In a wide-ranging interview, a leading national civil rights leader called on the federal government to enact reform to allow the families of victims of police killings to pursue greater criminal penalties, called on President Donald Trump to back down from his call for in-person school during the COVID-19 crisis, and urged U.S. Senate Republicans to extend jobless aid, and strengthen the Voting Rights Act.
Bishop William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., made the comments during a one-hour interview with States Newsroom editors on Thursday. Michigan Advance is a member of the organization.
On the subject of criminal justice reform and in the context of the George Floyd police killing in Minneapolis in May, Barber said:
“We need strong federal law that says if a DA [district attorney] and a local court system does not do right to the course of murder that the family, the victims, have recourse with federal law, strong federal law,” said Barber. “Strong law that carries a heavy penalty. That in itself, I believe would make a lot of people begin to think really differently about how they act because they would know that they’re not just going to get away with it.”
In 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign set forth a comprehensive “Moral Agenda” based on the “needs and demands of the 140 million Americans.” It takes its name from the 1968 effort led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King and others called for a “revolution of values” in America and marched on several American cities calling for reforms. The effort culminated in Washington, D.C., only weeks after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
The current Poor People’s Campaign calls for:
- Restoring and expanding the Voting Rights Act
- Fully-funding social welfare programs that provide cash and in-kind assistance directly to the poor, including poor families.
- Expanding Medicaid in every state, protecting Medicare and instituting single-payer universal health care for all.
- Ending mass incarceration and inequalities for Black, Brown and poor white people within the criminal justice system.
- Banning assault rifles and “the easy access to firearms that has led to the increased militarization and weaponization of our communities.”
- Implementing 100% clean, renewable energy and a public jobs program to “transition to a green economy that will put millions of people in sustainable living wage jobs.”
During the interview, Barber also called on the U.S. Senate Republicans to end their assault on the Affordable Care Act. He challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to back the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion COVID-19 aid package passed by the U.S. House. Talks have stalled between Democrats and Republican on Capitol Hill. The GOP have offered about $1 trillion in spending. Trump on Saturday signed a presidential memorandum that would provide $300 a week in supplemental unemployment aid to Americans, if the state government provides $100.
Barber also blasted McConnell for his refusal to take up an effort to strengthen the Voting Rights Act.
“We have less voting rights today than we had in 1965,” Barber said. “And since June 25, 2013, the Shelby decision, it could have been fixed. But for 2,600 days, we’ve had voter suppression allowed, because Mitch McConnell has refused to fix the Voting Rights Act.”
Barber was referring to the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The high court decision overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act. It deemed unconstitutional the “coverage formula,” which had identified towns, counties, or states with a history of voter discrimination.
Furthermore, Barber challenged the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to respect educators who are concerned about COVID-19 spread if schools are to re-open for face-to-face instruction. Trump and DeVos have called for in-person education. Trump threatened to withhold federal funds if states and local school districts decide against that.
“The teachers are simply saying give us the protections that we need, give our students the protections that they need,” Barber said. “And parents are saying the same things about our children. So, it is just wrong for the people who created the mess, who refused to respond properly to the crisis, to the values, who let [COVID-19] run and let it do what it has done because of ineptitude and downright refusal to acknowledge it and then say, but we have to open the schools.”
Finally, Barber praised Black Lives Matter protests that have been carried out throughout the nation and the world in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by police in Minneapolis. His advice to demonstrators is to “stay focused” and “don’t get too happy yet.” He pointed out that the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 lasted more than one year, and so did the voter registration movement that led to the seminal march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
“In other words, it’s protest, it’s policy, it’s pushing and it’s persistent,” Barber concluded. “All of that has to continue. And this is the season we’re, in some sense, what we see now is built on a whole lot of protests.”