What we have here is the makings of a large-scale lobbying operation. And given that 13 members of Congress were listed as attendees/speakers, NAN already has a head start and a congressional seal of approval – how else could Sharpton have been able to hold his shindig in the Rayburn and Dirksen buildings? Listed as participating Representatives: G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.); Judy Chu (D-Calif.); James Clyburn (D-S.C.); Keith Ellison (D-Minn.); and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.); John Conyers (D-Mich.); Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.); Terri Sewell (D-Ala.); and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Listed as participating Senators: Gary Peters (D-Mich.); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.); and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
That Al Sharpton and top NAN officials are planning a lobbying blitz without necessarily complying with federal lobbying requirements is troubling enough. Every bit as troubling, however, is the premise on which the activity rests: Blacks systematically are being denied rights, a situation requiring a radical rewrite of the law. As someone who has attended quite a number of Sharpton-organized conferences during the past several years in addition to this one, I will guarantee that his intent, and supporters’ intent, is not to protect individual rights for all Americans. It is to punish “white racism,” however imagined, if it can be shown to create or perpetuate statistical disparities by race. It is to expand further the already large and punitive affirmative action apparatus in this country. And it is to make race-neutral law enforcement virtually impossible. An army of civil rights lawyers and activists, at the U.S. Justice Department and elsewhere, would stand ready to “discover” smoking guns.
National Action Network from the very start has been a mix of black identity politics and progressive socialism, in that order of importance. While Leftist politics heavily define the NAN mission, the group exists primarily to serve the interests of blacks. Fittingly, almost all of the speakers at the conference were black, as were the vast majority of the roughly 75 to 100 persons in the audience. The speakers effectively constituted an echo chamber for the civil rights orthodoxy.
Especially telling was the first House policy forum, “Criminal Justice and Community Policing.” The panel should be seen in the context of the recent deaths of black arrestees under (or facing) police custody in Ferguson (Mo.), Staten Island, North Charleston (S.C.) and Baltimore. In each case, the use of police force was justified, as the suspect had behaved in a highly unruly manner; in the case of Ferguson, the suspect very likely would have killed the arresting officer had the latter not reacted with force. The refusals by grand juries to hand down indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases were fully justified, each the result of an exhaustive investigation. The five black activists who sat on the NAN panel – Nicole Austin Hillary (The Brennan Center); Tanya Clay-House (Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law); Hilary Shelton (NAACP); Mary Pat Hector (NAN Youth Move); and Alexis Moore (Office of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.) – didn’t think so. Each speaker denounced these and other cases as examples of a larger pattern of police brutality and institutional racism. As for National Action Network, it has gone on record as supporting Rep. John Conyers’ Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act (H.R. 2875), which would establish federal guidelines for eliminating racial/ethnic bias for local police departments around the country. Panelists, of course, expressed support for this measure.
The second forum, “Voting Rights,” was every bit as unsatisfying. The four speakers – Lisa Bornstein (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights); Melanie Campbell (National Coalition of Black Civic Participation); Michele Jawando (Center for American Progress); and Brianna Patterson (Youth Move, Northeast Region) – each expressed the view that today’s political leadership, especially among Republicans, were disenfranchising blacks. As supposed proof, several made reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision of two years ago, Shelby County v. Holder, exempting certain (i.e., Southern) states from having to comply with Section 5 “preclearance” requirements of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, if data do not support their imposition. Yet that ruling, far from “disenfranchising” anyone, was way overdue. The preclearance mandate from the start had carried a presumption of guilt and had grown way out of date. The VRA had saddled states with potentially costly and time-consuming barriers to establish even minimal voter eligibility standards as a means of preventing ballot fraud. By making the preclearance process less burdensome (though without invalidating the process itself), the Supreme Court struck a modest blow for common sense. Undeterred, Rep. Terri Sewell, (D-Ala.), a conference attendee, and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), are sponsoring legislation (H.R. 2867, S.1659) that would negate the ruling.
There was, of course, much more. The panel on Title II “Net Neutrality,” featuring guest speaker Kim Keenan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, urged the black audience to support a new rule approved by the FCC this February that would open the door for strict federal oversight online political content. A Day One lunchtime documentary film, “Brave Spaces,” presented by Rev. MacArthur Flournoy on behalf of the gay rights nonprofit group, the Human Rights Campaign, functioned as a show of support by clergy for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) activism and corresponding legislation and court rulings. Predominantly black panels on education, jobs/housing, and health/hunger on Day Two put forth the NAN agenda on social welfare programs – an agenda calling for large additional sums of government spending.
All in all, the two-day event confirmed that National Action Network intends to play a central role in national policy-making. Al Sharpton not only fits into the political mainstream; he’s rechanneling it. And Congress effectively has told him he can have building space anytime he needs it.