Rep. Hank Johnson’s “Grand Jury Reform Act”
Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, says the use of a special prosecutor and making grand jury investigations a public process is consistent with the goals of progress
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Glen Ford report.
Representative Hank Johnson has introduced the Grand Jury Reform Act. The bill would require the appointment of a special prosecutor charged with conducting probable cause hearings open to the public when reasonable grounds exist to believe that criminal charges should be considered.
Now joining us to discuss all of this from Plainfield, New Jersey, is Glen Ford. Glen is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.
Thanks so much for joining me, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the opportunity.
PERIES: So, Glen, what have you to say from your bunker?
FORD: Well, I think there are two important aspects to this very interesting bill. Number one is the use of a special prosecutor. And theoretically, using a special prosecutor would remove the local prosecutors from the scene. And, of course, local prosecutors have long-established sweetheart relationships with the local police. So, theoretically, again, we would have a prosecutor that was not aligned with the person who was facing these charges.
The second aspect–and I think this may be even more important–is that the evidence would be presented by the special prosecutor in an open courtroom. There would be transparency there. This would be a daylight operation. And it would be presented it to a judge. And then the judge, in public view, would review the evidence and decide whether there was sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against that cop. And the public would not only get to see what the evidence is against the cop; they could witness how the special prosecutor comports himself: is he or she actually zealously making the case for the rights of the black victim and making the case that this cop faced criminal charges? And that, of course, is totally lacking in today’s grand jury system.
Removing the secrecy from grand jury proceedings has been a goal of progressives in law forever, because except when there is cop who is facing possible prosecution, grand juries are conducted as secret kinds of sessions in which defendants have virtually no rights and the prosecutor is a king or an overseer of a kind of torture, torture by law.
Setting up this new system would require that the states change their laws, because state laws dictate how grand juries operate or the necessity for grand juries. And so the law provides that if the states don’t change their laws to bring them in conformance with the federal legislation, with Hank Johnson’s law, then those states would lose a portion of their federal law enforcement funding.
And I want to make it clear right here that I don’t for a minute think that this bill has any chance whatsoever of passing in the House. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. It is an important kind of political statement. And part of the political education of a people is that folks get a chance to observe, to see the limits of what is possible in bourgeois electoral politics in a racist society like our own.
Congressman Hank Johnson has about–I think he has 15 sponsors for this legislation. Eleven of them are members of the Congressional Black Caucus who, back in June, voted to allow the continuation of Pentagon transfers of military weapons to local police departments. They voted decidedly wrong back in June. But now, 11 of those same congresspeople are on the side of making it easier to prosecute the police. And so I think by introducing this bill it gives us an opportunity to see how at least the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have changed their tune and changed their voting behavior since the beginning of this nascent movement, this Black Lives Matter movement, after the killing of Michael Brown in August.
PERIES: And a number of other cases where there was non-verdict in terms of a grand jury prosecution of any sort. Now, can you tell me, Glen, is the bill going to have any passage in the House? Will it actually succeed?
FORD: Oh, I don’t think that there’s any chance whatsoever of the bill succeeding. In this house–and it’s an even more Republican house than last year–he introduced it last year and had to reintroduce it this year because it’s a new Congress–in this Congress, I would expect that legislation that would further insulate police from the rule of law that would give them added layers of impunity would be more likely to pass this Congress than anything like Hank Johnson’s law.
But it is important that these opportunities be created so that congresspersons have to go on record, they have to choose a side. Are they going to side with police impunity? Or are they going to side with the notion that black lives matter? And so the congressman does a service of a kind by introducing this bill, and even though, no, it’s not going to go anywhere.
PERIES: Right. And tell us a little bit about Hank Johnson.
FORD: Well, Hank Johnson succeeded Cynthia McKinney. He represents that district which includes part of Atlanta County and a largely black suburban area, actually the second most affluent black district in the country, right behind suburban Washington, D.C. And so Cynthia was considered by many folks to be the most radical person, period, in Congress, and that district has gotten used to being represented by a radical and a firebrand. So Hank Johnson does himself well by shaking the show up a little bit every once in a while.
PERIES: And, Glen, finally, the new candidate for attorney general, is there any likelihood she’d support Hank Johnson in this move?
FORD: Oh, I don’t think that that’s what the attorney generals do. They don’t throw their support to legislation. They make noises about the merits of legislation and help create an environment that makes passage more likely. That’s actually the way they behave. I don’t think this legislation’s going far enough with within the Congress to merit that kind of attention by this center-right Obama administration.
PERIES: Glen, as always, thanks for joining and giving us this update. We look forward to your next one.
FORD: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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