On Tuesday, a sit-in organized by the NAACP at Senator Jeff Sessions’ Mobile office to oppose his nomination as U.S. Attorney General gained national attention when activists were arrested.
The arrested protesters included national NAACP CEO and President Cornell William Brooks and Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama State Conference of NAACP. The protesters live-streamed the event to Facebook and posted pictures of their arrests for trespassing to Twitter.
Friday morning, Simelton spoke over the phone with Weld about the protest, the NAACP leadership’s problems with the senator’s record, and the organization’s plans to keep fighting Sessions’ nomination.
Weld: The protest started as a press conference in Sessions’ office before becoming a sit-in. At what point was the decision made to hold the sit-in?
Benard Simelton: We had always planned to do a sit-in in his office in Mobile. We decided that a few days before [Tuesday] because we had to get all our approvals in place.
Weld: Why did you choose to carry out this protest in this particular manner?
Simelton: The press conference certainly provided us the opportunity to make a statement about Senator Sessions, but when we went to his office to deliver a list of demands, his staff said he was unavailable. So we planned to stay there until we had an opportunity to speak with Senator Sessions and share with him our demands. That never materialized, so we just decided to remain there until the staff either went home or until the police came to arrest us.
Weld: What were your demands for Senator Sessions?
Simelton: We had planned to talk to him about what were his plans if he were. . . confirmed as attorney general. What was going to be his approach to the attorney general position, how was he going to work with organizations like the NAACP and other civil rights organizations? We also wanted to know why he had not supported the extension or expansion of the Voting Rights Act that Representative Terri Sewell had submitted. We also wanted to know things like how [he planned] to approach immigration, and to ensure that the people that are here [have] their rights protected.
Also, we wanted to know how he was going to enforce the Voting Rights Act, because . . . we see that the Voting Rights Act is not being enforced in certain states in the way it was written. Alabama has developed a voting ID law that suppresses the vote because when they passed the law . . . there were approximately 500,000 people who did not have the appropriate ID to vote, and so they were ineligible to vote.
So how was he going to deal with those types of things? And, of course, our demands were for him to withdraw, or for President-elect Trump to withdraw his nomination.
Weld: Shortly before the protest the Alabama State Conference of NAACP sent out a press release in which you are quoted as saying that Sessions has been “a threat to desegregation.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?
Simelton: You have to go back to ’86, and how he voted on things like the Lilly Ledbetter Act — he voted against that — and how he has supported what I would call discriminatory practices against the LGBT community. When you put that together, coupled with his record and how he has voted against issues that the NAACP has supported, it potentially could impact how segregation in schools [is approached].
Alabama, his own state, has passed the Accountability Act, which essentially allows parents of children in school to take their money and go to other private schools or wherever, that further erodes the money that is supposed to be designated for the public schools. The majority of African-Americans will not have funding to send their children to the school of their choice; they have to go to school wherever they are districted to go. He has not come out and spoken out against things like that, so that leads to public segregation of the school system.
Weld: The same press release quotes you as expressing worry about how Sessions will handle police brutality cases. What do you mean by that?
Simelton: One of the big issues there is certainly the stop-and-frisk policies that he has supported and was something that Trump supports also. We feel that because of his support for policies like that, there will be more African Americans that will be thrown in jail, and for petty crimes that individuals will commit.
If you are a hardened criminals, yes, you should be in jail for a certain time. But a lot of the minor crimes that people get [jail time for] are for drugs — and I know that he has come out and supported lesser sentences for some drug crimes — but the main focus is on his position on stop and frisk and being able to stop anyone that’s just walking down the street. If they fit a certain profile, even if the person hasn’t done anything wrong, the police would be able to stop and frisk them.
As attorney general, he would be responsible for ensuring law enforcement is ethical across the country, not just in one state. Currently, there are no federal guidelines related to the use of deadly force and he does not support, or I have not heard him support, a federal guideline on the use of deadly force.
Weld: Sessions’ office and supporters have responded to criticisms of Sessions by pointing out that he sought and achieved the death penalty in his prosecution of a Klan member and that he was involved in school desegregation and voting rights cases. Do you find those arguments impact your view of Sessions?
Simelton: Well, as to his seeking the death penalty for a Klan member who killed someone —and I’m not saying whether I’m a supporter of the death penalty or not — but as an attorney general of Alabama . . . it was his responsibility to ensure that people were punished to the extent of the law. In my opinion, he was doing what he was required to do. Again, whether the person received the death penalty or not, that to me is irrelevant. That doesn’t show him as being fair when it comes to treatment of African-Americans or the African-American community when he was just doing what he was supposed to do under the law.
Weld: What about Sessions’ involvement in the school desegregation and voting rights cases?
Simelton: When he goes before the Judiciary Committee next week, they need to ask and pin him down on what was his role in these cases. Did he have any influence in the investigation of these cases or the outcome of them? According to Mr. J. Gerald Hebert [a former Department of Justice employee who coauthored a Washington Post editorial arguing that Sessions was not substantially involved in the school desegregation cases], Sessions’ name was on them because he was the U.S. attorney, but the investigation was done by the Justice Department out in D.C. Of course he’s trying to take credit for them, saying that he was responsible for the outcome of these, and he’s not. He’s trying to make himself look like he’s standing up for civil and human rights, but in this case, according to a person who worked on the cases, he was not terribly involved in it.
Weld: Does either the Alabama Conference of the NAACP or the national organization have any further plans to protest Sessions’ nomination and hearing?
Simelton: On Monday, again throughout the state of Alabama, we will host a prayer vigil. We do have some additional plans, and we’re still asking people to write their senators and let them know that they do not support Senator Sessions, and especially write their senator if he or she is on the Judiciary Committee to let them know that they are in opposition to Senator Sessions as attorney general.
Since we started this protest on Tuesday, we have received all kinds of phone calls, emails, and text messages in support of us. We did petition on MoveOn.org, and within the first 24 hours of the petition being online, we had received over 200,000 people who supported the petition and signed it. I think that’s a great accomplishment. . . There’s a lot of people who are not in support of Senator Sessions. Of course, we’ve received comments that call us all kinds of names. We expected to receive those, but those are in the very, very, very [small] minority.
Weld: Do you expect Sessions to be confirmed?
Simelton: Well, we think that the pressure is building and if we can have a blessed weekend, have people continue to write their senators, continue to make phone calls and flood the senators’ phones in D.C., then I think we can begin to [have an impact]. I think already the momentum has begun to turn a little bit. That’s why his spokesman came out yesterday and made comments that we did this just as a fundraising campaign. Of course that certainly is not the truth. When you have his staff responding that way, it means you have an impact, so we are going to continue to build momentum and begin to turn that tidal wave.
There have been over 1,300 law professors who have come out in opposition. [Former United States Assistant Attorney General] Deval Patrick has come out, the Congressional Black Caucus has come out against him. I’m not saying that had anything to do with us or not, but the momentum is beginning to turn.