How do you get all those young Americans protesting in the streets of Baltimore and other cities to keep up the pressure to make the big, overdue repairs this once-exceptional country needs?
How do you get them to keep fighting for police reforms, plus more affordable housing, higher education and health care? What will make them stay in the fight until there’s a visionary plan to deal with climate change and a strategy to address the seismic economic changes expected from technological advances?
And, looking straight ahead to November, how do you get young Americans excited about voting President Donald Trump out of office when his likely Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is 77 years old?
Big, complex questions to ask 47-year-old Ben Jealous over a virtual cup of coffee.
Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and 2018 Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, has a new job that will put him right in the middle of the big fight ahead: He takes over as president of People for the American Way (PFAW) on June 15. That’s the liberal organization founded by the legendary television producer Norman Lear (“All In The Family,” “Sanford and Son”) and Barbara Jordan, the late great congresswoman, in the early 1980s as an answer to the conservative Moral Majority. The PFAW has been in many of the nation’s biggest political brawls, and it has helped put hundreds of young, bright progressives into elected office across the country.
“The best way to get young people motivated to vote is to get young people running for office,” Jealous says, and he lists several men and women, under 35 years of age, who are campaigning for seats in Congress, state legislatures and city and county councils from New York to Georgia to California.
Get young people on tickets, Jealous says, and young people will vote.
Still, Biden doesn’t exactly flash youth appeal.
Doesn’t matter, says Jealous: Biden has “massive outrage over Donald Trump” on his side.
“Look, I’m hoping for a tidal wave election,” Jealous says. “In my new job, I’ll be focused in the next 150 days or so on making sure, doing everything in our power, to vote Trump out of office. Then we’ll be working on police reforms, equipping all elected officials who are similarly-minded with what they need to pass reforms at the state and local levels.
“We have to seize this moment. It has to be done at the state and local levels because [no reforms] will get through Donald Trump and [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the federal government to do something.”
The Memorial Day death of George Floyd while pinned down by Minneapolis police officers, caught on a bystander’s cellphone camera, was especially searing. But remember the video of Rodney King being violently beaten and stun-gunned by Los Angeles police officers? That was 1991.
“We’ve had three decades of such videos,” Jealous says. “What black America has never been allowed to forget for 300 years all of America has been forced to watch for the last 30.”
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“I think historians will look back on these as the COVID era uprisings,” says Jealous, who just raised $1 million in coronavirus relief for Baltimore hotel and restaurant workers. “There’s a lot of anxiety out there already about jobs, about health care, about evictions. But you have this blaze of anger. … The spark might be [police brutality] but the lighter of that spark is going off somewhere else in America every day.
“So, you have both these [underlying factors] and the power of the image — both at their maximum.”
Jealous goes back to the youth vote. He believes it’s a key step toward moving forward with the police reforms he and other civil rights leaders have been arguing for. Elect young reformers — perhaps from among those protesting in the streets this spring — and you can make improvements in how police are recruited and trained, and in how they treat people of color.
Again, the states need to pick this up, Jealous says. The states, Maryland among them, have already made progress in fixing laws that led to the mass incarceration we saw over the last four decades. “Our efforts in police reform,” he says, “need to be part of the broader criminal justice reforms.”
And the focus, to begin with, should be on the 20 metropolitan areas where most people of color live. “That represents about 100 to 125 counties,” Jealous adds. “If you change the rules just in those counties, we will save lives and change lives.
“We’ve got to get the courage at the local, city and state levels to really take this on, to have a national standard on the use of force by police and for the training of officers.”
As he takes on the top job at PFAW, Jealous says, he has hope in the new youth movement and for the country, even with the mess created by Trump’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak and his increasing authoritarianism, on full display in his answer to the mass protests.
“It’s a powerful way for me to get back in the fight,” Jealous says, though I don’t think he ever left it.