Bend the Arc Submits Testimony for Senate Hearing on the State of Civil and Human Rights in the U.S.

December 9, 2014

Today, Bend the Arc CEO Stosh Cotler submitted testimony to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, for the record of a hearing on “The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States.” In her statement, Cotler highlighted the range of civil and human rights issues of concern to Bend the Arc and the American Jewish community more broadly, including voting rights, criminal justice reform and equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Testimony of Stosh Cotler
Chief Executive Officer, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice
Submitted to
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights
For the hearing record on:
“The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States”
December 9, 2014

The fight to protect the civil and human rights of all Americans is deeply personal for American Jews.  Our community has been at the forefront of nearly every civil and human rights struggle in our nation’s modern history, drawing from teachings of our tradition as well as our modern-day experience as a minority people.  We heed the prophetic call to build just and holy societies that value human dignity as we recognize and empathize with the sufferings of all marginalized communities.  Our historical experience has imparted to us respect for the principle of equality before the law and the importance of a vibrant constitutional democracy.

The organization I serve as CEO, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, mobilizes and organizes the American Jewish community today on a range of civil and human rights issues including voting rights, criminal justice reform and equality for the  lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  As such, I appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement to the Subcommittee on this range of issues facing our nation today.

Voting Rights
Fifty years ago, three young men were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi for working to register African-Americans to vote.  Today, inspired by their legacy, we work to carry on Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner’s fight to defend the voting rights of all Americans.  I am appreciative of this Committee’s efforts to move the Voting Rights Amendment Act (S. 1945) forward by holding a hearing this year.  But this bill deserves a vote, deserves to be passed by the full Senate before another election can be held without the Voting Rights Act in full effect. 

There is something quintessentially American, but also quintessentially Jewish, about voting. After all, voting is a ritual, part of belonging to the community.  American Jews have always valued our right to vote. As our ancestors fled pogroms and persecution, those who came here found a country where they, even if they were not always welcome or even fully protected under the law, nonetheless had a legal right to exist, pursue their own affairs, and be part of our political system at the basic level.

We draw inspiration not only from our ancestors, but from the Jewish leaders of our time—those who marched on Washington, those who participate in election protection today—and from our sages of old. “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted,” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a) our rabbis taught, and in our nation, that means the full diversity of our citizenry has the unhindered right to vote for their leaders.

Yet, while voting rights have long been—and continue to be—a personal issue for the Jewish community, this is true for the broader interfaith community as well. To illustrate this, I submit for the record two letters in support of the Voting Rights Amendment Act on behalf of the myriad diverse signers. The first, an interfaith community letter, was signed by 88 faith-based organizations representing more than a dozen religious denominations and the second, an interfaith clergy letter, was signed by more than 1,000 faith leaders from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and more than two dozen religious denominations.

In striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder dismantled critical protections for those most at risk of having their rights abridged. It took mere weeks after the ruling for many of the jurisdictions previously monitored under the VRA to rush out and make changes to election law that could deny the vote to thousands of citizens. The reasons for these changes may or may not be as blatantly racist as they were fifty years ago, but they are certainly just as cynical and malicious. Many proponents have been clear that their motives are based on suppressing votes to win partisan election contests. Yet, even ignoring the motives, the results of these changes are clear—they will make it harder for communities of color, women, first-time voters, the elderly, and the poor to cast their vote.

Every day Congress fails to live up to its constitutional obligation to protect the right to vote, it gives a free pass to voting discrimination.  It is clear that our work is far from complete. It is clear we still need the Voting Rights Act.

Criminal Justice Reform
Recent events have made it clearer than ever that criminal justice in our nation is in crisis.  Though the communities who are overwhelmingly falling victim to systemic injustice are largely not our own, we firmly believe that the fates of all Americans are intertwined and when the rights of some are trampled, the rights of all are compromised.

Across America, low-income neighborhoods predominantly populated by African Americans and Latinos are treated like warzones, rather than communities of families.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and untold others have paid with their lives for a racist system that has created in our society a deeply ingrained belief that black men are inherently dangerous people.  As a country, we have never truly grappled with the lasting effects of slavery and the multiple iterations of Jim Crow—and the impact has become crystal clear.  Our nation must directly counter the effects of the systemic, ingrained racial bias that impairs the judgment and behavior of too many law enforcement personnel and prevents them from protecting the communities they serve.  I urge the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Congress as a whole to enact legislation that will require body cameras on police, the demilitarization of local police forces, create better training programs, and greater police investment in building positive community relations.  The status quo is unacceptable.

Bend the Arc is also concerned by the continued use of racial and religious profiling by law enforcement, and by the surveillance and mapping of religious communities—particularly, Muslim communities—across the nation by both local and federal law enforcement, without suspicion of wrongdoing.  On top of the moral call to defend fellow American religious communities from this type of discrimination, Bend the Arc also has a unique connection to the issues of surveillance. Our own Board Chair, Stephen F. Rohde was himself the target of illegal surveillance by the New York Police Department, targeting his constitutionally-protected anti-war activities while attending Columbia Law School.  Rohde participated in the court case that challenged that surveillance, Handschu v. Special Servs. Div’n., which serves as a foundational precedent for the case challenging the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims throughout the Northeast, Hassan v. City of New York.  We continue to urge President Obama to revise and strengthen the Department of Justice’s 2003 Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies.  Such a move should clarify ambiguities, close loopholes, and eliminate provisions that allow for any form of discriminatory profiling.  I also urge this Committee to explore legislative avenues to reign in profiling by law enforcement. 

Finally, as members of the coalition that worked to secure the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA), we continue to work toward its full implementation.  Five years after the HCPA was enacted, we have made great progress, but there remains a crisis of underreporting of hate crime data, data which is crucial in determining where resources should be directed to better protect vulnerable communities.  To that end, Congress should explore new steps that could be taken to ensure more accurate, helpful statistics, including greater transparency and accountability.  Additionally, I urge Congress to support budget authority to fund, for the first time, grants authorized under Sec. 4704 of the HCPA, which are intended to promote federal coordination and support for bias-motivated criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Finally, we must do all we can to prevent hate crimes from happening in the first place by promoting inclusive anti-bias education and by including bullying and harassment and non-discrimination provisions in proposals for reauthorization of appropriate legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  These recommendations are just a few of the comprehensive, thoughtful proposals you have already received from my colleagues who lead the Hate Crime Coalition.

LGBT Non-Discrimination Protections
As a proud ally in the national movement for LGBT equality, Bend the Arc has organized marches and candlelight vigils and has brought the Jewish community’s strong moral voice for LGBT equality to bear in states and across the nation.  Our nation has made great progress toward ensuring full equality for the LGBT community, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that LGBT individuals experience equal rights and protections.  It is thrilling to watch the number of states in which same-sex couples enjoy the freedom to marry grow dramatically.  Yet, at the same time, the number of states in which an LGBT individual could be legally married and yet still legally fired from a job for being LGBT remains staggeringly high.  Indeed, more than 30 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry while only 18 states and the District of Columbia explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is just one small snapshot of the still-legal discrimination faced by LGBT Americans across the country.  I urge the Senate to consider comprehensive legislation to protect the civil rights of LGBT Americans, not only in the workplace, but in housing, in education and in in the foster care system, among other sectors as well.

Again, I thank the Subcommittee for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record of this important hearing.