By Attorney Peter Graham Cohn
Published in the Sun Reporter Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Area
Date: January 5, 2017

As we begin 2017, it is important to recall that the struggle for civil and human rights in the United States and around the world is a life-long endeavor.   In particular, the struggle for racial and gender equality was waged not only in the early British colonies of the 1600’s but also from the very inception of the United States in 1776. The initiatives to end slavery and the subsequent “badges and incidents of slavery” encompass centuries and are not simply a phenomenon that occurred in a single decade of the 1960’s. This is a continuing struggle that presents itself in the civil unrest that we still experience to this very day.  In this stark context and reality, we should not be deterred by the single election result of November 8, 2016.

The election itself was not a do or die moment that would have solved all our problems of racial and gender inequality in America. The 2008 and 2012 elections of the first African-American President were profoundly important and accomplished many good things for America; but, those elections alone could not and did not solve the long established history of racial and gender discrimination in America.

The real challenge for those committed to civil and human rights is to accept that it remains a life long struggle that requires ongoing advocacy and vigilance. With this in mind, we need to double down on the importance of every election – whether federal, state or local. We cannot repeat the failures of voter turn- out in the 2010 or 2014 midterm elections. The failure to focus on the 2010 election was a lost opportunity to further implement the hope and change of President Obama’s first term as well as to prepare and engage in the 2010 nationwide reapportionment and redistricting that occurred in every state. That lack of focus contributed to the far right overtaking the U.S. House of Representatives and then entrenching themselves in their respective districts because people of goodwill did not fully engage in the redistricting process that would have maximized their voices in the various congressional districts post-2010.

The failure to be fully engaged in the 2014 election similarly resulted in a loss of the U.S. Senate and further losses in the House to the far right. We now have an opportunity to affirmatively engage in the 2018 federal and state elections and actively encourage pro-civil rights candidates to participate in a major federal election that will determine, among other things, who controls the U.S. Senate. Control of the Senate and gains in the House of Representatives will put pro-civil rights Senators in an important position to determine Supreme Court and Judicial appointments as well as other Executive appointments that require Senate confirmation. Moreover, it will also determine the nature of critical legislation that will affect the quality of lives for all Americans.

As examples, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that dramatically transformed existing health care and now protects close to 30 million additional Americans – since its inception in 2010 – remains in jeopardy unless the grassroots organize and work to protect all of our fellow Americans. This can be one, among other, organizing themes that will provide hope, opportunity and greater critical public health for all Americans. Similarly, vital issues regarding the protection of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid can be important organizing principles for changing the composition of the legislature and the 2020 redistricting. We cannot wait until the year 2020. To be effective, we must be planning now and focusing on strategies for maximizing the voting strength of all communities of color and people of goodwill. We cannot limit our voting power to a single district when we have, as communities of interest, the capacity to influence multiple districts.

The Trump cabinet appointments also provide insight into other organizing principles to unite the overwhelming majority of people of goodwill in the United States who rejected Mr. Trump for the Presidency. Contrary to the Trump campaign themes of looking out for the unemployed and those left out of Washington, the proposed cabinet secretaries clearly do not represent those interests. In fact, they represent the very corporate interests that have always been well spoken for on Wall Street and in Washington, and that eliminated manufacturing and other low-skill jobs sending them out of the country. Not one of the Trump appointments represents working class America. Mr. Trump must be held accountable for those appointments and those nominations that require Senate confirmation should be challenged now that the 115th Congress is currently underway with Senate hearings being scheduled.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama for Attorney General raises serious issue as to whether civil rights and liberties will be protected by the Justice Department. In addition to Sessions’ earlier racially offensive remarks, the NAACP has cited that Sessions’ voting record has received a grade of F because of his opposition to civil rights issues in the Congress; and, he has been opposed to voting rights and criminal justice reform. In Mr. Sessions, the privatization of prisons and criminal justice services would have a key ally. Those committed to ending the school to prison pipeline and the “New Jim Crow” should be highly motivated to immediately and affirmatively engage on the simple question as to whether Mr. Session is qualified to be the next Attorney General.

Similarly, other cabinet appointments appear to include individuals who are imminently unqualified to head up critical departments that affect the quality of life for every day Americans. For example, Betsy DeVos is not qualified to be Education Secretary because she has no formal educational training and experience in leading public education systems. Instead, she promotes charter schools, vouchers and other initiatives that undermine and defund public education. In considering Ms. DeVos’ preparation and qualification for such a position, it should be noted that she only has a Bachelor’s Degree in business administration and political science. Here again, public education – which is intended to prepare students for life – should not become a privatized commodity for the corporate world, that can further inequality by favoring those of means over the poor and working classes.

