ATLANTA — Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had some words of advice on Wednesday that could have come from a youth worker’s toolkit.
“Look at [community] organizations that need our help,” he told an audience at the Carter Center concerned about the Trump administration’s impact on the lives of African Americans. “There are a million kids starving for attention that we as adults can give.”
Mentoring a young person is one way of taking individual action, he said, and working toward a more just society.
But Holder and other panelists at a discussion on race spoke mostly about collective response to a president they fear will roll back the rights of people of color, as well as other groups.
“There’s a real power in being in the streets and making our voices heard,” Holder said. “That’s a huge check on executive branch power.”
Among the five panelists was Elizabeth Hinton, a Harvard University assistant professor who focuses on poverty and racial inequality.
“We need to develop a cross-generation, cross-class, interracial coalition … to be able to take back our community,” Hinton said.
President Lyndon Johnson saw poverty as the root cause of crime 50 years ago and launched both the War on Poverty, which included the Head Start program for children, and a campaign to get tough on crime, she said. The militarization of police began in that era, she said.
The Trump administration has dropped the “war on poverty” approach, retaining only a “get tough” approach, she said. For example, Trump in a tweet has threatened to “send in the feds” to fix the “carnage” of crime in Chicago,
Hinton said the mistake is to try to fix social and economic problems — also seen as African-American problems — through police force.
Panelist DeRay McKesson is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates for police reform. Campaign Zero expects the Trump administration to escalate police violence and incarceration, according to its website.
McKesson said the movement has spent the past two years building awareness and getting the public to understand that police killings of young black men is a national problem. As a result, at least 88 laws addressing police violence have been passed, according to Campaign Zero.
What’s needed now is a movement of people who know what the solutions are and have the skills to build them, he said.
Get people to use power in a different way, McKesson said. Urge those with money to think carefully about what they’re funding.
Explore what it means “to be in your role and do what’s right regardless,” he said.
Social media is one of the tools, he said.
“Start where you are,” McKesson said. “I didn’t get a call from Harriet Tubman to be an activist.”
McKesson took questions after the event standing alongside Cedric Alexander, deputy chief operating officer for public safety in DeKalb County, Georgia.
Alexander said he was worried about the rhetoric of the Trump administration: The message from the White House is that police are too soft on crime and need to lock people up.
“Hearing this language takes us back to the beginning — and not just back to Michael Brown,” he said in a reference to the longer history of blacks in America.
The language puts both the community and the police at risk, he said.
“We cannot go backwards,” Alexander said.
Holder’s new plan
Holder said he was working with former President Barack Obama on a plan to undo gerrymandering, the drawing of congressional districts to benefit a specific political party.
Also on the panel was Michael Eric Dyson, author of the book “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” The travel ban, as well as Trump’s comments about women, have been some of the worst bigotry in years, Dyson said.
Sitting front and center in the audience was Sally Yates, Holder’s former second-in-command at the Department of Justice. Yates became acting attorney general after Holder’s departure but was fired by Trump in January after she said she would not enforce Trump’s executive order instituting a 90-day ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Recognized and introduced from the stage by a panelist, Yates said firmly, “I’m just in the audience.”
Doug Blackmon, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” moderated the panel, which was sponsored by the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
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