1/10/2017 39 Comments
January 11, 2017
This weekend our nation will pause to celebrate the phenomenal life and prophetic legacy of the drum major for justice, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought to make America "One nation...with liberty and justice for all." On that historic summer afternoon in the symbolic shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. King was presented as "the moral leader of our nation" when he narrated the nightmare of oppression before defiantly declaring in the iconic speech, "I have a dream."
In the moral and prophetic tradition of Dr. King and so many others, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Barbara Jordan, who have been courageously eloquent and exemplary of the values of American citizenship challenging our nation to bridge the gap between principle and practice, I oppose the nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III as the next Attorney General for the United States of America. Mr. Sessions is a throwback to the dark days when a former governor of the state of Alabama stood for racism and against justice as his "lips dripped with the words of interposition and nullification." Mr. Sessions has a terrible track record of standing on the wrong side of justice and embodying the principles of the "nightmare" Dr. King eloquently portrayed and lived and died opposing. The nomination of Mr. Sessions as our nation's "top cop" is a frightening proposition to communities of color who have been dehumanized by a policing system that declares Black lives don't matter, given his unapologetic and unfunny comments about the terrorist Ku Klux Klan and his fierce opposition to civil rights organizations, like the NAACP, that have stood for the best of American democracy. It is morally outrageous that Mr. Sessions, given his history of racial insensitivity would preside over a justice system that has often tilted the scales of justice to the disadvantage of the disadvantaged. Scriptures declare that we are to "speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." Instead of defending the poor and needy, Mr. Sessions has used his positions of power to deride, attack, investigate and undermine the opportunities of democracy for communities of color and the historically underserved.
The powerful position of Attorney General of the United States of America is an entrustment to insure that systems and structures in this nation are fair and just for all Americans. Morally, power is used for the benefit of the powerless and vulnerable. The public service record of Mr. Sessions warns us that he is not fit to be a trustee of this pivotal position given his disposition toward the marginalized minorities and those who are outcast as "other."
Can Mr. Sessions be entrusted to protect voting rights, one of the supreme values of democracy? A background check that does not edit out facts reveals that Mr. Sessions led a targeted and invasive investigation of absentee voting ONLY in districts in Alabama where Black voter turnout had experienced an upsurge. No, he cannot be trusted to protect the precious franchise of voting. Mr. Sessions has opposed restoring the voting rights of felons who have paid for their crimes and served their time. Of course, ex-felon disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts African Americans. Mr. Sessions referred to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder as "good news...for the South." This statement was a wink and a nod to racists. He went on to call the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation", arguing that Section 5 (a provision that concerns mostly southern states with long histories of voting rights abuses) should be struck down. In light of recent revelations that our election process is being targeted for foreign influence we must also stand against internal threats. The voter suppressive tactics of Mr. Sessions represents such an internal threat. Lady Justice must not be cloaked in the garb of racism and white supremacy.
Mr. Sessions has been one of the most anti-immigration senators currently serving. He has voted against almost every immigration reform bill introduced in the past twenty years. Jesus said that a nation would be judged based on how it treated strangers or foreigners. He also proposed in 2015 a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison for illegal immigrants entering the country after being deported which could increase the federal prison population by as much as 30%. Mass incarceration, already a stain of injustice on the body politic of America, that has prompted a bipartisan call for prison reform, would be continued and expanded in a Sessions Justice Department. Morally, Mr. Sessions cannot be entrusted to preside over a just and fair immigration policy.
As a minister of the gospel, I recognize that people can change, however Mr. Sessions has done nothing in the 30 years since he was rejected for a federal judgeship in a bipartisan vote that reflects repentance and a change of heart. If he was deemed an inappropriate candidate for a federal judgeship he is even more unfit to serve as our nation's Chief Prosecutor. Before enjoying ceremonies and celebrations that commemorate the legacy of Dr. King as a Dreamer and the Drum Major for justice, I urge you to oppose his nightmare and reject the nomination of Jeff Sessions. The Justice Department must be presided over by one who heeds the words of the prophet Amos, who warned a nation to "Let justice roll down as waters and righteousness as an ever flowing stream." Jeff Sessions, through his policies and statements, has been a metaphorical dam, often blocking the waters of justice and must not be the Attorney General of the United States of America.
Jay Z, with prophetic courage has used his brilliant voice to expose the failed "War on Drugs" as a successful war on the poor, especially the Black poor. The casualties of this war have decimated Black communities, devastated Black families and destroyed Black lives. As a pastor, I have been challenged to minister to some of the casualties of this "war" while calling for an end to this calamitous criminal injustice that has made the Black community a "prisoner of war."
