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‘I Believe That Better Is Possible’: A Conversation With Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House Democratic leader, at the National Press Club Headliners Luncheon in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 2019. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Stacey Abrams expects more from our elected leaders, immediately. Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and voting-rights advocate, wants to take on qualified immunity and repeal “stand your ground” laws and for officials to create space for the “unfettered rage that needs to be met and addressed,” not condemned. And Abrams, who is under consideration to be former vice-president Joe Biden’s running mate, also wants you to understand that Donald Trump “does not care about black people and does not care about American values,” she tells New York.

How are you?

You know, it’s a tough moment. Not only with the challenges and the anger and frustration that we see in the streets because of the extrajudicial killings, but COVID has not disappeared. So families are still grappling with unemployment, with illness, with evictions. And so this is a very dark moment. I believe that better is possible.

I’d like to talk about what kind of change you want to see. Let’s start with the coming days and weeks. What do you want to see from current elected leaders? And what are your realistic hopes for them?

What I hope and what I think will happen are in tension. The hope would be that we acknowledge the legitimacy of the pain and the rage and there would be an attempt to take immediate steps to mitigate the sense of frustration and hopelessness. And that can happen at the federal, state, and local levels. It’s having conversations, yes, but it’s also city councils creating citizen review boards. It’s making sure that arrests are occurring in a timely fashion if an officer commits a crime. And it’s recognizing that people don’t often understand the process — why it takes so long, why qualified immunity, why standard operating procedures create different standards for justice in our country when it comes to law enforcement. And at least there can be the beginning of that discussion and evaluation of whether those policies should remain.

I do not believe that qualified immunity should remain as sacrosanct as the Supreme Court has made it. And that’s a conversation that Congress can be having. It can take an act of Congress a very quick time to address the flaws that have been embedded in Section 1983. And so at the federal level we can have that conversation. At the state level, states like Georgia — one of four states that have never passed hate-crimes legislation — can do so. But they can also, when they go back into session in a couple weeks, pass a law to repeal citizen’s-arrest laws. That’s what killed Ahmaud Arbery. They can repeal “stand your ground.” And so it is making sure that at every level of government, elected leaders take concrete steps to give more than lip service to what is happening. They can actually demonstrate: This is what can be done through policy.

What I fear, though, is that we will instead continue to have hand-wringing and mollification, but without real action. And this is something that has happened time and again, which is why we find people to be so resistant to the notion that voting can create change.

As far as specific policy changes go, what was your reaction to Joe Biden’s call for the immediate passage of Representative Hakeem Jeffries’s proposed ban on police choke holds and to stop police forces from receiving military weapons?

Those are critical steps that should be taken. And there are additional bills that are being introduced. Senator Booker, Senator Harris, and Representative Bass have introduced more comprehensive legislation to address structural changes. I know that, in the odd-bedfellows category, both Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court have called for strong revision of qualified immunity, which is this arcane idea that has become one of the shields against accountability for law enforcement.

And this is something I take very seriously. In 2016, I co-sponsored, with Republicans, legislation to reduce some of those shields that existed in grand juries here in Georgia that shielded police officers from accountability by allowing them to testify in front of the grand jury and remain for the testimony of others, to give them unprecedented access to the judicial process that often led to their exoneration. And so that’s why I’m very clear that this is not simply a federal issue. This is a federal, state, and local issue, and we have to be willing to leverage every level of government to make those changes. And they should be made now. These are political bodies that can convene and act now.

Earlier you mentioned people who have become disillusioned about voting. What have you said to those, recently, who say the protests now are necessary specifically because voting doesn’t change enough? In other words, how do you envision the challenge of motivating people to vote in a moment like this?

I acknowledge that voting itself does not bring instant change. That it is part of the democratic process, but it is a vital part of the process. When you vote, you not only elect leaders, you also signal the policy-making that you want to see. And to the extent we see voting as an act that, in and of itself, creates change, that’s not only disingenuous, but it is wrongheaded. Because it presumes that people are accountable simply because you ask. Leaders are accountable because you demand and because the constancy of that demand does not relent until change is made.

But we also have to realize that evil will always dog the heels of good. And so for every good act taken it can be undone unless we stand and remain fervent about the right to vote. That’s why I support the demonstrations, but I think we march in the streets and then we march on ballot boxes.

So do you see the magnitude and intensity of these protests — that come, in many cases, from years and years of suffering — posing a specific opportunity, or challenge, for making this case now?

I think it is incumbent on those who stand for political office, who are in the civic spaces, to connect the dots. To be very clear and very honest: It is insufficient to say, “Go vote,” unless it is, “Go and vote and demand that these things happen.” It is saying that the act of voting does these things, and here is how long it’s going to take. Here are the challenges you’re going to face.

