June 19, 2020

Stacey Abrams

Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams discusses the fight for racial justice and her views on police reform including the “defund the police” movement. Abrams talks about election reform and voter access in November. She also addresses reports that she is a potential running mate for Joe Biden.

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Will this politician and voting rights activist be on the presidential ticket?
This week on ‘Firing Line.’
A rising star in the Democratic Party, Stacey Abrams won more votes statewide than any other Democrat in Georgia’s history…
And I promise you tonight we’re going to make sure that every vote is counted.

…and has devoted herself to fighting for increased voting access.

But I’m here today to announce Fair Fight 2020 to make sure everyone has the right to vote in the United States of America.

With the nation grappling with police brutality, Abrams has also emerged as a leading voice on police reform.

We have to rethink what we do because what we’re doing doesn’t work.

With many wondering whether she’s on his V.P. list, what does Stacey Abrams say now?

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Welcome back to ‘Firing Line,’ Leader Abrams.

Thank you for having me.

So since you were first on ‘Firing Line’ in January of 2019, you delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union.
You decided not to run for the United States Senate.
And you have focused on Fair Fight, which is your voting rights group.
You’ve also written another book, ‘Our Time is Now.’
You are widely rumored to be on the short list to become Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee.
And we’re going to get to all of that.
But first, a man from your city, Rayshard Brooks, is dead after being shot in the back by police.
This happened very near your old state house district.
And a member of his family said, ‘I thought Atlanta was higher than that.
I thought we were bigger than that.’
Did you think Atlanta was higher than that and bigger than that?

I think the challenge is what is America?
Because what has happened in Atlanta, what happened in Louisville, what happened in Minneapolis, what has happened in countless cities across our country is that the systems that are designed to protect us are revealing themselves once again to also be the source of our demise.
Atlanta is not immune to that type of systemic racism.
Georgia’s not immune to it.
And unfortunately, the United States is not immune to it.
But we do have an opportunity to solve it.
And I think that’s the conversation that needs to drive every decision this year, including how we vote.

So, protesters across this country following the death of George Floyd are calling for justice.
And I want to know what Stacey Abrams thinks justice is.

I’ve spent my adult life in active pursuit of not just the right to vote, but what that vote means.
And justice is about making certain that every person has free and fair access to the perks of citizenship, that there is accountability and there is opportunity.
And unfortunately, in a country where if you are black, you are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19, you’re more likely to be infected, you’re more likely to lose your job.
You’re more likely to be shot and killed by police.
When we think about what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, What happened to Tony McDade and others is about extrajudicial killings.
It’s about whether our justice system, when it comes to criminal activity, whether it works.
And right now it does not for too many people, whether it’s justice in our elections, justice in our economy, justice in our criminal justice system across the board, our responsibility as Americans is to fix these problems so that every American can actually fulfill their full potential.

I was so struck in reading this book, your new book, how you were first drawn to activism in the wake of Rodney King’s beating by police in Los Angeles.
Do you find echoes in the current protests with your protesting as a college shooting for Rodney King?

Absolutely.
I actually began my activism long before that.
My parents were very engaged as teenagers in the civil rights movement.
So I grew up with a very healthy appreciation for activism and protesting.
But the first decision I made on my own without my parents telling me we were gonna go do this was when I protested in the wake of the Rodney King decision, and it’s identical in some of its scope.
It was a video of police harming a citizen, beating him.
And what was so disturbing, what erupted into those demonstrations was the exoneration of those men whose behavior was captured on film and yet explained away.
That type of injustice, that dehumanization is what’s fueling this passion.
What I hope is different this time is that in 1992, we were in the midst of a presidential campaign.
In 1992, we had protests and demonstrations.
But in 1993, we did not see change.
And my hope is that in 2020, we will elect leaders at every level of government who actually take it as their responsibility to start to fundamentally address and dismantle these systems of suppression.

So will that be justice?
Will a total change of the political leadership in this country be justice?

Absolutely not.
The reality is we’re a nation that was built on the very systemic inequities that we’re trying to dismantle.
And it’s disingenuous for any person in leadership or not to exhort folks to say, ‘Well, if you vote, things change.’
No, if you vote, things can change.
And we have to preface it that way.
It can change, but change is slow and plodding because these systems have existed for 240-plus years.
And so we’re not going to, with a single election, elect a savior who will change our lives and we’re not going to dismantle a system that has governed our lives.

President Trump announced this week that he is banning chokeholds unless an officer’s life is at risk, increase the use of force training, and create a federal database of officers with a history of use of excessive force.
Now, I know that you are a critic of President Trump’s, but is this a step in the right direction to hear this from the Rose Garden?

