Eric Holder Failed in Defending Americans’ Civil Liberties

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Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda Report, says there is a false dichotomy between civil liberties and civil rights in the reporting on Holder’s career as attorney general

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News Network, and welcome to The Glen Ford Report.

Eric Holder, in a speech last week announcing his resignation, along with President Obama, claimed civil rights as the centerpiece of his six-year tenure. The NYT reported that he succeeded in reducing lengthy prison sentences, opened civil rights investigations against police departments in record numbers, and challenged identification requirements for voters. That may all be true, but could he have done more?

Here to discuss this is Glen Ford. Glen is joining us from Plainfield, New Jersey. Glen is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report and the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.

Thank you so much for joining us, Glen.

So, Glen, here we have two African-Americans at the helm, President Obama and Eric Holder–in fact, Eric Holder was one of his first appointees to the cabinet, along with Hillary Clinton. What do you think of his record?

FORD: Well, people have been talking about Eric Holder’s legacy. They’ve been throwing around the term legacy very casually. A legacy is something that history will remember about a political figure. It’s about the significance things that that figure was involved in that affects generations of people. It’s not about talking points for the 2014 or 2016 election.

And regarding Eric Holder, there are two–two at least–points that history will remember him for, and that’s a lot for one cabinet member. Both of them are quite bad. History will revile him and his lawyer boss, Barack Obama, for these two points.

Number one. Basically, Eric Holder turned the U.S. Justice Department into a kind of law firm for the banks during his tenure, and especially during President Obama’s first term. He maneuvered and played political games in order to get federal jurisdiction over the robo-signing scandal and other high banking criminal enterprises, pushing state prosecutors and investigators out of the way so that under federal jurisdiction, settlements could be reached with these banks, in which fines were imposed, but there were no individual prosecutions. By doing that, he is the one who presented these executives, who were guilty of manifold and manifest crimes against the people, he gave them impunity from prosecution. And then, in typical Obama-ite fashion, and in the form of a kind of complaint, he said that the banks had somehow become too big to prosecute, too big to jail. But he was part of the process of making that happen. We have to remember that during the 1980s, during the savings and loan scandal, about 1,000 banking executives went to jail. And you can best believe that that taught a lesson and had a chilling effect against white-collar crime. No such lesson has been taught under Eric Holder. In fact, the opposite. What we have learned, what the bankers, those criminal bankers have learned is that they have impunity from now on. They are too big to come under the rule of law.

The other big point that history will remember regarding Eric Holder is his defense of his boss Barack Obama’s preventive detention law, which effectively gutted the very principle of due process of law. It would allow people to be imprisoned without charge or without trial, and in fact imprisoned under laws that are themselves secret. And a secret law is, of course, no law at all. Secret laws are in fact manifestations of a lawless state. That is part of the enduring legacy of Eric Holder.

PERIES: And what about the NSA, allowing the NSA to sweep up millions of phone records of Americans accused of no crime?

FORD: Sure. He has defended the vast strengthening of the national security state. He has participated in the particulars, that is, the legal language, the legal edifice, of creating an executive that itself acts with impunity, that has no constitutional bars that effectively put it in check and that bears all of our civil rights and civil liberties to the abuse of a dictatorial executive branch. And there’s a lot of talk about civil rights versus civil–.

PERIES: Liberties, yeah.

FORD: And I think it’s in an invalid dichotomy. Specifically, Eric Holder is credited with defending civil rights, specifically voting rights, by defending the Voting Rights Act. Well, the Voting Rights Act is and was quite important. But things like voter ID laws and such really have an impact on the margins of the body politic, with small percentages of people. Yet this administration took a legal position–a legal position formulated, of course, by the U.S. attorney general–that basically went along with the disenfranchisement of half of the black population of Michigan, all of the population of Detroit, under emergency manager statutes that clearly are constitutionally open to question. But the administration took no position there on a matter that affects the voting rights and therefore all of the civil rights of a vast swath of citizens in Michigan. So when we make this distinction between civil rights and voting rights and such, if we recognize that a citizenry that is powerless to effect change, or even defend its own rights and privileges in its own society, that that citizenry essentially cannot lay claim, in any permanent sense, with any sense of security, to any rights, then the argument about the difference some hairsplitting line between civil rights and civil liberties goes poof like smoke, poof like the gaseous propaganda that substitutes for political discourse in this age of Obama.

PERIES: Glen, what about the lengthy prison sentences for minor crimes? He’s being praised for his intervention here in terms of reducing the sentences from minor drug crimes, for example, which has, because of the disproportionate arrests and detainment of African Americans, does this have a positive impact in the community in that sense?

FORD: Well, he’s done a lot more talking than doing. And his Justice Department, which is over the federal prison system, is actually behind the aggregate of the states. Eric Holder was bragging the other day that for the first time, the federal prison system saw the slight decrease in population. Well, the aggregate state popular prison systems registered three years straight of small reductions in prison population. And that’s with 50 different prison systems, many of them under Republicans, under all kinds of different conditions, that is, systems that are subject to a whole lot more variables than the federal prison system, which was under one chain of command. He doesn’t really have much to brag about there.

There’s a lot of talk about the consent decrees that have been achieved with cities. Well, consent decrees are just what the name implies. They are agreements that are entered into or concluded with the consent of those cities, cities that have abused the rights of their black citizens. So it’s not like a prosecution. It’s an agreement along a set of principles. And the whole idea–the whole approach, rather, of consent decrees as a way to approach police brutality has not been measured by history. I’m sure it is a mixed bag in the verdict is not in, and therefore there can’t be any verdict on Eric Holder’s legacy of having concluded so many consent decrees. But it is good propaganda, and that’s what this administration specializes in.

I want to say this. There are far too many black folks, most notably and shamefully Michael Eric Dyson on Democracy Now! the other day that are so anxious to declare that Eric Holder’s legacy will be a good one, in the same way that they’re anxious to see President Obama go down with a positive legacy. And that is because black folks in general feel that the legacy of these two black politicians will have an impact on the reputation of black people as a whole. That’s a very not only politically immature kind of position to take or attitude to have; it’s also quite counterproductive, because it lets Eric Holder and President Obama off the hook for having gutted due process of law and of having solidified the rule of the rich during their, so far, six years in office.

PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us, Glen.

FORD: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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