People become disillusioned not simply because things don’t work but because they were given a false notion of how it’s supposed to work. And leadership is about saying, “This is what can happen, but here are the consequences, here are the opportunities, and here are the challenges.”

I think one thing that was so effective about Vice-President Biden’s speech was that he acknowledged that. He acknowledged the longitudinal and complex set of issues that we’re facing. Because what’s being protested on the streets is absolutely the vile nature of the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd. But it’s also the murder of Breonna Taylor, of Ahmaud Arbery. And of a litany of men and women, mostly black, that have occurred over the last decade. But this has been going on since the inception of our nation. And our responsibility is to not abdicate one of the levers of power that we have, which is the vote. It is insufficient in and of itself to bring about wholesale change, but we know as a fact that refusal to use it means that the bad gets worse and the good gets no traction.

So what do you want to see next from Biden?

Winning. We have to win this election. We have to maintain the level of discourse and conversation, and what he does so effectively is humanize the challenge and acknowledge the communities that are hardest hit. This is something that happens to people of color writ large, but it hurts black communities the most. And he has been willing, in this moment, to say that aloud, and to engage those young people who are in the streets. But also folks like my father, who were in the civil-rights movement as teenagers and are still having the same discussions and fighting the same fights.

And so it is necessary that the vice-president and his campaign, and all of us who support him, that we put our actions to the test. That we point out what has been done and what can be done. But it is also necessary that we remind people that in the absence of voting, what we have remains. And that is an abominable disgrace in the White House who does not care about black people and does not care about American values.

When Vice-President Biden spoke with community leaders in Wilmington this week, one was a youth pastor who said she’d like to see him engage young voters in particular about the 1994 crime bill. Would that be productive?

I think that when young people ask for information, it is the responsibility of leaders to provide it, even if they think it has already been discussed. The nature of education, the nature of growth, requires that sometimes we repeat and reimagine how we communicate. And so if that is what young people need, then that is what they should have.

I’d like to back up for a moment to talk about voting again. How do you think about applying the energy and motivation of this moment to the struggle for voting rights and vote by mail in particular in this pandemic?

I began my work as a student activist at Spelman College. I registered my first voter before I was old enough to vote myself or helped them get registered. But at the same time I was a protester, in 1992, when the Rodney King verdict exonerated four police officers who were filmed committing acts of atrocity. I lean into that, and I’ve never abandoned it, and for me it’s the reason I do the work I do, whether I’m in office or as a civic leader. I believe that you harness those moments and connect the dots by never condescending to people about their pain and their anger. By never trying to direct how it should be expressed but always by trying to provide context for how it could be changed.

That’s what I’ve done through Fair Fight and what we’re doing right now. We have sent out hundreds of thousands of text messages throughout the state of Georgia encouraging people to use absentee ballots. It’s also why I’m advocating, on the federal level, for the Heroes Act to pay for elections infrastructure. Because if you want to see this debacle take on even deeper tones of despair, collapse the voting system in November. Take away the one voice. And the only way our nation can meet that moment is if Congress does its job and funds the Heroes Act and makes certain that states can hold elections. Because it is going to work — people are going to see this moment, see what’s happening, and they’re going to show up to the ballot box. They’re going to try to mail in their ballots, they’re going to try to get ballots to mail in. That will not happen if the funding is not made available, and the clock is running out on being able to scale up mail-in voting, so that people can cast their ballots from home and those who have to go in person will be able to vote in person in November.

On the question of how people express their anger, I want to ask about Atlanta. What was your reaction to the mayor’s widely shared speech, in which [Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms] said anyone being destructive was not “honoring a legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement”?

I appreciate what she was trying to communicate. I recognize, however, that for a number of young people, the legacy of the civil-rights movement has never been effectively communicated. There has not been the deep civic work of explaining why this method of nonviolence was necessary, how it was contextualized, and how it was played out. There is this notion of lived memory, that because we know the next generation knows. What they know is that Colin Kaepernick took a knee and he lost his job. What they know is that they have seen video after video of murder gone unpunished. And what they know is that when they demonstrate, when they lift their voices, there is at least some attention to their pain.

And so while my approach has always been synonymous with the work of the civil-rights movement in that nonviolent-protest notion, that’s because that’s how I was raised by two people — my parents — who were teenagers involved in the civil-rights movement. But there is an importance in acknowledging that while our ideal should be nonviolent, peaceful protest, that we have to create space to understand what is happening, whether it is artificially manufactured by white supremacists who are trying to manipulate the moment or by an unfettered rage that needs to be met and addressed. And my belief is that the focus has to be that we lift up voting — yes, as a conduit — but that we do so in a way that is practicable and that is honest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Stacey Abrams Believes That We Need to Act Now