Remarks by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman at the Harlem Community Forum

August 21, 2013

Thank you very much! What a beautiful evening we have in Harlem! I want to acknowledge the Dean, Congressman Charles Rangel, and I’m going to follow up on his discussion of why we are kicking off the commemoration of the March on Washington here tonight.  Hazel Dukes, Marc Morial, thank you for that generous introduction. We have a lot of heroes here tonight who are going to speak to you. This program is about justice, and I am delighted to be here with you tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to raise your voices.  It is time to remember what happened here in Harlem 50 years ago, because the March on Washington was organized in a brownstone that Bayard Rustin had rented at 130th Street and Lenox. Fifty years ago folks went down to Washington.  They did not know they were going to hear one of the great speeches of all time.  They didn’t know there were going to be hundreds of thousands of people there.  But the folks went down there.  They had the privilege of hearing Dr. King proclaim dignity and respect for every human being.  And that tremendous speech, and some other great speeches, are what many people think about when they think about Dr. King today.

They remember his great successes in the fight for civil rights, but people sometimes forget what went before, the groundwork that made those successes possible.  Before he became a legend, Dr. King was denounced.  He was persecuted. A lot of people don’t like it when you speak truth to power, and when you criticize inequality and oppression by the powerful. He was criticized.  He was investigated by the FBI.  He was smeared by rumor and innuendo to discredit both him and his message.

But ladies and gentlemen, it was inevitable that when the media focused on Dr. King after his death, they realized that his in fact was a quintessentially American mission, and a quintessentially American message.  An expression of hope that was in a direct line from the words of Thomas Jefferson, who framed the project, the work in progress that is the United States of America.  The first nation in the world without king, aristocracy, design to evolve as our Constitution uniquely was designed to evolve.

Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Now we know – and this is the genius of America – this was not true when Thomas Jefferson wrote those words. The facts on the ground did not support this. Slavery was widespread;  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.  Women couldn’t own property in most places, they couldn’t vote anywhere. Jews and Muslims and other non-Christians couldn’t vote; they labored under discriminatory laws.

But the point of this great project was to set up something that happened that had never happened before.  A country that was born in the spirit of transformation and revolution challenged every generation since then to make those words ever more true, from the abolitionist movement, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the labor movement, to the civil rights movement that we honor and celebrate tonight.

I have to say, as a public official, not one of these movements was led by a public official.  It all started with activists, agitators like Dr. King who held America to that promise of greater justice and ever greater equality. Elected officials will show up once you get the ball rolling.

Lyndon Johnson was there to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  You wouldn’t find Lyndon Johnson near the civil rights movement of 1934.  But generation after generation has risen to this challenge, and, ladies and gentlemen, it is now on us to face the challenge today of making the words of the Declaration of Independence ever more true.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for us to raise our voices again.  In many ways, this aspiration for equality and justice, reached its peak not too long after Dr. King’s death.  Over the last 30 years, a new, more powerful conservative movement, led by activists -- as all movements are started by activists -- has tried to roll back progress.

I am blessed to be your Attorney General.  I am in the justice business, and I believe that those of us in the justice business in the United States are compelled to raise the issue of equal justice under law whenever we have the opportunity to do so.  I am your lawyer, and I have a few points I want to make in candor, and in celebration, and in paying our respects to Dr. King in the best way that we can, which is to be truthful, and to be strong.

Those of us responsible for building and sustaining the movement he led have not been getting the job done.  Over the last 30 years, the conservatives who want to take back America – now, I am not sure how far back they want to take us,  I thought it was the ‘50s but sometimes I think they’re going for the 1880s -- they have built a powerful movement. I believe we are closer to 1933 than 1963. So, as a student of the law, let me speak to you of two of my heroes as lawyers.

In 1933, Charles Hamilton Houston and his young student, Thurgood Marshall, were working in the NAACP office down on lower Fifth Avenue to design a plan for transformational change.  In a way, we are facing the same challenges they faced in 1933.  We’re not at ’63 yet; we’re not at the point where decades of building and strengthening the civil rights movement was about to come to fruition.  So let’s honestly address the challenges that our generation faces.

