The conference came to a close in the blink of an eye, in a multitude of informative break-out sessions and discussion panels. After the opening session, the Reverend Dr. William Barber II of the North Carolina Conference NAACP delivered the key note address, calling upon the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to assure us that it is truly possible for everyone to have life, liberty, property, and to pursue happiness. Barber argued that we must have a civil rights movement that is not based on an election, but is grounded in the sustained prophetic politics of justice, or the conviction that we should not accept anything less than justice for all people. He said that progressive Americans who have focused their energy on creating electoral change or argued to prioritize specific agenda items are missing the boat, as even politicians with best intentions become coopted by the system. Barber had the audience applauding and smiling when he proclaimed "you don't just want a new master that's nicer!," but rather require a fundamental overhaul of the political system that will redress racism and inequality based on the faith that all things are possible.
The conference schedule details the themes of the eight break-out sessions, on topics ranging from employment discrimination to the importance of treating immigration issues as civil rights issues. Friday afternoon concluded with a panel geared toward addressing the rollback of civil rights.
Saturday morning began with a discussion on the ways we can integrate the human rights paradigm into civil rights work. The substantial gap between human and constitutional rights marks the need to transcend the historical civil rights framework in favor of calling upon the human rights with which we are all born. There is a tendency among Americans to think that we don't need to talk about human rights because we thought that our previous civil rights victories had taken care of whatever struggles we were facing -- but in the era of the civil rights rollback by the courts, of people displaced by Hurrican Katrina, and post-9/11 torture, this is just not the case. Human rights discourse can serve as a guideline to get us back what we have lost, and provide us with a vision of the important economic and social rights our nation also tends to ignore. And for civil rights advocates, human rights language can serve to "reinvigorate" our work.
One area in which the human rights framework has been employed with regularity is in prisoners rights work. Our justice system has looked to other countries for guidance in best practices, on issues such as the supervision of female prisoners by female guards in order to prevent sexual abuse, even subsequently deciding to outlaw the death penalty for juveniles. Policy Analyst Ryan King of The Sentencing Project spoke of the little-known fact that felony convictions remove your right to vote for life -- in some states, 1 in 4 african american men cannot vote due to this policy, and nationwide, 13% of African American men are unable to vote. States also have widely different definitions of felonies, intended to deny the black population of its fundamental right to participate in our democracy. In situations like this, we need to call upon human rights norms in order to illustrate how far we still have to go to achieve a just society.
The second and last panel of the day concerned next steps, an articulation of what actions we can take to build the movement for civil and human rights. Participants advocated for a unified agenda which would connect and coordinate a three-pronged approach to reclaiming our rights:
- The first thing we need to work on is legislative advocacy or lobbying, fixing bad laws and enacting legislation where there are holes in current laws. An example of this is work to promote the Fair Pay Act pending in Congress which would correct the loophole that allowed Goodyear Tire Co. to discriminate against Lilly Ledbetter with no recourse. As a short soundbyte, this work we need to is about increasing access to the courts, the only governmental institution we can depend upon to enforce our rights. Campaign finance reform is also something that could use serious attention, as it drives the marginalization of the lower-income population.
- The second approach concerns grassroots activism, the need to involve people involved at the local level with the particular issues at stake. From health care organizing to social work, we need to capitalize on the idea that ideas only stick through action in order to get more people involved. Media work is also an important component of the need to democratize the movement and spread the word about the rollback -- and developing a presence in both mainstream and new media (blogs, social networking, online video, etc) is crucial to ensuring that people without financial means get to tell their stories and have a voice in the debate about our freedoms.
- The third leg of our work is strategic litigation, the continued effort by lawyers to call upon the justice system in a productive manner that will enable us to protect with fundamental rights by a system of damages. As our court system changes and becomes dominated by the right-wing, it is also important to remember that judges that refer to themselves as conservatives are banking on a connotation that is not accurate. According to Marianne Engleman-Lado of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights, these conservative judges "love change, and they're changing our rights."
One speaker in the closing panel asserted that Americans are "born tired of equality," and that we only live up to our values when we are able to illustrate that the need to do so is urgent. To quote 17-year-old Jody Leong, winner of our Kids Speak Out essay contest, "The time is now."