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Jelani Cobb on the History of U.S. Election Violence & Joe Biden’s Moral Imperative on Civil Rights

Web ExclusiveOctober 20, 2020
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Image Credit: Illustration by Ben Wiseman for The New Yorker

Just two weeks ahead of November 3, we continue our conversation with New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb, about his new PBS “Frontline” documentary “Whose Vote Counts” and his recent reports on the long history of election-related violence in the United States, and what he calls Joe Biden’s moral imperative to safeguard civil rights.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Just two weeks ahead of November 3rd, Election Day, and a record 30 million people already having cast their votes in this 2020 election, we’re continuing our conversation with renowned journalist and professor Jelani Cobb. He’s the correspondent and writer for the new PBS Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts and a contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

In a recent piece headlined “Our Long, Forgotten History of Election-Related Violence,” Cobb writes, “The United States is considered one of the most stable democracies in the world, but it has a long, mostly forgotten history of election-related violence. In 1834, during clashes between Whigs and Democrats in Philadelphia, an entire city block was burned to the ground. In 1874, more than five thousand men fought in the streets of New Orleans, in a battle between supporters of Louisiana’s Republican governor, William Kellogg, and of the White League, a group allied with the Democrats. And the nation’s record of overlooking the violent prevention of Black suffrage is much longer than its record of protecting Black voters.”

For more, professor Jelani Cobb is joining us for Part 2 of our conversation right here in New York City.

It’s great to have you back with us, Jelani Cobb. Can you talk about that record, many people right now deeply concerned about not only the violence of Election Day, but what we see is leading up to it? I mean, most recently, you have these arrests of white Aryans in Utah, more than 20 of them.

JELANI COBB: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: You have the indictments of the group in Michigan that tried to kidnap and perhaps kill the Michigan governor, as President Trump eggs them on.

JELANI COBB: Right. And so, if you notice in that piece, I make mention of the tradition of violently disenfranchising Black people, but I don’t dwell on it in that story, because I think that that’s one of the things that people have thought: you know, “Oh, yeah, there was violence in the South, you know, directed at Black voters, but, generally, outside of that, American politics have been safe and boring, and you just go cast your ballot.” And that’s frankly not true. And so, I wanted to point out the tradition of violence, partisan violence, specifically partisan violence, in this country.

And people don’t know that in the 1850s the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, eliminated entire populations from voting contention. People just knew that if you came out to vote, you would be attacked. Blacksmiths were making these kind of handheld weapons, then distributing them out to the crowds so that you could easily club people who you saw on the way to the polls. And so, that happened in America.

And I think that, being a historian, we tend to look at these things a little bit differently than the general public does. We talk about things that happened in the past as purely academic: “Oh, that happened, and then it went on.” But I think that historians tend to look at what things could happen again under the right circumstances. You know, given the correct prompts and the correct tensions, what kind of dynamics could we see reemerge?

And certainly, in the context we’re looking at now, with a president that has absolutely no sense of responsibility as it relates to this, no compunction about egging people on, betrays no apparent concern about the violence that may be visited upon people of a different political party as a result of his rhetoric — and we see people who are willing — who are hearing these messages and willing to take those marching orders. And it’s, I think, something that should be deeply unnerving to people.

AMY GOODMAN: And you write about Kenosha, Kenosha, Wisconsin —


AMY GOODMAN: — where your film, Whose Vote Counts — and you talk about, interestingly, that in your piece, “Our Long, Forgotten History of Election-Related Violence,” the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and then the white vigilante 17-year-old killing two Black Lives Matter activists in this period.

JELANI COBB: Right. And then, kind of, we — we just kind of normalized the idea, or I think a lot of the mainstream media, the immediate conversation was this accepting of the idea that he, quote-unquote, “left Illinois to protect property.” And it was just kind of like, “What? By what authority?” You know, we don’t randomly deputize 17-year-olds to go protect property, you know, with an AR-15, much less say that this person is entitled to shoot people, you know, if they wind up in a conflict around it. And, you know, this is all kind of brewing in this really hyperpartisan environment. And so —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet Trump said, in his sense, he was entitled to shoot people, because he said —

JELANI COBB: That’s literally, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — he was acting in self-defense, right? You have —

JELANI COBB: Literally, literally, yeah, mm-hmm. And I think that when — if we think about how judicious Barack Obama was in weighing in on the Trayvon Martin situation, where first it took a significant amount of public pressure to get him to say anything, and then, when he did say something, it was filtered through a respect for the separation of powers. And he said that he did not think — you know, as the executive, chief executive of the country, he didn’t want to unfairly influence the judicial proceedings. And then he said that if he had a son, that he’d look like Trayvon Martin, which was a kind of highly calibrated political statement to say to the African American community, to people who were outraged about this, “I recognize what’s happening here, and I understand the reasons why.” But it had to be decoded. And even then, you know, there were all of these kinds of hedges.

And then we look on the other side, where this is a person who’s just mouthing off, like, “He was probably going to be killed.” Based upon what? You know, what do you — that speculation is rooted in what evidence? And, you know, then he kind of goes on and defends, you know, what happened in Kenosha, which is in what is likely one of the two or three most intense battleground spots that we’ll see in the course of the election. And that seemed to have absolutely no register in terms of whether or not he should say those — make those comments.

AMY GOODMAN: Your film, Whose Vote Counts, the Frontline doc, looks at the history of voter disenfranchisement, particularly of Black voters. And I wanted to go back in time, as you talk about the history both of violence around elections but also disempowerment. This clip starts with former Alabama state Senator Hank Sanders.

HANK SANDERS: When you don’t want somebody to vote, you create various kinds of things. Now that we had come with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they couldn’t deny it outright, so you find ways to try to suppress it.

