Welcome to RJ Court Watch, a legal podcast produced by Rewire and hosted by senior legal analysts Imani Gandy and Jessica Mason Pieklo. In this episode we discuss the nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Lynch, a Harvard Law grad and U.S. attorney out of New York, oversaw the prosecution of New York City police officers in the Abner Louima case, was involved in the prosecuting both Republicans and Democrats for abuse of power, and if confirmed would be the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney general.
Jessica Mason Pieklo: We are here with political analyst and Rewire contributor and contributor to Ebony.com Zerlina Maxwell to talk about the nomination of Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as attorney general. Thank you so much for joining us, Zerlina.
Zerlina Maxwell: Thanks for having me.
JMP: So as Attorney General Eric Holder has been kind of a polarizing figure for both the right and the left and my initial read on the reaction to the Lynch nomination appears to be kind of similar in that the right and the left have taken some pretty strong positions already. And I was curious as we just start talking about this what your thoughts were as to why President Obama’s attorney general nominees seem to get such a vitriolic response from his detractors.
ZM: Well, I just think the office, the Department of Justice becoming politicized, I mean obviously in past generations the office was politicized, but in our modern era, under the Bush administration it really became a political arm of the administration and something that it shouldn’t be and it’s not supposed to be. And I think that continued on, at least the perception of what the attorney general was doing. So obviously throughout history we’ve had moments where there were very, very politically charged cases. But I think that with Eric Holder, one of the things that was interesting about him all along was that he was very polarizing, but not necessarily because he operated as a political arm of the administration. He was polarizing because he said truthful statements about race in America. And you know, calling the country a nation of cowards doesn’t really set you off on a path of harmony in a moment where the Republicans are anti-everything Obama and then you put a Black attorney general who is calling out American racism to head the Department of Justice, you’re already set up for him to be controversial. And I think, you know, he was way more controversial, like I said, in terms of his persona then in his actual job performance. And I think, unfortunately, it has colored a little bit of how Loretta Lynch’s nomination is being viewed. It’s being viewed from that same lens.
JMP: I think the reaction from the right and the issue of race is really important and one I hope we dig into really deeply in part because I also want to tie it if we can from some of the attacks on Lynch from the left. And I think you, Imani, had a great piece on this.
Imani Gandy: For my part, I find it disheartening that here we are five years after the total economic collapse that began in 2008 with the downfall of Lehman Brothers, it seemed like the Department of Justice made it clear that they were going to prosecute some things and they weren’t going to prosecute other things. They weren’t going to prosecute some of these “too big to fail” banks because of ramifications for the economy. And while I certainly would have liked to see more individual bankers held accountable for that, but I’m over it already. You know what I mean? It was five years ago, and I just think there are bigger fish to fry. So when I see someone like David Dayen who is one of those white, progressive, lefties who is sort of in the sort-of Glenn Greenwald camp of things. And I’ve met him on HuffPost Live and he was perfectly charming and perfectly gentlemanly and very, very nice. But I thought his article in Salon was really, really thin. I thought it drew some connections that just weren’t there. And I think that as someone who was a litigator for ten years I can understand maybe why some people who are not involved in the private practice of law might think that “oh a Wall Street lawyer, she’s going to be a Wall Street lackey.” But that’s just not the way corporate law works, you know. It’s not as if, it’s not like with Timothy Geitner who actually was on The Fed, and then had friends who were bankers and financiers and whatnot. This is just a lawyer who had bankers as a client. So I found those attacks to be really thin and just really old. I’m just sort of tired of hearing about how it’s so terrible that these bankers haven’t been perp-walked to jail when, you know, Black people are being murdered in the street, you know. We’re being disenfranchised. Children of color are being fed right from school into prison and I think those issues are more important.
ZM: Absolutely. And just to add on to that, that’s why I think her nomination is so important. Because all of the work that she has done and the issues that are hot right now that are coming up, they coalesce. We’re talking about a moment. Ferguson is happening and the Department of Justice is prosecuting them, the St. Louis police department on two fronts. And so you need somebody in that job who understands civil rights and who does in a real way, and not in some superficial way. Someone who fundamentally understands it and has the life work and career that shows that she does, right. She was on the team that prosecuted the police for Abner Louima, so she has, sort of, the record that demonstrates she’s ready to take on those challenges and I just think that like Imani says the critiques are yeah, they’re old. I’m like, really? You’re mad at her because she had some Wall Street clients? Everyone has Wall Street clients. If you’re a lawyer in New York you have Wall Street clients. If I run for office in ten years, not that I want to do that, but is somebody going to be like “she used to work in a corporate law firm and have corporate clients?” It’s ridiculous, in a way, that attack. And I think for the most part the left needs to have a come to Jesus moment when it comes to women of color being attacked. Or just people of color being attacked. Because in the Obama administration there has been a persistent trend that the people of color that are in positions of power: I’m talking about Valerie Jarrett. I’m talking about Lisa Jackson. I’m talking about Eric Holder and Shirley Sherrod.
