WASHINGTON, D.C. (Dec. 9, 2014) — Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) testified in front of Senate Judiciary Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human rights today during a hearing entitled “The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States.” The hearing was chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Ellison was joined by his colleagues Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL).
Rep. Ellison’s written testimony submitted for the record to the committee is below.
Last week, 15 year old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was run over by a man in an SUV that had a bumper sticker that said “Islam Is Worse Than Ebola” on it. Discrimination and hate exist everywhere and we should shine a light on them. Today I’d like to focus on state-sponsored violations of our civil rights and liberties and the context in which these violations occur.
Why? Because the government’s job is to promote the general welfare. Because we entrust our government with the right to protect and serve our communities, we expect more of them. Most of the time our public servants diligently uphold this social contract; but when the state fails it is all the more devastating and deserves our attention.
President Obama and Attorney General Holder have demonstrated leadership that has brought important reforms like the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the Fair Sentencing Act. We still have a long way to go.
Our system of justice works for some, not all. This injustice takes place in a social and economic context. When Officer Wilson confronted Michael Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, the interaction didn’t take place in a vacuum. Like many of our communities, Ferguson suffers from economic abandonment.
Ferguson Missouri’s unemployment is 13%, over double the national average. The number of low-income people in Ferguson doubled over the last 10 years. In 2012, almost all of Ferguson’s neighborhoods had a poverty rate of over 20%, the threshold at which the negative effects of poverty emerge.
Do we respond to this with policies that create jobs, improve infrastructure, and promote education? No. We build more prisons and give our police weapons designed for a war zone. Our low income and minority communities are over-policed and under-protected.
We cannot continue to try to address our economic problems with criminal justice solutions. It isn’t fair to our communities. It isn’t fair to law enforcement. And it solves neither the criminal justice nor the economic justice problems.
If we only buy body cameras and don’t address structural and economic inequality, we will find ourselves here again, year after year.
We know we have an inequality problem when the CEO of Wal-mart makes over $12,000 per hour and the average Wal-mart employee makes $8.48, or when the CEO of McDonalds makes $9,200 an hour and the cashier makes $8.25.
I’d also like to talk about another form of state sponsored discrimination – one that I have experienced myself.
It isn’t a secret that I have experience with the divisive rhetoric and fear-mongering that some public officials use to gain power. Many will recall the House Committee on Homeland Security hearings to discuss the threat posed by Muslims in America. My request to broaden the hearing to include all forms of violent extremism was rejected.
Now, years later, public officials around the country continue to use divisive rhetoric. A county commissioner in Coffee County, TN posted on his public Facebook page an image of a man holding a shotgun with the caption “How to Wink at a Muslim.” A state senator in Oklahoma said that American Muslims are a “cancer in our nation that needs cutting out.” And in my own state of Minnesota, a GOP County chairman called Muslims parasites that should be fragged. To frag someone means to violently kill them.
These are not rare occurrences. These examples demonstrate that these toxic views have spread.
This type of bigotry is contrary to what we stand for as Americans, and when our public officials engage in it, it gives the American public a signal that it is ok to do the same. Public officials have an increased responsibility and when they begin to treat a particular group differently because of their faith, they should be called out and held accountable.
Our words matter.
Beyond changing the rhetoric, we have to change our policies.
Shortly after he took office President Bush said that racial profiling is “wrong, and we will end it in America.” Over a decade later we still have bad policies on the books.
In New York and many other US cities, Muslim communities are mapped, infiltrated, and surveilled simply because they are Muslim. The Departments of Homeland Security and Justice conduct extensive operations in Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities under the guise of countering violent extremism.
Study after study has shown that acts of violent extremism in the United States are motivated by a variety of ideologies and that only a small percentage are committed by American Muslims. According to the FBI, only 6% of acts of terrorism on American soil between 1980 and 2005 were committed by those Muslims. Yet, nearly all programming targeted towards countering violent extremism is geared towards Muslim communities.
I am not against surveillance. I am against surveillance without reasonable suspicion. We should not be singling out communities and harassing and spying on them without cause. Intelligence gathering should never be based on religion or race.
If you think this is just a “Muslim problem” – you’re wrong. Local law enforcement, encouraged by the federal government, raid Latino communities and workplaces. There is FBI surveillance, without suspicion, of Chinese and Russian communities in the US.
And as we know, there is the routine practice of profiling African American young men. A young black man is 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than his white counterpart.
As the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus I have joined the chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus, The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and The Asian Pacific Caucus to urge the Department of Justice to issue revised profiling guidance that will help stop law enforcement from discriminating against our citizens based on their religion, national, origin, ethnicity, and sexuality. Yesterday the Department of Justice issued the revised guidance that expands protections for some, but allows the FBI, TSA, and Border Patrol to continue mapping, monitoring, and targeting Americans based on their religion or what they look like.
We should not continue to violate the civil liberties of our citizens in the name of national security. Discriminatory profiling is wrong. It doesn’t help prevent crime. It creates a culture of fear and resentment within our communities. It is contrary to our core constitutional principles when federal dollars are spent perpetuating law-breaking activity like entrapment.
Lastly, this isn’t just about criminal and economic justice. It’s about being able to choose who represents us. With the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United, Shelby County, and McCutcheon it is becoming easier to buy an election and harder to vote in one. In the political marketplace of ideas, the voices of working Americans are drowned out by corporate money.
Further, many states have found creative ways to keep minorities from voting. Voter ID laws, ending same-day registration and early-voting are all popular ways to make it harder to vote. Thirty-two states have voter ID laws that keep some 23 million Americans from voting. Those without photo ID are disproportionately low-income, disabled, minority, young, and older voters. We need an enumerated right to vote in the Constitution. In Minnesota we have same day voting; every state should have it. We should be enacting policies that make it easier to vote, not harder.
When we talk about ways to stop inequality we can’t have blinders on. This is about criminal justice, economic justice, and justice at the polls.
I’d like to thank Senator Durbin for convening this hearing and for inviting me to participate.
I’d also like to thank the distinguished Members and advocates that are testifying with me today. Their service and hard work have resulted in progress for civil and human rights in our country.
While we have made some progress, there is still much to do. But we have reason to be hopeful.
Americans of every religion, race, and ethnicity are taking to the streets to demand change. People are angry. They are unsatisfied with the status quo. The only way to affect change is to keep organizing. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t start or end when the Civil Rights Act was passed – it started with a small group of committed people demanding change.