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2009-09-08

NAACP President Ben Jealous on the Group’s 100th Anniversary, Reviving the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Death Row Prisoner Troy Davis

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We speak with Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP about Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that efforts are being made to reshape the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the case of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP and more. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now from San Francisco by Ben Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP, here on Democracy Now!

We welcome you, Ben. In a minute, we’ll talk about a number of issues, like Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that efforts are being made to reshape the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, as well as the hundredth anniversary of the NAACP. But your response to, do you think it’s fair to say, Van Jones being driven out of the White House?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Van made a tough choice. And I talked to Van each day — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, yesterday. He made a tough choice, because he, you know, thinks that the White House really can get something done here, and he saw that Fox was intent on ensuring that he remain a distraction. You know, Van — and I’ve known him for fifteen years, since I was a college activist and he was a law school activist — I think it’s safe to say, made the toughest choice of his life, and he did it because he has deeply held hope that we can go to a better place, and soon, if we can focus on policy and not on people.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole attack by Glenn Beck that drove this? In your response from the NAACP to Van Jones, it says, “The only thing more outrageous than Mr. Beck’s attack on Van Jones is the fact that there are sponsors that continue to pay him to provide this type of offensive commentary.” Do you support the continued boycott of companies like Wal-Mart of Beck’s show on Fox?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We certainly support them choosing with their dollars who they’re going to support. I mean, it’s — Glenn Beck is somebody who’s told a seven-year-old girl, a seven-year-old black girl, that he would buy her a ticket back to Africa, that she needed to go back to Africa. And then he comes out, and he says that healthcare is the beginning of reparations. I mean, this guy plays the race card on a weekly basis. He does it very aggressive — you know, in a very hateful way.

And so, I think that, you know, my friend James, who you had on here just before, has done the country a favor by pointing this out and getting, you know, the folks who support Beck’s show a choice about what side do you want to stand on.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, since you’ve been talking to Van Jones, what are his plans now?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: I think it’s safe to say that, you know, he started the weekend intent on coming to work today. And so, he needs some time to figure out what his plans are. But, you know, those of us who know Van, people who have watched him, he’s an extremely resilient, powerful person, just on a spiritual level, a very powerful person. And we all have great hopes that he will continue to do what he does best, which is to really push for change from the outside, you know, to build up support across this country. Van really has been a transformative, transcendental leader of people of all races in this country, really, and frankly, on this globe. I mean, you know, he was named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people before he went to the White House. He was a bestselling author before he went to the White House. And we expect that, now that he’s decided to leave the White House, he will do great things.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, the New York Times

had an editorial a few days ago, “Reviving Civil Rights.” It says, “Few parts of the federal government veered more radically off course in the Bush years than the Justice Department, including its vital civil rights division.” Now Attorney General Eric Holder is reshaping the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Talk about the significance of this and what he’s doing and what has happened to the division over the last eight years.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, Bush tried to kill the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ. And Holder is simply bringing it back. It’s nothing, you know, more radical than simply restoring a vital agency within the government to perform its basic function and protect the rights of all. And it’s sad that George Bush, you know, was so intent on killing DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. And we’re very pleased that Holder is indeed bringing it back. It’s really — you know, if you believe in our Constitution, if you hold the Bill of Rights dear, it’s the logical thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: The NAACP is celebrating this year its 100th anniversary. How far have we come in this country? And talk about the new initiatives that the NAACP is engaging in, from, well, actually something Van Jones has always been active on, Copwatch, from the Ella Baker Center, which he was being slammed for by Glenn Beck —-

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- but observing police brutality, to the case of Troy Davis on death row.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, yeah, we have made great — I mean, if you just think about 1909, what this country was like, and then you think about, OK, well, if the NAACP hadn’t been founded, what would we be like today, we would be the laughing stock of the Western world. You know, in 1909, it was common for us to hang up human beings in the town square and burn them. You know, in 1909, women couldn’t vote, black people couldn’t vote, in most towns in this country. And because of the NAACP and its push and our drive to build a mass movement of local volunteers who push for social justice in this country, we have made great progress.

Our focus right now is to keep that going forward. You know, January 20th was a great day that just, you know, affirmed all of the progress we had made in the last 100 years. But January 21st, families woke up to a new day with the same old problems. Why can’t dad find a job? Why does mom work so many jobs? Why is my school an embarrassment to everything they teach me that this country stands for? So our focus right now is on that great rock that stands between the poorest black neighborhoods in this country and the land of opportunity that we all have access to.

And part of that, as you talked about — you know, part of that is finally dealing with this issue of abuse of power by the cops, definitively. I mean, it goes back to the Revolution itself and the Boston Massacre. And we finally — if we want our democracy to flourish, if we want neighborhoods like Bayview here in San Francisco to flourish, we need to have the cops be clear that they work for all of us and that it’s just not acceptable for eight or nine out of ten murders in a neighborhood like Bayview not to go solved, just like it’s not acceptable for kids to be roughed up when they should just be guided back to school.