IG: Susan Rice
ZM: And now this nominee Loretta Lynch. Why is it that all of these people are put out and attacked, and yet the left just adds on. Adds on. Instead of defending that person. One of the things I’ve always believed is that the “fast and the furious” attacks on Eric Holder were meant to distract attention while he was fighting to save our voting rights, and it really just undermined his reputation and authority on that issue by distracting us with this nonsense of “fast and furious,” which started under Bush and wasn’t his fault and it was proven so, and yet there’s still something to say as if there was some scandal that he was the mastermind of. So I just think that a lot of this is to undermine their authority and we can’t continue to let them do that.
JMP: As progressives, and especially as a white progressive, and I’m talking to my people here, we have to put our money where our mouth is here. We either support candidates of color, particularly women of color who the Obama administration has advanced and who frankly we’ve just thrown out to pasture for political purposes—and so we either are for broad-scale diversity or we are not and I can’t think of a more qualified candidate than Lynch for progressives to get behind for that exact reason, which is why, Imani, I was equally upset with you when I saw those attacks. And they are still out there from the left. And now there’s news that Sen. Reid is planning on holding the nomination back, that’s it’s already tied up with D.C. politics in a way that makes me concerned as we’re headed into the holiday break and then the beginning of the new session—I almost said season—it might as well be a season—in January.
ZM: Yeah, I think part of the problem is that the Congress is so dysfunctional you can’t have faith that this is going to be anything but a horrific process, if it even begins as you said, Harry Reid might hold it back. But that is why the left needs to get behind her. They need to be resolute. We can’t continue to attack our own people, because they are already being attacked from the other side. Now we’re just adding to it. We’re aiming in the wrong direction. And we do this a lot. And I think we need to recognize that it’s not always appropriate, and not always appropriate to critique in public, always as well. Part of the problem is that if you feel you have quibbles with her nomination, I’m sure plenty of journalists have access to the White House to raise those concerns. They don’t have to write an article about it and then undermine the narrative overall. Some people on the left that are progressive writers, they don’t necessarily view their job that way. And that’s cool. But I do think that sometimes there is that responsibility there to be fair, because if you’re going to write an article about all the reasons why she’s not the right nominee, then you’re article should be three times that length and add on the reasons why she should be the nominee. I’m not saying that you can’t cover all of these things. I’m just saying that I think it is unfair to attack her and like Imani said, there is not a lot of there there. There’s a lot of reasons why she’s the right nominee at this time, and there’s these tangential reasons why she might not be a good candidate if you’re a lefty who wanted all of the bankers fraud-marched out of their offices. But she’s the right person, right now. And historic. I mean, if we can’t acknowledge that this is the first Black woman to hold that office, and what that means, particularly because Black women are so, and Imani talks about this all the time, how we’re struggling to be visible often and just how important it is to have the head law enforcement person in the country be a Black woman and so that we are extremely visible in that moment and certainly we are visible to her as she does her work. I think it’s really important.
IG: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. I think that, especially now that we’re seeing what’s going on in Ferguson, I think it is really crucial that a woman of color is going to be sort of leading the charge at the federal level the way there are a lot of women of color leading the charge on the ground. You know, you have people like @Nettaaaaaaa and people like @Awkward_Duck on Twitter and I cannot remember, you know I always know these people by their Twitter handles, I’m sure her name is not Awkward Duck in real life, but you know these are the people that really are leading the charge. So while we are talking about on the one hand police brutality, which tends to affect men of color more, and then at the same time we’re talking about Bill Cosby and these rape allegations from a lot of Black women and you’ve got these people who are saying “oh they’re just trying to take a Black man down” and distract from Ferguson. I mean, I think that we need someone who recognizes and is at the intersection of that identity of race and gender and can lead the country forward. Or at least, and from what I read about her, she’s not someone who is craving the spotlight, right? She lets other people talk, she lets her co-prosecutors do opening statements, like she let her, one of the prosecutors do the opening statement in the Abner Louima case. So she seems like she’s really good at delegating and at making a coalition of people, which I think is really, really important. And I also think it is sort of what Black women have to do. And I would be really interested to talk to her, not that I’m ever going to get the chance but, to talk to her about how it is that she thinks she’s had to navigate these very corporate, very white spaces, in order to come out being seen as very temperate and very fair. I’d imagine she has to be extra temperate and extra fair in order to be perceived that way. Because people don’t perceive me as temperate, you know what I mean? People perceive me as Angry Blah Blah Blah and so, I’m really actually not that crazy of a person, but because I am loud, I am opinionated and I do like to control things and be in charge of stuff it is really interesting to see a woman who has taken a seemingly opposite tact and having so much success. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what she’s about and what she’s gonna do.