Sunday, April 23, 2006 was one of the defining moments of my ministry. The headline of the local newspaper screamed "Unequal Justice: Black & White." The front page article told the horrible story of a casualty of the war on drugs. A judge had sentenced a white man to probation for killing someone, but had brandished his "tough on crime" credentials by sentencing a Black man, Tyrone Brown, to life for smoking marijuana while he was on probation for committing a $2 robbery! This travesty of justice put the spotlight on one of the strategies of this bogus war: one is treated much better if they are rich, white and guilty than if you're poor, Black and innocent. Jay Z shows that a Black face was made the face of illegal drugs and Black bodies were demonized and criminalized, in the process. Tyrone Brown had returned the wallet and the money but by the time the article was published he had served 17 years of his life sentence as a "POW!" 17 years of his life were stolen by a war on drugs, mass incarceration and a justice system that is criminal and unjust. In a conversation with Tyrone after he was finally released he lamented that the experience with the justice system and prison had robbed him of his dreams and severely attacked his faith. The sad and sinful saga of Tyrone Brown is a tragic metaphor for the mess that is mass incarceration and the evil of the war on drugs.
Black men are underemployed and over incarcerated. Black men in their 20s without a high school diploma (growing up in job and opportunity deserts) are more likely to be captives of this carceral state. Devah Pager, a sociologist at Harvard, has written, "Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation's most marginalized groups, rather it is now a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to manhood." In a nation that values and espouses freedom, incarceration has become a "rite of passage" for criminalized and vilified Black bodies. Black bodies grow up in "war torn" communities discovering that we are the targeted ENEMIES of the state, in OUR country, of this "war!"
A coalition was formed to free Tyrone Brown. Our efforts to liberate him from the internment camp of prison put us on a collision course with a system that is broken. Of course the broken system, like any war machine, has profiteers who financially benefit from this "war." The prison was located in a rural community in Texas that benefitted, in its population count, from the prisoners of "war" but the racial demographic of the prison and rural community were extreme opposites. The rural community is White, but the prisoners are Black and Brown. The rural community received an infusion of tax dollars and jobs because of the prison population adding to the numbers in their area. Contractors and vendors enrich their bottom line because of the procurement opportunities provided by the placement of the concrete cage
Tyrone had been institutionalized, making it necessary to prepare him for re-entry into a different world. Our church, Friendship-West Baptist Church, gave him a job and provided counseling and mentoring. Every time I spoke with Tyrone I sensed he was grateful, but haunted by his experience as a "POW." He shared with me that his experience in prison was worse than any nightmare. There were days when he would break down, emotionally, as the ghosts of his POW experience in prison would try to invade and bedevil his sanity. I would pray with him and for him but my prayers came from a place of heartbreak and anger. I was handcuffed by an overwhelming sense of helplessness trying to minister to one who was broken by his experience as a POW! This was the son of a mother, whose heart was ripped by the trauma and terror of his capture and captivity. He is a father who was separated from his child for $2 and smoking marijuana. He would often shake his head "17 years of my life, gone. For what? $2 and smoking weed. Why did God let it happen?, pastor?" I had no answer for him that would make sense of the hell he experienced. I was ministering to a human being, a child of God, made in the image of God, but God's image and his sense of God had been marred and scarred because he was wounded in this fraudulent war with real and tragic consequences. The American empire, the most powerful military machine on the planet with a history of military invasions and conquests declared "war" on Black bodies in the name of a war on drugs and invaded "Black communities" causing Jay Z to rap "My mind been thru hell/My neighborhood Crown Central/Where cops lock you up rather than trying to defend you."
Words may have escaped me when Tyrone shared with me out of his brokenness, but I do know that America may hear these words in judgment from the God she claims to "trust" in my remixed version:
"I was in prison and you profited from a war on drugs with too many casualties and POWs."
Frederick Douglass Haynes, III
Chair, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
Senior Pastor, Friendship - West Baptist Church
I serve as the Senior Pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and Chairman of the Board of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a nationwide movement of pastors and community activists fighting for spiritual renewal and social justice . I am pleased to represent Friendship-West as well as other churches in Dallas and across the nation whose communities have been targeted, over saturated and economically overwhelmed with predatory payday loan and auto title loan stores.
Several of my colleagues in pastoral ministry and I became alarmed as buildings once occupied by thriving restaurants and bank branches were taken over by payday and auto title loan stores. In the last 10 years, 20 payday and auto title loan shops opened within a five mile radius of our churches. Many of these stores are located next door to each other. A community that was already suffering as a food and job desert was and is being overrun by these predatory stores. It appeared that our under served and under banked community was being intentionally targeted for these high cost, debt trap loans. Our concern was confirmed as we heard from members of our churches and residents in the community who were financially held hostage by these "loans." They confessed that in a situation of desperation they had sought to get a loan that eventually became a trap. They made payments, every other week or monthly, only to get deeper in debt. They were in a financial hole and upon getting a payday or car title loan, received a shovel instead of a rope.