Now, on the Troy Davis case, you know, one of the things that we’re very clear on is that if we have a pressing civil rights case or a pressing capital case, that it’s got to be visible. And I’m convinced that, you know, the reason that we saw the Supreme Court do something that they hadn’t done in more than fifty years is because thousands of folks down in Savannah, Georgia and across this country spoke up, spoke out, and said, “This is outrageous. You know, we aren’t going to let you put somebody to death who has a compelling case of their — you know, that they did not do the crime that has not been heard.” And so, you know, the — we are focused today on the school-to-prison pipeline, both ends, and the work, wealth, health issues in between, but we’re also focused on ensuring that when there’s just even one person, that we zero in, that we lift up our voices, and we make sure that justice be done.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, celebrating its hundredth anniversary. The two campaigns, “I Am Troy” campaign, specifically does what? And also the uploading of video to your website, naacp.org, explain what that is about.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We have launched software called Rapid Report. It’s based on our experiences since Rodney King, straight up through Oscar Grant and a case in Pennsylvania last year, where, you know, increasingly, kids now have a cell phone in their pocket. There’s a case — you know, if one of their friends is roughed up or treated badly by the cops, they often capture that video, they put it up on YouTube, and oftentimes they’re pushed to take it down right away. And there’s — you know, somebody shows up at their door and threatens to charge them with federal wiretapping. And so, we’ve made it easy for them to send it right to the NAACP website and to also tell us — and some folks say, “Wow, the form’s long.” Well, that’s because that’s all that we need to go to the DOJ, once we get a series of complaints from a jurisdiction, and say that we need a pattern and practice investigation because this jurisdiction seems to be a real problem.

With IAmTroy.com is the site that we’ve used to keep people posted on the developments in the Troy Davis case, to tell them how they can help support the case, and that we will be using for a series of cases as that one moves forward. I want to be very clear that Troy Davis — all that we won was that the Supreme Court has ordered the state of Georgia and — the federal court there, rather, to hear his case of his innocence. He’s now in the odd predicament of having to prove not that — you know, not having the state prove that you’re guilty, but you prove that you aren’t guilty. It’s a very high bar. But it was an almost unique act by the Supreme Court, and we have great hope. Seven out of nine witnesses that put him on death row have recanted. Six more have come forward to say that he didn’t do it. So we have great hope that the court will do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Also today at 2:00, Sonia Sotomayor, the newest Supreme Court justice, will be seated in her new job. The outgoing chair of the NAACP said — Julian Bond — said that, quoting Jay Leno, when he began as chair of the NAACP, his hair was black and the president was white; now the President is black, and his hair is white. Well, you, Ben Jealous, are the youngest president ever of the NAACP. Your thoughts about youth in your organization today, as you look forward?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, when you look at a group like the NAACP, or you look at a campaign for a candidate, what you see is that the activists tend to come from those who are near or above retirement age and those who are near or below university age. And that’s very much the case with the NAACP. We’re sort of a donut, where you have the young and the old. And, you know, we have 30,000 young people spread across 300 campuses, who are engaged, who are passionate, who are clear. You know, they are as I was when I was young, as Van was when he was young. You know, they wake up each day knowing — you know, with their mindset on justice and knowing that they can make great things happen. And what I’ve told them is that, you know, my commitment is to ensure that they are out front.

When I was in college, I went down to Mississippi, because the governor was going to shut down two public historically black colleges and make one a prison. Myself and the other lead organizers were able to get 15,000 black students, quite a large number for Jackson, Mississippi, to march on the governor’s mansion in the capital, demanding that the schools stay open. The schools stayed open. And following the students were trade unionists, and following, you know, the trade unionists were church people. If you want a legendary civil rights organization to remain a great force in this country for social change, you’ve got to have the young people out front. And so, that’s what we’re focused on. We’re doing a series of community trainings across the country, really designed to get our young people off of the campuses and into the streets, headed towards running for office a few years from now.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, did you get a chance to talk to Eric Holder, when he addressed the NAACP centennial convention, or President Obama, when he did the same in New York, about the case of Troy Davis?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yes. And, in fact, you know, I made sure that Troy Davis’s nephew, who is now fifteen and I first met when he was three, when I promised his family that if they and their lawyers were able to produce evidence, that I would fight for them as hard as possible — I made sure that he was the person to introduce me to my membership and that he was featured prominently throughout the convention. Troy’s nephew is an incredible advocate, very talented young man. He spent every weekend of his life on death row with his uncle, visiting his uncle.

AMY GOODMAN: He actually was just on Democracy Now! But I’m wondering what President Obama and Attorney General Holder responded to you raising the case of Troy Davis.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, they listened. Yeah, both of them were clear that they wanted to see what the Supreme Court did and that they hoped that the Supreme Court would do the right thing. And it’s really quite remarkable. I mean, there’s not really often a reason, unfortunately, to praise Chief Justice Roberts or Justice — not Scalia, but it’s —-

AMY GOODMAN: Alito? Alito?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yes, yes. But, you know, both of them did the right thing here, too. You know, we won this 6-to-2. And the only people who opposed it were Scalia and Thomas. It was -— I think it was heartbreaking for people that Thomas signed on on this one. I mean, he’s from Savannah and the towns near there. He knows the deal. He knows that Savannah is three percent of the population of Georgia but has produced 30 percent of the death row exonerations and that all of those have been black men. I mean, that much hasn’t changed since he grew up there. And, you know, to see the Chief Justice line up on the right side, to see, you know, all the justices, except for Scalia and Thomas — and, of course, Sotomayor stayed out, because she was like — had been on the court for a day, I think, at that point — you know, line up to do the right thing, and Thomas not have the courage to just read the clock and say what time it is, was just deeply disappointing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Ben Jealous, for joining us, president and CEO of the NAACP. Happy 100th anniversary.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Thank you.

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