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Former NAACP Head Ben Jealous Enters MD Governor's Race Campaigning for Economic & Social Justice

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Ben Jealous, the youngest person to ever head the NAACP, has entered the race for governor of Maryland. He announced his bid Wednesday outside of his cousin’s West Baltimore flower shop, which was opened after the 2015 unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. A prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate in the 2016 presidential race, Jealous describes, in an extended interview, his plans to run as an activist, pursuing a broad agenda of civil rights, social and economic justice.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The youngest person to ever head the NAACP is entering the race for governor in Maryland. Ben Jealous is known for leading the NAACP’s successful campaign to abolish Maryland’s death penalty while he was president of the NAACP. In the 2016 presidential race, he was a prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate. Now he’s a candidate himself, vowing to pursue a broad agenda of civil rights, social justice and economic reform. Jealous announced his candidacy Wednesday outside his cousin’s West Baltimore flower shop, which she opened after the 2015 uprising and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody. In the first speech of his campaign, Ben Jealous called for holding police accountable.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We will cut the murder rate. We will lock up the shooters. And we will restore trust by both better training officers, but, yes, by also holding officers who kill unarmed civilians fully accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous joins a growing field of potential challengers to incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan. Last month, technology entrepreneur Alec Ross announced he also plans to seek the Democratic nomination in the race. Ross served as senior adviser for innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. At least six others are also exploring runs. All of this comes more than a year before Maryland’s gubernatorial election.

Well, just after Ben Jealous announced his plans to throw his hat in the race, I spoke with him about why he’s chosen this route—he is a well-known national organizer and activist—why he’s chosen to run for governor.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: I’m raising my kids here in Maryland, and I’ve been a community organizer my entire life. And there comes a time—and, for me, it came after the uprisings; it came, frankly, after Trump won—when you just decide that there’s nothing more important than organizing right where you live to make that place better for your children and their classmates and the children across the state. And so, we’re running this race together, building this movement, activists across the state, small business owners across the state, who have decided that it’s time to start building our state from the bottom up again, making sure that every kid has a great teacher in their classroom, making sure that work pays for everybody, so if you’re working a full-time job, you get full-time pay. And that means that the minimum wage has to be raised to $15 per hour, so a family can afford the basic necessities, even when mom’s just working one job, and so she can be home with the kids, or dad can be home with the kids.

And we’re also running, quite frankly, to increase public safety. As you know, I’ve invested a lot of my career in improving public safety, in making sure our justice system works for all of us. And we in Baltimore right now, you know, are having a crisis. We’ve got to get the shooters off the streets, stop the killings. We’ve also got to rebuild trust. And that starts with stopping the killing of unarmed civilians by the police and holding the police fully accountable.

And so, I’m running this campaign for my kids and for kids across the state, with people who, like me, have gotten involved because they know that their family’s situation is struggled—sorry, that their family’s situation and struggle is shared by families across the state, and it’s time for us to come together to resist, yes, but to move beyond resistance and move our state forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you announced in front of your cousin’s flower shop, which she opened after the uprising after the killing of Freddie Gray. In April 2015, Baltimore erupted in protest after his death in police custody, the 27-year-old African-American man who died from spinal injuries a week after Baltimore police arrested him. His family and attorneys say his voice box was crushed, his spine 80 percent severed at the neck. A preliminary autopsy report showed Gray died of a spinal injury. Last July, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby implicated the Baltimore Police Department in the failure to bring a guilty verdict against any of the officers that she indicted in the death of Freddie Gray. This is what she said then.

