Resistance to many of President-elect Trump’s Cabinet picks who face Senate confirmation hearings in the coming weeks entered a new phase Tuesday when NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and five other civil rights leaders were arrested during a sit-in at the office of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, demanding he withdraw his name from consideration for attorney general. Trump’s pick has drawn widespread outrage because of Sessions’s opposition to the Voting Rights Act, support for anti-immigration legislation and history of making racist comments. Fresh from his arrest, we are joined by Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, who is also a longtime human rights advocate, civil rights lawyer and minister.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show with the growing resistance to many of President-elect Trump’s Cabinet picks who face Senate confirmation hearings in the coming weeks. On Tuesday, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and five other civil rights leaders were arrested during a sit-in at the office of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, demanding he withdraw his name for consideration for attorney general. Afterwards, Brooks addressed supporters outside a police station in Mobile, Alabama.
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: What we’ve done—namely, engaging in civil disobedience in opposition to Senator Sessions becoming attorney general of the United States. So, it’s quite an experience, but we thoughtfully broke the law so that we might have someone who will enforce all the laws as our chief law enforcement officer of the United States.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Trump’s pick has drawn widespread outrage because of Sessions’ opposition to the Voting Rights Act, support for anti-immigration legislation and history of making racist comments, which included reportedly saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was, quote, "OK until I found out they smoked pot," end-quote. He has also called the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." In 1986, Sessions was denied confirmation for a federal judgeship by a Republican-controlled Senate committee over his racist comments.
AMY GOODMAN: This week’s sit-in comes as more than a thousand law school professors sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to reject Sessions’ confirmation, writing, quote, "Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge," unquote. Sessions’ confirmation hearing is scheduled for January 10th and 11th.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where, fresh from his arrest, we’re joined by Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, also longtime human rights advocate, civil rights lawyer and minister.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: It’s good to be back.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t—before we go to talk about another story, which is what’s happening in the sentencing of Dylann Roof, let’s talk about your position on Bill Sessions, on William Sessions—on Jeff Sessions, sorry, the senator of Alabama, who has been chosen by President-elect Trump to be the next attorney general, though he does have to go through a confirmation. What are your major objections?
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Our objections are, fundamentally, Senator Sessions represents a kind of dim and dystopian view of American civil liberties and civil rights. And so our objections are at least threefold, first of which is that he has demonstrated an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of voter suppression that we have seen from one end of the country to the other, as attested to in the Fourth Circuit decision that found voter suppression in North Carolina, the Fifth Circuit decision which found voter suppression in Texas. He has not acknowledged the reality of that, and certainly not the reality of voter suppression in his own state. Instead, he has mouthed a faith in voter ID laws, premised on voter fraud. And so, not only has he not stood against voter suppression in his own state, not acknowledged the reality of voter suppression as recognized by federal courts, the one instance where he has appeared in court in terms of voting rights, it was to prosecute three civil rights activists, which it took a jury less than three hours to find innocent. And a Congress, in which he served, later provided them or honored them with Congressional Gold Medals for their civil rights activism. And one of those activists actually marched beside Dr. King. And so, in terms of voting rights, we take strong exception, and we oppose him in terms of that.
In terms of immigration rights, he is one—among one of the most conservative, ultraconservative, extremist senators in terms of his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. In addition to that, he has voiced an openness to a immigration ban on a global religion, namely Islam, which cannot be squared in any way, shape, fashion or form with the U.S. Constitution.
Number three, his views on criminal justice reform stand in stark contrast to both red state and blue state governors. In other words, he stands for law and order in Nixonian and draconian terms, at a moment in which we have over 2 million Americans behind bars, 65 million Americans with criminal records, 1 million fathers behind bars, and we have folks on both the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the aisle, looking to dismantle this prison-industrial complex and bring this era of mass incarceration to an end. He, on the other hand, wants to overpopulate or continue to overpopulate the prisons and jails, while depopulating our families and communities.
So, for these reasons, coupled with his record as a prosecutor, his record as attorney general, his record as a United States senator, backed—I should say, which attest to statements that he made in the 1980s demonstrating incredible racial insensitivity. And so, the point being here is, the remarks that we found racially offensive in the '90s—I should say, in the 1980s, have been demonstrated, attested to, verified by the record which extends from that point until now. So we stand in strong opposition. And we stand in opposition with over a thousand law professors, with Governor Deval Patrick, with organizations not only on the progressive left, but I might also note there are any number of conservatives who take strong exception to the fact that Senator Sessions is—stands against whistleblowers. He stands against civil liberties. And so, folks on the left and the right, conservatives and progressives, know that Jeff Sessions represents a very dangerous turn for this country. Because we need to be clear, Amy. We need to be very clear. We, as a country, face a stark choice, not between liberalism and conservatism, but rather between democracy and authoritarianism. And an Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under a President Donald J. Trump, would take us in the wrong direction—that is to say, backward in a headlong and a full-speed fashion. And we simply can't do that.
