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Stacey Abrams on ‘reformation and transformation’ in American policing

Stacey Abrams was Georgia's Democratic nominee for governor in 2018. Since her defeat, she founded Fair Fight Action, an organization that works to protect voting rights. Now she is under consideration to be former Vice President Joe Biden's 2020 running mate. Abrams joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why she sees the current political moment as a critical one for American democracy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Election Day in Georgia ticked by last Tuesday, a week ago, problems with absentee ballots, new voting machines and long lines made for an even longer night. It was the latest test of the readiness of election systems before November.

    It was also a familiar feeling for Stacey Abrams. She was the Democratic nominee for Georgia's governor in 2018, and then she founded Fair Fight Action, an organization working to protect voting rights.

    Her newest book, "Our Time Is Now," just made The New York Times bestseller list. And she joins us from Atlanta.

    Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining us.

    You write in the book, the country is undergoing massive cultural change, and you say it has the ability to effect permanent change, after historically fumbling the pursuit of social equality.

    What did you mean by that?

  • Stacey Abrams:

    Well, at the time I wrote it in 2019, I was speaking to the massive upheaval that we have seen not only in the rights of voters to access the democracy we have been guaranteed, but the challenges we were facing on environmental issues, reproductive choice, health care.

    But I think, in this current moment, there's nothing that shows this inflection point more than the multigenerational, multiracial, multiethnic protests that we have seen in this country for the last three weeks.

    These conversations about systemic racism, about systemic injustice, the conversations we're having about who has a right to be treated as human in America, those are only moments that can be resolved through being able to access our democracy and through the right to vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to pursue with you.

    Go ahead. Did I interrupt? I'm sorry.

  • Stacey Abrams:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to pursue that with you, because, clearly, you know the high-profile shooting that took place in your home state, in Atlanta, just in the last number of days has gotten enormous attention, Rayshard Brooks gunned down by a police officer at a Wendy's parking lot.

    The mayor of Atlanta responded immediately with police reforms. The local district attorney filed 11 charges against the police officer, including felony murder.

    Were these the right moves, sufficient moves after what happened?

  • Stacey Abrams:

    I want to put this into a broader context, because it's not just what happened in Atlanta last week.

    It's what happened in Brunswick, Georgia, almost four months ago, when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in the streets, and the vigilantes were allowed to go home. It's what happened to George Floyd, what happened to Breonna Taylor, what happened to Tony McDade.

    Yes, it's an important thing that we see immediate response, but what we need to see is systemic response. We need to see laws change, not just moments of action, which are good and important, but we need to see that there is a wholesale change in the systems of justice that either allow the extrajudicial killing of citizens or permit justice to be delayed because we have laws on the books that protect murderers.

    And so, while I do think that there are some good initial steps being taken, I think that we will not see and know that true systemic change has happened until we see legitimate, permanent legislative opportunities offered, and we see those — that legislation is not only adopted, but pursued and maintained.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in that connection, Vice President Biden has spoken out. He's deplored this shooting and others.

    He has said he is not for defunding the police, but he's spoken up, certainly, for reforming police departments, for training. However, we now see dozens of liberal activist groups saying that Vice President Biden is not doing enough. They are calling on him to scale back police forces, cut funding even more, reduce incarcerations.

    Where do you come down on all that?

  • Stacey Abrams:

    First and foremost, as someone who's an archivist myself, I understand the power of a rallying cry.

    But I also recognize that the responsibility of policy-makers is to take the vision that is being espoused, the anguish that is being expressed, and turn it into real policies that cannot only be implemented, but sustained.

    I think what we have to approach this with is reformation and transformation, reformation in terms of fixing the behaviors and practices that actually govern how law enforcement operates. That means eliminating qualified immunity. It means banning choke holds and other forms of murder.

    It means making sure that the use of lethal force is done with respect, and that human — that we have humanization of those who face these charges. It's also about addressing the issues of no-knock warrants and of citizens arrests.

    And on the transformation, what people are talking about is redistributive allocation of dollars, so that we are not simply investing in public safety, but we're building a safer public through education, through health care, through food security, through affordable housing, and that we not see these things as being in conflict, but they have to be part of a holistic vision of what America should look like, what law enforcement and what society should look like in the 21st century.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me just quickly follow up on that, because these — these groups wrote him a letter this week, wrote Vice President Biden, and said: "As a senator, you not only supported, but in many cases authored and championed laws that expanded mass incarceration, increased police powers, exacerbated racial disparities in sentencing and surveillance."

    Are they right? And, if they are, how does this reconcile with what Joe Biden is saying today?

  • Stacey Abrams:

    What I hope we're seeing — what I hope those activists are seeing, what I believe Joe Biden has expressed in his very thoughtful and intentional response over the last month is that mistakes were made, based on bad information, bad decision-making, that there were poor decisions made by a number of people across the country, and it came to a head in 1994.

    And as someone who has a brother who has been in and out of the carceral system, as someone who has fought not only for criminal justice reform and successfully achieved that in Georgia, but also co-authored legislation on police accountability, I know that people are capable of change, because the folks who helped me co-sponsor and move that legislation through Republican-dominated legislatures and with a Republican governor were people who 10 years before that never would have supported it.

    And so what I would ask from every person who's asking for change is to create grace and space for that change to occur.

    Look at what Joe Biden is saying today. Look at the ways he is trying to meet us in this moment, and give him the benefit of the doubt, because the contrast and the real choice that we have is the man who currently occupies the White House, whose tepid response was the creation of a database, as opposed to any meaningful attempt to actually meet this moment and understand that black lives do indeed matter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, very quickly, Stacey Abrams, we know Joe Biden is considering you, among others, to be his vice presidential running mate.

    Why are you the most qualified? You haven't served in the Congress, in the Senate. You haven't run a state. What is your answer to that?

  • Stacey Abrams:

    My answer is that Joe Biden knows who the most qualified person for him to be his partner will be.

    I have never espoused that I'm more qualified than anyone else. He has a surfeit of good opportunities and fantastic, smart, capable women.

    I simply have said that, when asked if I am in that number, I would say yes. I have legislative experience. I have deep legislative experience and success on a number of these issues, criminal justice reform, environmental issues, reproductive health, health care, economics.

    But I also am a small business owner who understands the economy that we have to reform and recover. I'm someone who has worked in foreign policy. And I understand the moment that we're in, because I was once an activist who pushed for change. And I used that to propel me to help deliver that change once I was in office.

    And I think, as he looks to select a partner, I think he has no shortage of good choices. And I'm proud to be among the names that he's considering.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stacey Abrams joining us tonight from Atlanta, we thank you very much.

  • Stacey Abrams:

    Thank you so much, Ms. Woodruff.

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