MARILYN MOSBY: As the world has witnessed over the past 14 months, the prosecution of on-duty police officers in this country is unsurprisingly rare and blatantly fraught with systemic and inherent complications. Unlike with other cases, where prosecutors work closely with the police to investigate what actually occurred, what we realized very early on in this case was that police investigating police, whether their friends or merely their colleagues, was problematic. There was a reluctance and an obvious bias that was consistently exemplified, not by the entire Baltimore Police Department, but by individuals within the Baltimore Police Department, at every stage of the investigation, which became blatantly apparent in the subsequent trials.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Marilyn Mosby, the youngest state’s attorney in Maryland, who failed to get any conviction of the police officers she indicted. Do you share her assessment of the police department’s resistance to investigate their own?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: My grandfather was on law enforcement in Baltimore for almost 30 years. And, you know, he would tell you that you’ve got to bring in investigators from the outside, that there is a code of silence. And the reality is that still no one, to this day, not even senior officials on the force in Baltimore, can explain how it is that one of their lieutenants, looking at a, you know, ultimately, mortally wounded Freddie Gray, when an officer said to him, "We’ve got to take him to the hospital," said no. And that’s why you’re seeing those officers terminated. I mean, the reality is that there’s a lot of people, even inside the Baltimore Police Department, who agree with Marilyn Mosby that those officers that day committed grave wrongs. And chief—you know, and chiefly was the lieutenant, who had been trained from his first day at the academy that when somebody needs help, you take them to the hospital. He looked at Freddie Gray, with his spine 80 percent severed, and said no.

AMY GOODMAN: And then I want to ask you about the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who says that he is going to be reviewing the consent decrees to reform police departments, signaling his skepticism—

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —of efforts to curb civil rights abuses by law enforcement officers. Can you talk about this?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, look, you know, Attorney General Sessions has really, frankly, picked a fight not just with progressives, not just with the civil rights community, but on this issue, he has picked it with police chiefs across this country, who have stood up one after the other to say we need these consent decrees to rebuild the departments, to build them better, to solve crime more effectively, to actually rebuild trust, just as, frankly, he’s picked a fight with leading Republicans on the broader issue of criminal justice reform. This is a man who is, you know, when it comes to criminal justice, a complete Neanderthal, totally back stuck, stuck on stupid on the old tough-on-crime approaches that have failed, that have brought us mass incarceration, that have brought us, Amy, not just the most incarcerated black and brown people on the planet, but the most incarcerated white people on the planet, too. You know, simply put, he is trying to sell something that has failed for decades. He needs to just, frankly, move on or be gone.

AMY GOODMAN: And then I wanted to ask you about voting rights. This is an issue very close to your heart.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s an issue you took on as the NAACP president and CEO, and continued afterwards. Where Sessions is going with this, and what you think needs to be done across the country? It will affect your race for governor in Maryland.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure. Attorney General Sessions showed his true colors on voting rights decades ago, when he chose to prosecute one of Dr. King’s lieutenants, drag a man, his reputation, his family, through the mud, over nothing, over, frankly, a political vendetta, over his resentment that the power balance was shifting because we were becoming more inclusive.

Well, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t just need to get used to the realities of the 21st century, he needs to get used to the reality of the U.S. Constitution. The reality is that he now is charged to enforce the Constitution and that he will ultimately find that, even in the eyes of this very conservative Supreme Court, there will be times that he will be forced to change course, because even they, I don’t think, will be able to ultimately tolerate the sort of anti—frankly—constitutional approach he takes on issues of voting rights, on issues of criminal justice reform. You know, it’s sad. I mean, you look at Jeff Sessions, and you wish he was capable of the evolution that you saw in Robert Byrd or the evolution we saw in his old friend George Wallace. It’s really time for Jeff Sessions not just to catch up with the 21st century, but to, frankly, even get caught up with the second half of the 20th century.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to President Trump. After being extremely upset over many people pointing out that he lost the presidential election by almost 3 million votes, though he did win the Electoral College, he appointed what he calls a commission on election integrity, to be headed by the Kansas attorney general, Kris Kobach. And I was wondering if you can talk about the direction that will go and what Donald Trump is attempting to do here and what you want to see happen around voting rights.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, Amy, look, I’m proud of Maryland, because back in 2012, when states to the north and south of us—Virginia and Pennsylvania—were heavily invested in passing laws to suppress voting rights, we passed laws to expand voting rights. Kris Kobach was out of touch with Maryland then; he’s out of touch with Maryland now. And so is Donald Trump, who’s trying to—you know, frankly, one more person who signed up to help Kris Kobach take away the voting rights of our fellow citizens, make it harder for us to vote, when the very idea of our democracy is that it should be easy for all of us to vote.