So the NAACP is unapologetically opposed to Senator Sessions. The board of directors of the NAACP voted to oppose this nomination. And we’re doing so not only as a matter of policy, but we’re doing so bodily, spiritually, morally, by encouraging civil disobedience—that is to say, standing in the tradition of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, standing in that tradition by sitting down. And so, we understand that the odds may be difficult, but we, as the NAACP, don’t gauge our principled opposition to a nominee based upon odds and probabilities, but rather the rightness of the cause.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on the first point that you mentioned, your concern about Jeff Sessions as attorney general—
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —voter suppression and ID laws, voter ID laws, a recent poll, jointly conducted by The Economist and YouGov, revealed that 62 percent of Trump supporters believe that, quote, "millions of illegal votes were cast in this election." So, could you respond to that and what that may have to do with Trump’s selection of Sessions as—or nomination of Sessions as attorney general?
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Absolutely. While we may have any number of our fellow citizens who believe in the myth of voter fraud, here’s the reality. There are studies that attest to the fact that out of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of ballots cast, we have a literal handful of fraudulent ballots. Literal handful. And so, statistically, empirically, as a matter of probability speaking, you’re more likely to meet the tooth fairy standing next to Santa Claus at the ballot box than encounter an actual instance of voter fraud. What you’re most likely to encounter is not voter fraud on the part of voters pretending to be something that they’re not, but rather politicians engaging in fraudulent behavior with respect to suppressing the vote. That’s a reality.
And it’s a reality attested to by federal courts around the country. The NAACP, in the span of less than a year—that is to say, in 10 months—we had 10 victories against voter suppression. We have court cases in North Carolina, led in a marvelous way by Dr. Barber and the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and in Texas, led by a brilliant lawyer, Gary Bledsoe, and the Texas State Conference of the NAACP—two court victories attesting to the reality of voter suppression.
Think about it this way. When Texas, a court found that 630,000-plus ballots, votes, voters were—I should say, votes were imperiled as a consequence of voter suppression, not voter fraud. The same is true in North Carolina in terms of 5 percent of the electorate. And in the home state of Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—namely, Alabama—a half-million votes were imperiled as a consequence of a constitutionally wrongheaded, morally wronghearted voter ID law. So, to our fellow citizens who believe in voter fraud, it quite simply is not true, except when it comes to your politicians who are engaging in voter suppressive and discriminatory behavior and activity.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1986, President Reagan nominated Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship, but he was denied confirmation because of his history of racist comments even at that time, including reportedly saying that he thought Ku Klux Klan members were OK until he found out they smoked pot. This is the late Senator Ted Kennedy speaking at Sessions’ 1986 confirmation hearing. This is from NBC News.
SEN. TED KENNEDY: Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past. It’s inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.
KEN BODDIE: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, he was brought face to face with things he personally had said. For example, that the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union are un-American organizations.
JEFF SESSIONS: These comments that you could say about commie organizations or something, I may have said something like that in a general way, and that probably was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeff Sessions back then in 1986. He was rejected for the judgeship. Only once before in close to half a century had the Senate Judiciary Committee formally turned down a presidential nominee for the federal bench. And now we move forward to 2016. Cornell William Brooks, another explanation of perhaps one of the reasons for the choice of Senator Sessions to be attorney general is who Donald Trump has tapped to be a senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, the former chief of staff of Jeff Sessions, who is not so much known outside of Washington, but warmed up the speeches of Trump all over the country. He was sort of the opening act. And he’s one of the ones who was credited with torpedoing the immigration reform of 2014. Something that Senator Sessions has really made a name in right now is going after immigrants.
CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Yes. He represents a very dim view when it comes to immigration rights. And one of the things I want to note here is we’re at a point in America’s history where the electorate and the citizenry is more diverse than it has ever been. So, to put forward an attorney general nominee who stands in stark contrast to the reality of American democracy in 2017—that is to say, diverse and growing increasingly so—is a throwback. It is a matter of stepping into a backward and ugly past. Where we have seen in the course of the last election this rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, which seems to have fueled much of the Trump campaign, where we have seen in the latest FBI report a 67 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, where we have seen all around the country immigrant groups and communities of color marginalized and demeaned and dehumanized, to put forth this kind of a nominee at this hour of our American democracy is, quite frankly, disturbing. And it stands in contrast to where most people in this country want to go and where most legislators, I believe, want to go, which is to say to respond to the need for immigration reform in a comprehensive, thoughtful way. So that Senator Sessions really represents a backward turn and one that we oppose and that we stand beside many immigrant rights in doing so.