McDonald, the unseating of Miss Alvarez probably meant more to them than the election of President Barack Obama, or at least as much.
What do you think you’ll be doing in terms of turnout? There’s the marches that you alluded to that lead to the Voting Rights Act were enormous. Do you think you’d have to have numbers like that to make a similar impact here? And do you think you will?
Brooks: Two things. I think when you read the history closely, it’s more nuanced than that. So the Selma to Montgomery march was three marches. We tend to remember the last, not the first. So of the people who marched from Selma to Montgomery, a span of 54 miles, there were only a dozen or so, few dozen or so that actually marched the whole distance. Point one. When they started out, it was less than two hundred people. It only ended with thousands after Dr. King — the second march was abandoned midway. After the people were brutalized on the first march, John Lewis was beaten, Amelia Boynton was beaten, people were attacked with dogs and billy clubs. It was only after America saw that and Dr. King issued a Macedonian call, did we see the large numbers. So I just want to note that.
Secondly, this march, Democracy Awakening, is premised on in part America’s Journey for Justice. So our march from Selma to DC, only three thousand or so people participated along the way but five million people reached online. I think that’s important to note. So here if we have a few thousand people or several thousand people who are willing to engage, be arrested, put their bodies on the line, in the midst of this campaign, we think it’s incredibly important.
The other part of this I’ll note is with the Black Lives Matter movement, think about this: In Ferguson there were no marches or demonstrations of a hundred thousand. There were no marches or demonstrations of twenty-five thousand. But the entire world was focused on a small town in Missouri. So it’s not really the size of the effort, it’s also the intensity of the effort and how disruptive the effort is. So a few weeks ago we had a single protestor at the Association of Mayors hold up a sheet of paper in front of this gathering of mayors and it was covered around the country. Bree Newsome, one activist, goes up to the top of a flagpole. I don’t know how many views on YouTube. The point being here is I think we as, those of us who are pre-millennial activists need to wrap our minds around the fact that everything does not need to look like the March on Washington to bring about the kind of reform that we need and that came out of the march on Washington. So in other words, if you have half a million young people watching a video, tweeting about it, emailing their congressional representatives and engaging in marching in the streets, you can bring about reform that way too.
Talk to me just a little bit about the civil disobedience component of this and why you think that’s important.
Brooks: Well, it’s important because right now we have in this country legislatures engaged in voting practices that have been declared discriminatory. What North Carolina did only a few years ago was considered flat-out discrimination by the Department of Justice. In Texas, what they did right after Shelby was declared to be discriminatory before Shelby and then you had a federal court redeclaring discriminatory. So if we have people engaged in rank and file discrimination with respect to the right to vote, we have people engaging in corrupting practices with respect to democracy after they’ve been elected, i.e., the buying and selling of legislative votes. So the suppressing and stealing of citizen votes and the buying and selling of legislative votes. If they’re doing what they’re doing, we need to lay our bodies on the line. Some of us need to get arrested because we need to send a signal loud and clear that we’re willing to break the law in order to preserve democracy. It’s just that simple. Because we have people in this country who claim to be part of a Tea Party movement. The original Boston Tea Party was a rather raucous act of civil disobedience. Here we are this many years later and we are laying claim to that tradition that goes back to Gandhi, that goes back to Thoreau, to Rosa Parks, to Martin Luther King, and we’re doing it in the name of the right to vote, protecting the right to vote, ensuring the integrity of the vote and ultimately, ultimately getting out the vote. Because if we demonstrate, get arrested, raise awareness but don’t turn people out to vote, it’s all for naught. We’ve got to get people motivated and inspired to show up at the polls in November and to call on their candidates at the federal, state and local level to stand up for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. That means pushing for a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
Two, a legislative reversal of Citizens United. And three, pushing forward what I would call modernization of the franchise. So in other words, we shop online, we bank online, we use technology in multiple and manifold ways to make our lives easier. When it comes to the vote it seems as if we’re bound and determined to go back to the century before last. Think about it, if we use phones the way we cast ballots in this country, we would all be using tin cans and string, because there’s no reason why a person shouldn’t be able to vote automatically. That’s the way it’s done in most countries, you turn 18, you turn of voting age, you’re able to vote. There’s no reason for us not to have voting hours that correspond to people’s lives. There’s no reason for us not to have a day off to vote. And there’s certainly no reason to not have what we had in North Carolina only recently, preregistration for 17-year-olds. You preregister, you turn — you preregister at 17 so that when you turn 18 as a high schooler, you’re able to vote. Why again are we going backwards?
I mean literally, this would be if we had politicians dismantling cell phone towers so we could all go back to landlines, there’d be a revolution in this country. But we have people literally in state legislatures saying, “You know what, let’s make it harder for people to vote.” In Arizona, “Let’s go from two hundred polling places to sixty.” Now the Justice Department already declared this discriminatory. So we decide, “You know what, though the population has not remained the same, though we have more people and more voters, let’s decrease the number of polling places so we can have veterans, so we can have people with disabilities, so we can have people who are seniors stand out in the hot sun so they can exercise the franchise. And oh, by the way, if you’re working on the clock or by the hour, let’s take a little something out of your paycheck too.” This is completely irrational.
What kind of support do you expect from the president?
Brooks: The president, for America’s Journey for Justice, lifted it up during a gathering at the White House on the vote. We would hope, we would expect, we would appreciate the president to do this. The president has already made clear that he supports strengthening the right to vote, protecting the right to vote. He journeyed to Selma with a sizable fraction of Congress, gave a stirring, powerful speech on the franchise and during his last quarter, using his words, last quarter of his presidency, it would be wonderfully received and deeply appreciated were he to lift up Democracy Awakening, show up for Democracy Awakening, send someone, a senior official, to Democracy Awakening.
Because frankly, everything that we are celebrating, protesting for, getting arrested for, those are the very things that led to him being elected. Because in 2008 and 2012, African-American women, by way of example, led the nation in exercising the right to vote, followed not too far behind by young people. And these are the very people who are being disenfranchised in the wake of his historic election and reelection, his historic election in 2008 and his historic reelection in 2012, the very people.
So there could be no more fitting testament to the presidency of Barack Obama than for him to fully support and lift up Democracy Awakening. Because in effect, not only are these people the people who elected President Barack Obama, but these people are in fact his children. Why? Because we look at millennials. They were the ones who led and were most excited about electing the president but beyond that, fifty percent of millennials characterize themselves as independents. These are the folks who represent the future of both political parties. If you’re a Republican, you want to reach independents. If you’re a Democrat, you want to reach independents. And these are the very folks who are being ostracized or otherwise marginalized in the system that we have right now. And Democracy Awakening is all about reaching out to them.