The reality is that we have to come together in our states now and decide that rather than bemoaning, if you will, the transferring of powers in the federal government to the states, as happened over the last 50 years, that in this moment, when extreme right-wing conservatives control every branch of our federal government, we’re just going to celebrate the power that we have in our states, and move our states forward, no matter what happens in Washington. And on the issue of voting rights, that means we have to pass our own protections and move forward in the state—just like on the issue of the Paris accord. It means that if Donald Trump is going to pull out our country from the Paris accord, then we’ll sign up our states to the Paris accord. The reality is that our states have tremendous power. It’s time for us, as progressives, to come together, invest in moving our families, our children, our futures forward by moving our states forward, even if it’s in defiance of Donald Trump and his administration.

AMY GOODMAN: You raise the issue of the climate accord, the Paris climate accord, that it’s being said now, though President Trump hasn’t finally announced it—he will in the next few days—that he’ll be pulling out of the climate accord. One of the issues you took on as NAACP head was environmental justice. What does this mean to you? And what do you mean it could be left to the states? What role would you play if you became Maryland governor?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: When I become governor of the state, if Donald Trump actually follows through and pulls out of the Paris accord, we will sign up for it. The reality is that we—you know, our state, if you will, is defined by the Chesapeake Bay. Our state is defined by its western mountains. Our state is committed to ensuring that our environment is preserved, both for the future of our children, but for the future of the planet. And we’ve already seen EPA chief Pruitt, Donald Trump’s henchman for the environment, attack the Chesapeake Bay plan, first from Oklahoma, before he was even in the federal government, and now when the EPA slashed funding for it about 95 percent.

And so, the simple fact is that we are all commanded to look after the garden. We are all bound to this planet and to its future. And we must lead from where we are. And that means in our city governments, in our county governments and in our state governments, being prepared to protect our environment, to do everything necessary, including signing on—taking the rare action of signing on to global agreements as a state, when our federal government fails to act, when it’s led by people that would rather stick their head in the sand than open their eyes and admit that climate change is being caused by human behavior and we can stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: Former NAACP President Ben Jealous is now running for governor of Maryland. We’ll be back with him in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Bullets in the Street and Blood" by Cody Chesnutt, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Wednesday, just after former NAACP President Ben Jealous announced he’s officially entering the race for governor in Maryland, I sat down and interviewed him.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the murder of Richard Collins III earlier this month. Just a few days before his graduation, Collins, a black student, Army lieutenant, at Bowie State University in Maryland, was visiting the nearby University of Maryland at College Park when he was stabbed at a bus stop near campus by Sean Urbanski, a white student who was a senior there. Though investigators have not yet determined whether the killing was a hate crime, Urbanski was a member of a now-deleted Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation," which published white supremacist content. I wanted to ask you about this, something that the man you’ll be running against, Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who hopes to be the second Republican governor to win a second term since the 1950s—he condemned this on his Facebook page. I wanted to ask you about his response, how you would respond differently, especially in light of—you were one of the leading voices in the country when it came to the murder of Trayvon Martin by the white vigilante, George Zimmerman.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, I commend Governor Hogan for speaking up and speaking out. He, quite frankly, was one of the few in our state who did. There were many folks that day who oddly—leaders in our state—commented about Manchester and didn’t comment about College Park. And I appreciate him for doing that.

I sat there amongst the students at Bowie State, students from Bowie State and from College Park, from the surrounding community, all grieving. They should have been at the highest moment of their lives, as they or their friends were graduating from college, but the actions of this killer, this deranged, hate-infused killer, had brought us all to the lowest of lows. And I was inspired by them and their resilience and their hope and their love and their ability to come together across all the lines of race and religion, that we’re told in our society again and again are so important, as if they don’t matter a thing, just by their love for each other and their determination to build a better future. And I saw it again with Richard Collins’ family when I sat a few aisles over from them at their son’s funeral—again, a family really grounded in love of God and country and family, resiliently and defiantly saying that they were going to be like Dr. King and choose love over hatred, because hatred was too much of a burden to bear.

Richard Collins was a beautiful young man who truly dedicated his life to serving others, who was cut down on a college campus just a couple of days after he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in our Army. One of the most beautiful things that was said at his funeral was by an administrator at Bowie State who said that he hoped that there would be a medal ribbon for a young man who had waged a war against hate, because, you see, when this young man with this knife approached Richard and told him to get out of the way, so clearly menacingly full of hate, Richard said no, that he—and it was that refusing to allow himself or his friends to be degraded and humiliated, because of their color or the color of their friends, that ultimately cost him his life. Our young men have too much to worry about to have to worry about this, too. And we’ve had two white young men in Maryland in the last six months or so kill black men apparently because of their race, once in New York City, once here in Maryland.