It is a modest step that accomplishes small parts of what we need.
But he holds the most powerful position in our nation, and the timidity of his response is what’s so underwhelming.
Yes, you can say that you’re banning chokeholds unless an officer’s life is in danger.
But what we found with Rayshard Brooks was that they thought their life was in danger and shot him in the back.
And so the notion that your life being in danger is the predicate for using something that we know literally crushes the life out of others is the wrong approach.
And unfortunately, I think he is bowing to not only political pressure, but to the timidity of his own moral courage.
And that’s why I can only give him small credit for the database, which is a good thing.
But we deserve and demand great things.

He also said this.
I’m gonna show you a clip and let you respond.

For the last 3 1/2 years, my administration has been focused on creating opportunity, fighting for equal justice and truly delivering results.
Nobody has ever delivered results like we’ve delivered.
Nobody’s come close.

Leader Abrams, what is your reaction to that statement?

He lies.
Look, let’s take it piece by piece.
He claims that he’s done more.
This is the same president who rolled back the Obama administration initiatives to actually have the Justice Department work with our police officers, work with law enforcement to actually improve their behaviors.
He rolled back the Obama administration initiatives to demilitarize our police.
He’s the same person who has time and again used language to incite behavior against African-Americans.
So his willingness to twist the truth and only amplify the smallest parts of credibility are deeply disturbing.

And how does it make you feel?
He says he’s done the most for African-Americans than anybody.

It’s a reaffirmation every day of why I believe he should not be in charge of our country, because it’s either that he knows he’s lying and intends harm or he doesn’t know he’s lying and doesn’t understand the problem.
And either one of those things warrants his removal from office through an election.
But what’s more important is that he thinks the small crumbs of not killing us, of not harming us, should warrant such accolades.
And that’s not the measure.
The measure is justice.
The measure is equity.
The measure is opportunity.
And he has failed to meet those measures.

So when you look back at all of the solutions that have been proposed, what are the reforms that are most important to you?

So I think there are two parts to this conversation.
And unfortunately, there is this burgeoning debate about reform versus transformation.
And I think we have to recognize that they must coexist.
On the reform side, the United States has some of the lowest hourly requirements for training for new officers in the world.
And we need to do more and we need to broaden the scope of that training.
Number two, we need to dismantle and eliminate qualified immunity.
When law enforcement officers break the law, they should be held accountable.
We need to absolutely deal with issues of chokeholds and de-escalation.
And so there’s a litany of things that can be done to reform the behaviors and the practices in law enforcement.

What about police union contracts?

I believe in unions.
I believe that every union should do its job and support its people.
But I think police unions in some places have outsized authority over what happens to the people they are supposed to serve.
And when those two things come into conflict, the fundamental obligation of every officer is to serve the public, and the public’s needs should absolutely take primacy.

Alright, so you bring me to the rallying cry around the activists these days.
And it is defund the police.
And it seems to me that many people have a different definition for defund the police.
What is defund the police mean to you?

In my mind, it’s a necessary rallying cry for those who seek a simple way to call to attention those who can provide change.
But I’ve been in public policy too long to think anything is that simple.
But I understand the enthusiasm.

A former representative from the state House in South Carolina, Bakari Sellers, was on the program last week.
And he said to me, you know, ‘Defund the police is a rallying cry that just tells me that Democrats suck at messaging.’
I mean, the criticism from some parts is that if you don’t really mean defund the place, don’t use the words ‘defund the police.’
It risks undermining the effort.
Do you agree?

Well, I think we put too much — we give too much power to the media’s attention to language in this case, which is that —
But do words matter?
I mean, we’ve spent three years saying words matter.

That’s going to be my point.
Words matter.
And what we’re talking about are activists who are watching people being murdered and their rallying cry comes from the heart.
But when it moves into political hands, when it moves into policy spaces, we also have to be very clear about how do we get there, because we live in a nation where just because you’re right doesn’t mean you get what you want.
And so our responsibility is not to weaken their cry because the messaging doesn’t resonate with us or to adopt it and then turn it into something it’s not.
My responsibility is to think about how do we take the substantive vision that they have and make it a reality, which is that black lives indeed matter and the people that are supposed to be served by our public safety officers are actually served and not killed.

I mean, there is this question about whether, you know, activists have their cries.
But if they really mean it, does it undermine the kind of policy progress I think people like you and me and many of us want to see.

It didn’t dismantle the Tea Party when they called for completely dismantling government.
The Tea Party was able to use rhetoric —
Oh, I think it did.

Hmm?

I think the rhetoric from the Tea Party deeply undermined the Tea Party’s progress.