JELANI COBB: One of these ways would be through challenging Black voters’ absentee ballots through accusations of fraud.

SEN. HANK SANDERS: It’s one thing to be attacked by the local power structure.

JELANI COBB: Hank Sanders represented the defendants in one such case brought by the U.S. attorney in Alabama at the time, Jeff Sessions.

HANK SANDERS: The U.S. attorney and others refer to these as the voter fraud cases. We decided that they were voter persecution cases.

JELANI COBB: Sanders’ clients were voting rights activists Albert Turner, who had marched with John Lewis in Selma —

EVELYN TURNER: This is Bloody Sunday. Albert, you can see. That’s him right there.

JELANI COBB: — and his wife Evelyn. They had been helping Black residents fill out their ballots and mailing them.

ALBERT TURNER: Both of us was indicted. Myself and my wife and another friend, Spencer Hogue, were indicted on 29 counts of what is called vote fraud.

JELANI COBB: The Turners were facing decades in prison.

HANK SANDERS: It was my impression that Jeff Sessions thought that those legal cases would stop Black folks from not only using absentee vote, but would stop Black folks from voting in the numbers that Black people were voting. At every chance he got, he was talking about voter fraud, voter fraud.

JELANI COBB: Sessions denied that the case was racially motivated, and insisted what the Turners did was illegal. In the end, the jury found nothing they did had broken the law. But the idea that absentee ballots were susceptible to widespread fraud would live on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jelani Cobb narrating this really important documentary on Whose Vote Counts. Take us to the present, Jelani, if you can talk about how this bears, what happened decades ago — why, by the way, a senator at the time — no, actually, I think it was U.S. Attorney Sessions —

JELANI COBB: Yeah, U.S. attorney.

AMY GOODMAN: — who wanted to be a sitting judge, got prevented by the Senate Judiciary Committee from being a judge because of racism.

JELANI COBB: Yeah. Well, so, I mean, I think that to deal with the first part of that question, like, that’s part of the template. You know, we saw that Jeff Sessions did that in 1981 in Alabama. It didn’t go — it wasn’t just a kind of cry in the night. Other people picked up that call. We saw even, you know, Brian Kemp, prior to being elected — questionably — as governor of Georgia, he — when he was secretary of state, he prosecuted people in Georgia, African Americans, for alleged voter fraud relating to absentee ballots. And so, this became a kind of disparate effort and a fledgling effort to create what we now have, which is a full-blown public recognition of a nonexistent crisis and the idea that people believe that their votes may not be counted or that their ballot is in jeopardy in some way, shape or form.

And toward Jeff Sessions’ inability to be approved for that judgeship, you know, Coretta Scott King weighed in, as well as other African Americans and veterans of the civil rights movement, saying that he was not qualified, you know, because of his trafficking in racism. And so, there’s a bridge between those two things and his eventual ascension to the Department of Justice, where we’ve seen these things enshrined and now continued under the administration of Bill Barr.

AMY GOODMAN: Before you go, Jelani Cobb, I wanted to talk about another piece you did for The New Yorker called “Biden’s Moral Imperative to Safeguard Civil Rights.” And in it, you write, “Throughout [the] campaign, Biden has been criticized for his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, which contained provisions, such as the onerous three-strikes rule for violent-felony convictions, that have [most deeply affected] people of color. But that liability could [become] an opportunity.” Talk about what you think he needs to do. Talk about what you call the “moral imperative to safeguard civil rights,” if he were to become president.

JELANI COBB: Sure. I think that one of the things that he could do is repeal — call for the repeal of the 1994 crime bill and say that, you know, people have learned a great deal since then, the ensuing 26 years, and we know more about the ways in which the criminal justice system can fail, the excesses that were authorized by that legislation.

And then, some of the more valuable parts of it that have not been reauthorized — so, the assault weapons ban, which, you know, was a key part of it, and that expired and was allowed to expire. It would need to address the Violence — update the Violence Against Women Act, you know, based upon what we know and how we understand these prosecutions now. One of the best aspects of it, of that 1994 bill, was the consent decree program, which gave the federal government, the Department of Justice, the ability to take oversight of chronically problematic police departments. And, you know, that’s been effective, but it could be more effective, and that legislation should be expanded. I think that’s one of the things that would be a real measure of saying that he recognizes the extent to which that legislation was negatively impactful in communities, particularly communities of color.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your new book, The Substance of Hope, has been reissued with a new introduction. As you reflect on how the Obama presidency and the Biden vice presidency continues to reshape America, what are the lessons you think we should take away from this and that —

JELANI COBB: Yeah, I think —

AMY GOODMAN: — Joe Biden should learn from?

JELANI COBB: I think that — yeah, so, for some of this, Joe Biden was a witness. He had a kind of perfect perch to see, but I don’t know if he understood what he was seeing. And so, that new introduction is really about the extent to which Barack Obama opened the whirlwind. You know, there are lots of criticisms that we can make about his presidency. I’ve made my own.

But I think that — you know, what I argue in it is that we are not living in the Trump era. We are living in the post-Obama era, because everything that has happened in the course of Trump’s political life has been in direct reaction to the fact that a Black person won this office. And so, I said that he — that Barack Obama operates as a inverse North Star for Donald Trump. It’s a means for him to look north while navigating south. He wants to move in the opposite direction. And that’s the key. There is no political theory or underlying ideological direction. It is simply the drive to be the opposite of the first Black man to achieve that position.

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani Cobb, I want to thank you so much for staying with us to do Part 2 of this conversation. You can check out Part 1 at democracynow.org. Jelani Cobb is a writer for The New Yorker magazine and a correspondent and writer for the new PBS Frontline documentary Whose Vote Counts. He’s also a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe, wear a mask, save lives, and vote. Thanks so much.

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