It’s time for our leaders in the state to go even further. We’ve got to really admit that when it comes to the issue of hatred and tension, ethnic tension, there is nothing different about our state—you know, there’s nothing here that either exists or doesn’t exist that’s not in the rest of the country. We have all of the problems. We are a microcosm of this country. But what makes us different, especially among states south of the Mason-Dixon, is that we’ve shown our ability to come together courageously on issues of civil rights. We had one year here, Amy, where we abolished the death penalty, passed marriage equality, passed the DREAM Act and expanded voting rights, even as our neighbors were suppressing them. And it’s time for us to have a governor to really lead our state in doing that again. And that’s where I think, you know, Hogan could do more. I was glad that he spoke out, but he is not showing real leadership to pull us together to have the tough conversations, to really challenge people—many of them in his own party—to evolve, to move on, to open their hearts, to follow the examples of George Wallace, of Robert Byrd, of so many other people, once filled with hate, who learned how to love. It’s time for us in Maryland to really come together.

And, you know, Amy, it has great—it has great meaning to me. In about week or so, we’ll be celebrating—almost two weeks—we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, you know, that case that made my own parents’ marriage legal here in Maryland and set us on the path to really having full marriage equality, as we now have with some of the laws that we passed just a few years ago. And that’s an example of what it looks like when government leaders—in that case, judges—act courageously to help us all come together. And we need more of that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your parents and what that meant, that they lived in Maryland and couldn’t marry, because your father was white and your mother African-American?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yes. You know, my parents met in Baltimore as teachers at Harlem Park Junior High. My mom had desegregated Western High School for girls here about a decade earlier. My father was one of the few white men jailed in Baltimore for lunch counter sit-ins, lunch counter desegregation sit-ins. They were bonded as civil rights workers and as fellow teachers. They fell in love. And they were forced, actually, to drive 50 miles to get married inside of Washington, D.C., because it was illegal for them to be married here. And then they were required to move out of the state, because, literally, like the Lovings, they would have to go to bed every night fearing that the sheriff or the police could come storming into their house to lock them up just simply for being married across racial lines.

My parents instilled in me a great sense of hope and belief in our country, and also the strength and the courage—and also the strength and the courage to defy even the law when it is unjust. And in these times, when we have President Trump pushing families of our neighbors here in Maryland deeper into the shadows so that they can be threatened and their families torn apart by his bad policies, and our governor remains silent, now we’re living through times that call for each of us to decide whether we are going to collaborate with unjust laws that needlessly humiliate families or we are going to stand up and resist and ultimately come together as neighbors and move our state forward. And that’s why I’m throwing my hat in the ring and I’m running to be the next governor of the great state of Maryland.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, Our Revolution just tweeted, "Our inaugural board member Ben Jealous is making a big announcement today from Baltimore." You’re on the board of Our Revolution. You were an early supporter of Bernie Sanders. Is Bernie Sanders going to be endorsing you? And how does your agenda fit into the overall Sanders-Our Revolution agenda?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, Bernie and I bonded, as I chaired his campaign here in Maryland, as I helped convince people across the country and across our state to vote for him. We see the world very similarly. He, like my father, was one of the few white men to go to jail with the Congress of Racial Equality in desegregation sit-ins. And he, you know, like so many activists of that generation, has been consistent his entire life, always fighting for racial justice and economic justice. His platform is very similar, quite frankly, in many ways to the platform of the NAACP: the call for raising the minimum wage, the call for ensuring that we recognize healthcare as a right, the call to protect our environment, the call to support organizing, etc., and also to support our small businesses. And so I will very much push forward the agenda that we discussed in that campaign—ending mass incarceration, using the savings to pay for ending this era of massive college debt.