It deeply undermined it long term.
Once they got into office and realized what you said as an activist couldn’t translate into politics.
But let’s remember how effective the Tea Party was in the 2010 elections in riling up behavior and riling up energy.
And because the people they were speaking for were earnest in their beliefs.
And what we see happening with activists is that they are earnest in their beliefs and they are going to vote.
My job is not to police — no pun intended — the language of activists who are pitting themselves against a system that dismisses them.
My responsibility is to think about how do we meet the underlying issues that lead to those cries.
My point is that activists serve a very specific purpose in our society, regardless of what their activism is around, because they are usually using the strongest and rawest language they have to express their deepest concerns.
But as someone who is in public policy, my responsibility is to think about how do we actually achieve the outcome that is sought.
And it’s not to get into debates about the legitimacy of language or not.
It’s to think about what are they trying to do and how do we get it done?

Okay, as you know, ‘Firing Line’ aired for 33 years, was hosted by William F. Buckley Jr., who hosted Representative John Lewis on the program.
And he and John Lewis, who is of Georgia, as you know, had a conversation about the Voting Rights Act and its effect on black Americans.
Look at this clip from 1974.

I would be very interested in hearing your views on what your matured reflections are on whether the use of the ballot box is, in fact, the means by which you introduce justice, equality, opportunity.

At this particular time in American history, I would say that the ballot box is the most effective, the most meaningful instrument that black people can use toward bringing about justice and equality.

This conversation happened only a month after you were born, and you recently wrote a opinion editorial making the argument for the importance of voting.
So do you think that Lewis’ statement still holds true today that the ballot box is the most effective instrument for bringing about justice and equality?

Absolutely.
That conversation happened 46 years ago.
But the creation of the systemic racism, systemic suppression started 240-plus years before.
We cannot undo in 46 years that which has had 200 years to ossify and to concretize.
And so our responsibility, though, is to not abandon the mechanisms that a democracy hands us.
It’s our responsibility to use the demographic changes, the inflection points and the ballot box to take what we want and turn it into action.
And so absolutely, I believe that voting remains the single most effective and powerful weapon we have to create justice in our country.

And yet you wrote…
Democracy feels inadequate.
Voting feels inadequate because it takes time.
It is tedious.
It is complex.
And we who have suffered under any degree of suppression or oppression, we worry that we won’t be here to see the results.
There is an urgency to our lives that says we need change to happen so better can come.
And voting is a process.
It is not a solution.
It’s not a cure.
But much with disease, with any disease like the disease of racism, like the disease of injustice, disease requires treatment.
And those treatments can’t be itinerate.
They can’t be episodic.
They have to be consistent, particularly for a disease that can metastasize the way injustice does.
And so voting is that kind of treatment that requires steady application.
And it’s going to take a while.
And the reality is the disease doesn’t just turn around and go away because you started taking a treatment.
There are setbacks and those setbacks have to be acknowledged.
But the way we keep the treatment working, the way we moved from slavery to justice, the way we move from disenfranchisement to voting, the way we make our moves is that we use the right to vote.
It’s voting and it’s the selection of those who speak for our nation that change our future.

With voting in mind, I can’t not ask you about the most recent opportunity that Georgians had to vote.
Primary elections were just held in your state of Georgia.
And after more than a $100 million investment in new voting equipment, there were still reports of eight-hour lines and chaos.
Technical difficulties abounded.
Some polls in and around Atlanta were open till 9:30, 10:00 at night.
There was one Atlanta suburb that is 88 percent black and had lines until 12:37 a.m.
for people to cast their ballots.
What happened and who is responsible?

This was a combination of incompetence and malfeasance.
When you and I spoke last, I detailed all of the challenges that we face in Georgia’s voting system, and what layered on this time was the purchase of $107 million worth of machines on which the operators were inadequately trained.
They were inadequately sourced.
There were challenges with making the machines operable.
And there was a deliberate indifference to the voters of Georgia from the Secretary of State, whose constitutional obligation it is to ensure the administration of elections.
And so the buck stops with him.
Brad Raffensperger did not do his job.

Should he resign?

I am not calling for resignation yet because part of the challenge is we don’t know who is going to replace him.
And the person who would be in charge of his replacement is someone who has also been an architect of voter suppression.
So I am less sanguine about the notion of Brian Kemp being the person who picks the replacement for Brad Raffensperger, which is how the system in Georgia works.
Yes, there were mistakes made by counties, but every single county is the responsibility of the Secretary of State when it comes to the administration of elections.
And let’s be clear.
It targeted black and brown communities.
They were the least likely to be resourced.
They had the longest lines.
They had the greatest trouble.
But in the Speaker of the House’s district, there were counties that also faced this.
Republican rural counties, suburban mixed counties across the state.
His incompetence harmed everyone because when you break the machinery of democracy, you break it for everyone.