As in 1933, we face a series of bad Supreme Court decisions that are no less than a radical reinterpretation of our Constitution. As your lawyer, I have to advise you that just because the Supreme Court issues an opinion, we do not have to agree that it is good law.  Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land for almost 60 years, legalizing segregation.  It took the long-term vision of Charles Houston, who developed the plan, and he wrote a memo saying here’s how we overturn Plessy v. Ferguson back in the ‘30’s, and his student, Thurgood Marshall, argued before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.

We have to follow the law, but we do not have to agree with the law and we can work to change the law.  That is the American way.  Many of you know of the Supreme Court’s horrendous decision in 2010 in Citizens United holding that the wealthy can spend as much as they want to buy elections.  That is bad law, ladies and gentlemen.  It completely undercuts the principle of one person, one vote. We have to follow the law, but I assure you, there are lawyers all over America, and I am one of them, who are working to reverse it, and it’s not going to take us 50 years like it did with Plessy v. Ferguson.

In the spirit of Dr. King and of honoring those who organized and marched, I’m calling on you to raise your voices again, and to march again. Unusual talk from a law enforcement officer, but this is what comes from my heart, ladies and gentlemen. There’s been a lot of talk, especially in the context of the Trayvon Martin case and some other matters, about the need to respect the American system of justice, respect juries, respect the system of justice. But after the Trayvon Martin verdict, millions of Americans felt that the American justice system was not respecting them.  And people feel as though we are now disrespected by our own justice system far too often.

The stand your ground laws that say it’s okay to shoot someone rather than walk away from a fight, that have gotten national notoriety, and a lot of other bad laws on guns come from another bad Supreme Court decision: the 2008 decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller that reversed over 100 years of precedent; again, a radical reinterpretation of the Second Amendment.  These laws, and the enforcement of these laws, disrespect all of us.  Jackie Rowe Adams, who beautifully sang the national anthem for us, she’s lost two children to gun violence and she is here with us.  She is speaking, she is singing, she formed Harlem Mothers Save.  If she can be here, you can be here.  If she can raise her voice, we can all raise our voices.

There’s no community in New York that has supported our work on guns more than this community.  And in New York, we have gone a different way.  We have passed some of the strongest gun laws in the country with the help of some of the folks on this stage.  And I’ve got a deal with every gun show operator in the state. We are the only state in the country where you cannot get out of a gun show without a background check, and the gun show operators like doing background checks, and the rank and file of the NRA is with us too.  They are parents.  They are regular people.  We have to reach across this divide, and we can do something to end the plague of gun violence in our country.

But the efforts we have been making are not enough because the Supreme Court has already authorized state governments to treat us all with disrespect.  That is unacceptable.  Stand your ground laws encourage violence and disrespect.

Speaking of disrespect, let me talk about our work with the big banks, or really on the big banks. Millions of Americans felt disrespected, and rightly so, when a small group of large institutions blew up the American economy.  Ladies and gentlemen, this was not because of a tsunami or a hurricane or a natural disaster.  This was a man-made catastrophe that cost us $7.4 trillion in home equity, and then no one was held accountable.

Well, that wasn’t okay with me, so I held out to make sure that we launched a national investigation, and sure enough, the President in his State of the Union address in 2012 made me the co-chair of a national task force.  You may have seen Attorney General Holder’s remarks today that sent shivers down the backs of those in the suites of power saying we’re not done with you yet.  Do not think that the passage of time means that you are off the hook.  Attorney General Holder and his office and my office and people all across the country are going to insist that there is accountability.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I can do this within the legal system, but believe me, we get from our elected officials what we make them give us. So we need you also out there to make sure we get justice.  Too big to fail and too big to jail is not only anti-American, it is anti-capitalist.  How disrespectful is this?  Every small business you see here is allowed to fail, but then we’re told that these big banks are not allowed to fail?  That’s not equal justice under law, and we will not stand for it.