I’ll also bring to it me, bring to it my life lived as a community organizer, as a civil rights leader, my demonstrated success helping to push states forward beyond eras of mass incarceration and past justice—and pass Justice Reinvestment Act, so the money gets reinvested in education. I’ll bring to it my experience working with small businesses, when I was young—when I was young, running a trade association of more than 200 small businesses, and today, as an investor in startups for good, startups that grow through the marketplace and make the world better for working people, by solving tough problems like cutting the cost of calling home from prison by 80 percent. And so, it’s—you know, I come into this as a civil rights leader, as a progressive, very active in Jesse Jackson’s campaign and Barack Obama’s campaign and the Bernie Sanders campaign. And I also come into this as a citizen of our great state of Maryland who is absolutely committed to growing our economy from the bottom up.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how would you distinguish yourself from—there’s what? Seven or eight people who are going to be running. Someone—the first person to announce was Alec Ross, a former adviser the Hillary Clinton—

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —tech entrepreneur. Is this going to be a kind of Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders replay? But also, you’ve been traveling the state, as others have. And in a straw poll, you came in third last week behind Congressman John Delaney, as well as the Baltimore County executive, Kamenetz, in a straw poll held in western Maryland.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, look, I was grateful to the people of western Maryland for the time. And, you know, that straw poll is of folks who gather at a meeting in Congressman Delaney’s district and not far from—you know, sort of in the same media market as Kevin Kamenetz. And it was an honor to me, as the outsider, as the underdog, to come in third amongst eight. We’ve got a real shot here. I mean, you know, when I guy who’s rooted in West Baltimore comes in third, when he hasn’t even announced his campaign, in a poll in western Maryland, something’s happening. And folks in the state see that.

Our Revolution stretches across the state. The NAACP crosses the state. And it’s those two traditions of progressivism and civil rights that I come out of, and it’s what makes our state so great and our chances so good. So, we’re going to run a tough campaign. We have a real shot. You know, somebody today said to me that this moment after Bernie’s campaign reminds them of 1989, after Jesse Jackson’s campaign, when we saw Wilder win, when we saw Dinkins win, when we saw Harold Washington win. And we know that out of sort of great presidential campaigns that don’t quite make it all the way can come transformative movements that allow breakthrough candidates to move their states, to move their cities forward in ways that nobody thought was possible just moments before.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, will you be accepting corporate contributions?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Of course not. Of course not.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be pushing for universal healthcare or single payer, Medicare for all?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: I was—I was very clear today that we will ensure that every citizen in Maryland has access to quality, affordable healthcare, no matter what happens in Washington. This is my, you know, first day on the campaign. We are digging into exactly how we’ll do that. I’m inspired by the states like New York and California that believe they have found a way to provide the equivalent of Medicare for all. I’ve asked for the details. I’ve asked for those plans. We are—we are digging in. But this campaign starts, day one, from the position that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and that if the federal government seeks to take it away, seeks to even tolerate the status quo, where so many of our neighbors don’t have access to it, that we will find a way, that everybody in our state will have access to quality, affordable healthcare. And so we’re—

AMY GOODMAN: Does this mean you’ll keep running as an activist?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: I don’t know any other way. I don’t know any other way. You know, I’ve been a civil rights activist and a progressive my entire life. I’m the child of civil rights activists, I’m the grandchild of civil rights activists, and I’m the great-grandchild of abolitionists. And so, the reality is that I will run as Ben Jealous. I will run as that, you know, organizer rooted in West Baltimore, but networked across this country, and somebody who can lead the state in a way that helps us build from right where we are, build a regenerative, organic, growing economy, but also benefit from bringing in some of the biggest companies in the country to our state, because right now, for instance, in the Silicon Valley, our peers at companies like Facebook and Google are under pressure to become more inclusive, and here in Maryland, almost 20 percent of the computer scientists are black. Here in Maryland, you know, we have already begun building a great tech sector that has defined itself by being the place where the world’s greatest minds come to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, like cancer and cybersecurity. And we can absolutely succeed in building a forward-thinking 21st century economy that has room for all of our communities and helps to lift all boats, even as we make it easier for folks to grow their flower shop or their detail shop.

AMY GOODMAN: Former NAACP President Ben Jealous is now running for governor of Maryland. I spoke with them just after he announced his candidacy Wednesday outside his cousin’s West Baltimore flower shop, which she opened after the 2015 uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.

That does it for the show. On Friday, we’ll have more on President Trump’s decision on the Paris climate accord. And to see all our coverage on climate change, go to democracynow.org.

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