So, Leader Abrams, how is this problem going to be fixed by November?

Well, there are a few things that happened here.
One, and that’s where the incompetence comes in.
He spent $400,000 in federal elections assistance money, doing an advertisement about how smart he was for picking these new machines.
That could have paid for 1,600 poll workers on Election Day.
And those poll workers could have reduced those lines, sped that process and helped out voters.
But his refusal to do his job is what happened.
However, we cannot solve these problems alone because what happened in Georgia, while singular, is not solely the place where this is a problem.
Across this country, mail-in ballots are going to have to be part of the solution.
34 states have no-excuses absentee balloting.
16 states have absentee balloting but with excuses.
But the Heroes Act, the investment by the federal government into cash-strapped states and local communities, that’s going to be absolutely necessary for elections to work in November anywhere in the country.
Every state in our country has acknowledged at one point or another mail-in balloting has to happen.
So I welcome everyone to the logic.

There are some who argue, look, if it’s safe enough to protest, it’s safe enough to go to the polls and vote.
How do you respond to them?

Protesting is a personal decision that is based on the urgency an individual feels about going out and making their voice heard.
But voting is a constitutional right and that therefore it is incumbent upon the state actors to ensure that it is a safe engagement, because there are a lot of folks who aren’t protesting who may share those beliefs, but they are afraid of dying.
And so they’re not.
We should not put on the individual their decision about harm or help when they make a decision about voting.
This is a public responsibility and therefore it is incumbent upon the states to make it as safe as possible for every person to vote.

In ‘Our Time Is Now,’ your new book, you say, and this is a quote… What are Democrats doing wrong?

Too often we keep trying to win the last election using the exact same electorate profile that we think either cost us the victory or won us the war.
And so my response is we have to meet every single year, every single election with a really clear eye towards who’s here now.
Every year, more and more young people cross that age barrier from 17 to 18 and can participate.
And we know they’re more demographically diverse than they’ve ever been in American history.
We know that there are those who’ve been dissatisfied with the performance of the President who are coming to our side.
And we know that they’re people who have long agreed with us but haven’t participated because no one’s asked them to.
I’ve never espoused this notion of you ignore one group for another.
But what I have said is you spend as much money on that group as you see the likelihood of their participation.
And this is a voter who has rejected you time and again, as opposed to a voter who has not voted but has always agreed with you, then you should spend a disproportionate share of your funds on those who share your values and a commensurate amount on those who don’t.

At various points, really, for the last two years, your star has risen and it has risen high enough now to the point where there is a lot of speculation about whether you are being vetted for V.P., whether the Biden camp has reached out to you.
Can you clarify?
Have they reached out to you and are you being vetted?

I have been in communication.
Our Fair Fight organization has been in communication with the Biden campaign very much so in the last few months because we are working to ensure access to the right to vote in 18 states through our work.
And we are sharing information.
We are in communication.
And I’m proud of that because my work is to ensure that we have free and fair elections in 2020.
But when it comes to the V.P.
speculation and vetting, I send everyone in the direction of the Biden campaign.
They’re running this process and they will share what they think is appropriate.

Vice President Biden has said that he’s going to pick a woman.
Do you believe it’s important he picks a woman of color?

As I’ve said before, I think Vice President Biden does not take any community for granted, particularly people of color.
I think his response in the wake of these protests and the conversations we’re having about systemic justice, he has been thoughtful and present in ways that I am very appreciative of.
But yes, as a woman of color, I think there is a signal that can be sent for women of color to be in that position.
But fundamentally, it is the vice president’s decision because he’s the only person who’s held that job and he’s the only person who knows the partnership he needs.
And my responsibility, regardless of who he chooses, is to ensure that he becomes the next president of the United States.

Okay, final question.
You’ve said you have hope.
There are a lot of people who need hope right now.
So will you share with us, what gives you hope?

In ‘Our Time Is Now,’ I begin the book by talking about my grandmother, who in 1968 balks at the notion of actually using the right to vote.
Her hesitation is what we hear and see in millions of Americans who do not lift their voices a fear that it’s not real, a fear that it won’t work, a fear that that power is too much.
But my hope is grounded in the fact that my grandmother voted anyway, that she tried anyway, and that because of her, I had a chance to stand to be the first black woman to possibly become a governor in the history of the United States.
I have hope because I’ve seen it made real.
I have hope because I know it’s possible.
And I have hope because I believe in America.
We are a nation of stumbles and mistakes, but we are also a nation of grace.
And if we let that grace lift us up and lead us, then we will thrive.

Well, on that note, Leader Abrams, thank you for returning to ‘Firing Line.’

Margaret, it’s been once again a pleasure.
Thank you.

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