In the area of labor law, there are people who refuse to respect our minimum wage and prevailing wage laws, who cheat workers out of their own money.  We have busted people.  We are bringing more criminal cases than our labor bureau of the Attorney General’s office has ever brought against people who are in car washes paying people $4 an hour.  We are looking at the fast food industry.  If the fast food workers, the poorest of the working poor, can raise their voices, there’s no excuse for any of us who are doing better to remain silent.

And we’re looking at large employers and the payroll cards that they give out instead of paychecks these days, that are kind of like scrip at the company store, and we know some of them charge workers when they check their balance, and some of them charge workers when they want to get money.  We want to make sure that no one is above the law and that the working men and women of this country are treated with respect no matter how modest their work or their means.

How sad is it that people feel disrespected, and are disrespected, when they try to exercise their right to vote?  This is the bedrock of America, and I am proud of the fact that my office led a multistate effort and wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in an effort to stop the attack on the Voting Rights Act – and, ladies and gentlemen, we lost.  We lost.  The Supreme Court that in Dr. King’s time took courageous stands for justice and equality shamefully struck down the law that he championed, and gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Now, in places with a long history of discrimination, they’re trying to turn back the clock with voter I.D. laws that will keep eligible voters from exercising their rights.  That is unacceptable disrespect.  Any law that makes it easier for people who are eligible to vote to register and vote is a good law.  Any law that makes it harder for people to register and vote is a bad law.

In closing, let me mention: the most taboo subject is no longer race, or even sexual orientation. Somehow or other, the most taboo subject seems to be economic inequality.  Now, I don’t know how that happened or when that happened. I thought the whole point for the United States was that we were all about some level of economic equality.  We don’t guarantee success, but every child deserves a fair shot; everyone must do their fair share; and everyone has to play by the same set of rules.  That is what America is about.

Now, from the 1930s, when my heroes were down on Fifth Avenue crafting the civil rights movement, to the 1970s, we had what the economists call the Great Compression.  We had a compression of the gap between rich and poor.  We were the nation, and we always had been, since the Industrial Revolution, the industrial country with the most equitable distribution of wealth.  And then the turn-back-the-clock crowd came in, and from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush the gap widened, and we are now the industrial democracy with the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the world.

Today’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour -- in 1963 when Dr. King gave his speech, he was fighting for a minimum wage in ’63 that would be worth $13 an hour today.  Come on.  It is time for you to raise your voices.  It is time for us to raise our voices.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a race-neutral economic gap.  Black Americans are still in poverty at a rate three times that of white Americans.  The foreclosure crisis hit the black community harder than any other community.  Blacks and Latinos were being foreclosed on over the last four years at twice the rate of white homeowners.  And through the recovery, this slow recovery we’re in, to frame up the work before us, 93% of the wealth created since the crash has gone to the top 1%.  93% of the wealth created has gone to the top 1%.

These are the results of the laws that are being put into effect by elected officials, but these elected officials are following the force of a movement, and you, ladies and gentlemen, are here tonight to commemorate and celebrate and reanimate a movement on the other side that demands more and more from our elected officials and demands that we get back to the fundamental mission of America.

We can fix this.  We must fix this, because the trajectory of American history is not from Andrew Mellon in the 1920s to David Stockman to Newt Gingrich to George Bush.  It is from Jefferson to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther to Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall to Dr. King to you, to us. Today.

So let us honor those who have gone before.  Let us celebrate the culmination of the great movement-building of that era and let us recommit to taking our part in this quintessential American mission of greater justice and greater equality with each generation.

I thank you for being here, and I know that we will be here together again.  We are here with leaders of great organizations.  We are here with some of the best public officials you can find.  Once again, it all comes  back to you.  You can’t beat a movement with a lawsuit.  You can only beat a movement with another movement.

Are you ready to raise your voices?  Let’s do this together.  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  

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