With respect to Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson has already acknowledged in the public record that he is not qualified to run a major federal agency. While he has an earlier background as a pediatric neurosurgeon, his own admission should raise serious questions in the confirmation process as to whether he has the minimum qualifications to run such an agency. We should keep in mind that HUD has been working, under President Obama, to make housing more affordable and available to all on a nondiscriminatory basis. One does not and cannot magically become qualified simply because one happens to be African-American and once lived in public housing as a child.

In selecting cabinet secretaries, Mr. Trump should appoint qualified individuals who have the requisite skills to carry out the purpose and mission of the agency. Like many other Trump cabinet appointments, Mr. Rick Perry has publicly acknowledged that he wanted to eliminate the very Energy Department for which he would be responsible. Because of the critical importance of the Energy Department in preventing global warming and protecting the very quality of life not only for Americans but for all the citizens of the world, the Senate cannot simply confirm an individual based on his memory-challenged willingness to eliminate a vital agency.

As we move from an election to governance status, “we the people” must be heard in the Senate confirmation process. We cannot sit by and tolerate pro forma Senate hearings in which we quietly permit the appointment of cabinet secretaries who are imminently unqualified for their respective positions, who have blatant conflicts of interests or who are committed to terminating agencies rather than perfecting the agencies to better serve the public good.

In governance, “we the people” must also be truth seekers and hold the media – the 4th Estate – accountable for making sure that we receive all the necessary and accurate information to permit us to participate in government on a fully informed basis. We cannot permit our government to run on false facts as was the case in the election campaign nor can we have our media providing free publicity for false narratives. We are also seeing signs of false facts carrying the day in the transition. We were promised last month – before the presidential electors voted – that we were going to have a formal presentation by Mr. Trump as to how the massive Trump business conflicts of interests were going to be handled in relation to the Office of President. To date, that has never happened. We are now promised that there will be a full press conference next week where Mr. Trump will meet the press for the first time since July of 2016.

Mr. Trump must be made to realize that there are consequences to his false or misleading statements. For example, after all the United States intelligence agencies concluded that Russia was involved in hacking American political entities for purposes of influencing the outcome of the election in Mr. Trump’s favor and American sanctions were imposed last week, Mr. Trump – who had been refusing daily national security briefings – asserted at the end of last week that he had information that others did not have and that he would not disclose it until Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. Mr. Trump used the media to question and to undermine a major foreign policy decision of the United States. Today, Mr. Trump admitted that the only information that he had was from a wanted fugitive – Julian Assange of WikiLeaks – who asserts that the source of his information was not Russia. Mr. Trump appears to value the positions of a wanted fugitive over our American intelligence professionals who have access to a lot more information than either Julian or Donald. There has to be accountability for these false narratives.

Similarly, the media should not provide free publicity for every tweet that Mr. Trump makes. Without Mr. Trump’s appearance to defend and answer questions regarding the content of a statement, he should not be permitted to obtain free publicity for every tweet, orchestrated video, phone call or public rant about the media or his perceived enemies. The media should require Mr. Trump’s personal presence to provide coverage on topics vital to the well-being of our nation.  Mr. Trump has been permitted to get away with presenting issues of national and international importance with these limited and potentially dangerous mechanisms during the campaign and transition; but, a responsible media must clearly state that this cannot happen in the course of governance. People’s lives will depend upon this.

In summary as we open this New Year of 2017, we must resolve that we are going to take hold of all four of our branches of government – Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – along with the 4th Estate Media, as a part of our life-long struggle to promote civil and human rights. We can do this immediately by letting our voices be heard in the current Senate confirmation hearings for the Trump cabinet appointees. We should also resolve that we are not going to miss any opportunity to participate in all elections at the federal, state and local levels. We should specifically resolve that we are going to be fully engaged in a full court press in the 2018 federal election that is now a short 22 months away by encouraging and supporting well-qualified pro-civil rights candidates to run. We should resolve that we are going to be formally heard by taking control of the Senate and reshaping the House of Representatives with individuals that more fully reflect our civil and human rights views. We should resolve that we are going to encourage the donor community to more greatly support the grassroots non-partisan organizations which have the special capacity to turn out the voters that may have stayed home or were discouraged during the 2016 election. Lastly, we should resolve that we are going to begin now to get prepared for the 2020 Census along with the accompanying Reapportionment and Redistricting of all of our congressional and legislative districts.

If we honor and act on these resolutions, we should all have a most Happy New Year.

Attorney Peter Graham Cohn is a civil rights attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the Acting President of the NAACP National Voter Fund. Attorney Cohn’s Office is located at 315 Keokuk Street, Petaluma, CA 94952; Telephone: 707-778-6945; Fax: 707-778-6945; and Email: pcohn@earthlink.net.

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