JMP: I also think it is really important to have Lynch confirmed at a time when the Department of Justice is going to be pushing ahead on all of these voting rights issues, and when we’ve seen time and time again and particularly for the Democrats that it is women of color who are bringing home those elections and who are also impacted significantly by restrictive voter ID laws. And so, again, to have a woman of color at this intersection of voting rights and race as the country moves forward into 2016 I think that that is huge and those are the points I wish the progressive media were talking about more.
ZM: Right, right. I mean we miss a lot of the important points often. But I hope as feminists I think more of the people who are writing at places like Slate and Salon and The New Republic hopefully the conversation going forward can shift. I feel like the conversation always defaults to the status quo that we’re talking about where you have the left say one thing and the right confuse her with a white woman named Lynch and then attack her but we have to get out of that habit, and I think maybe this is a moment. Particularly because we have no other choice but to be unified in this moment because we are completely in the minority in Congress right now and we have to be focusing on how to not make that so next time they can vote. So the voting rights stuff. I mean I can’t think of two things that are more connected: progressive policies being able to actually succeed once we change the makeup of Congress and making sure that our base is able to vote. Those things are so intimately connected, and if I’m someone who is on the left that cares about progressive legislation then I’m going to support this attorney general because she is going to be in there fighting to make sure that women of color who are basically impacting and changing the outcomes of elections, that they can vote. Right?
I just saw the movie Selma this week and it could not have come at a better time. The movie is directed by Ava DuVernay, I can’t remember how to say her name, but she directed Scandal and is an amazing director, woman director. And it was so relevant to what is going on in Ferguson and just generally the mood in the country. We are recognizing these injustices, we now have cell phone video proof of the injustices, and we’re seeing how systems are working together. Academics have been talking about systemic racism forever but now we’re seeing the manifestations of that and people are starting to understand how a lot of things are working together. The school-to-prison pipeline leads to mass incarceration and how decriminalizing marijuana can help alleviate. So all of these things are popping up in a moment and consciousness is being raised in the country in a moment when we have to, we must, we have no choice but to be unified and support particularly a nominee like Loretta Lynch would make sure all of those concerns that we have are addressed and that she’s continuing the legacy that Eric Holder started. Because it’s not finished. He’s not finished because everything is not fixed. But it’s important to have someone who will continue that work.
JMP: Right. It’s really important to have somebody who is going to continue that work in a way that keeps race at the center when there is so much impetus, especially in white America to talk about post-racialness, whether it is in the Obama presidency or if its in these latest lawsuits that were filed attacking affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina looking at so-called “race neutral” ways of creating diversity in institutions without having a conversation about the historical and systemic impact of slavery. So I think the idea that you raise Zerlina that we are at a very critical moment in our history is exactly on the money because there is a lot of temptation to run away and leave those problems unsolved.
ZM: One of the things that is really interesting is that while 1964 feels like a really long time ago, one of the things that was so amazing in the movie Selma in particular is that she made a point that to make the movie about more than just Martin Luther King so there’s name dropping of all of these historic figures, many of whom are not dead. And so I think that for me, it has always been, this is not that long ago, and so we have to recognize that we’ve made a lot of progress, but we are not finished. We are not even close to being finished. Certainly because all of the activity in Selma was centered around voting we have to be able to recognize that something like a Ferguson can happen because the people who live in that community are not able to vote for their elected officials who are making all of the policies that are impacting their lives. And that’s not true for just Ferguson, it’s true for so many places. They are not being represented by the people in their own communities and too many people are being disenfranchised whether that’s because they have a criminal record, right? So all of these things are so connected and I think it is long past time we recognize that and then strategically operate or critique or whatever we want to do in order to continue a rich debate. But we have to be focused on the fact that we have so much more work to do, so bringing down Loretta Lynch over some bankers that she may have represented while a corporate lawyer doesn’t seem to me to be an important enough reason to not continue to fight for voting and for Black lives being able to walk around in the street without being shot in broad daylight. I just think for me, that is a bigger priority.
JMP: Thank you for listening to RJ Court Watch and be sure and catch all of our reporting on reproductive health and justice issues at www.rhrealitycheck.org.