As a pastor, my heart went out to many who were victimized by these predatory practices. Here are some of the unfortunate experiences shared by members of our churches and citizens in our communities. A recently widowed 70 year old grandmother took out a $300 loan. She ended up paying $800. She's always been fiscally responsible but "life happened" and she had to take out this loan. She paid back the loan in full but she had to roll the loan over several times, ultimately paying much more in interest than she had borrowed. I'm representing the 23 year old college student, whose parents are deceased, but he was determined to get his education. He needed to purchase books for his classes and what was a $300 loan ended up costing him over $600. I could go on with other heartbreaking experiences that have been shared with me, but suffice it to say all of them were hoping for a life preserver, but they were given shackles.
Payday loans in Texas carry rates of 500% annualized interest. Car title loans are in the range of 250-300% APR range. The Texas Office of Consumer Credit shows that 61% of balloon payday loans are refinance loans that are taken in order to repay the previous unaffordable loan. Every week car title loans result in 847 car repossessions. A resident of our community shared with me that he had a car title loan that began as a $4000 loan. The car was repossessed when he couldn't escape the debt trap but he had paid $8200 in the process.
A coalition of churches and community groups sought to close the loophole in the state usury law in Texas that allows these businesses to charge over 500% in interest but we were unsuccessful and the shackles disguised as a life preserver remain in place. Undaunted and determined to free our community from these predatory practices we petitioned the city government in Dallas to rein in the destructive dealings of the payday and car title lenders. The Dallas City Council enacted an ordinance that established a limit on the number of times a loan can be rolled over and requires significant principal to be paid down with each renewal. More than 30 municipalities in Texas have followed this model of justice and relief, reflecting the serious concerns held by many Texans about payday and car title loans.
Friendship-West has sought to be a solution to this problem, which is symptomatic of a larger problem of greed and economic exploitation which has produced a widening wealth gap that threatens the fabric and future of our nation, by launching a credit union and partnering with another church in our community that held a federal credit union charter. We now have several years of banking experience and we now offer Liberty Loans, micro-credit to members in need who are able to afford a small dollar loan. We offer loans of up to $500 for terms of 6 months and 28% annual interest, 19% interest for members, with a reasonable application fee. There has not been one defaulted loan and all of those who are benefiting from this loan are paying the loan back on schedule because they can afford it. It's good business. It has empowered the powerless. It is moral.
We have taken a stride toward economic freedom in Dallas, but we still have a long way to go. The City ordinances have been helpful but they can't cap the rates on these burdensome loans. Furthermore, these ordinances in Dallas don't cover all Texans, not to mention citizens throughout our country who find themselves trapped in under served communities with limited opportunities that are preyed upon and inundated with payday and car title loans as their only options.
I maintain that it is vitally important for this committee to be morally outraged and attend to the devastating harm caused by payday and car title lenders who have preyed upon the vulnerable and in the process they have financially trapped individuals, stressed families while economically crippling communities. This is immoral and an affront to faith that demands that we protect "the least of these" and stand against all forms of usury.
Nationally, in states that permit these loans, payday loans average 322% APR, typically due two weeks later, while auto title loans average 300% APR, usually due in one month. The bait is marketed as a life saver but it is a debt trap. We can't excuse this as the practice of a few bad apples who are greedy; this is the industry standard. Three-fourths of all payday loans are from borrowers with more than 10 loans per year. They are trapped in an economic snare. The average payday borrower spends seven months of the year trapped in these loans that are supposed to be for two weeks. The downward cycle of debt has long term economic harm. Payday borrowers are more likely to lose their checking account due to overdrafts, fall behind on medical and other expenses, and even file bankruptcy. This is immoral and unacceptable. To respond to a desperate person and give them a loan that takes them from bad to worse is a slap in the face to human decency and dignity.
I am especially appalled by the harm done to communities of color that have been historically exploited and suffer from a lack of economic opportunity. Payday loan borrowers are disproportionately African-American. The research reveals, sadly, that payday lenders target these disadvantaged communities. This predatory industry adds to the problem of the racial wealth gap in this nation. I recognize that some have been helped by this industry but they are the exceptions. Too many are imprisoned. If there's not justice for all we don't have justice at all.
The CFPB's proposal protects against loan rollovers that perpetuate the debt trap. These protections are desperately needed because of the very nature of payday and car title loans. Lenders have direct access to the borrower's checking account allowing the lender to be repaid without regard for other responsibilities the borrower may have. This is a depraved business model that cannot go on.
We want access to credit, but it must be quality credit. Anything less adds to the stress of the desperate and needy. Well-crafted and compassionate legislation can weed out the predators and enable more responsible and reputable lenders to thrive while rendering a helpful service to communities in need. We must end the debt traps, protect the vulnerable and eliminate the predators so that all can experience "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If not, this nation may stand before the eternal bar of justice only to hear Jesus say, "I was hungry, but you gave me a payday loan..."
All forms of human oppression must be dismantled. All people and especially the poor have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness without institutional barriers. Racism, sexism, discrimination against disabled people, classism and imperialism must be addressed and eliminated if the poor are to escape impoverishment.
The poor have a right to a public policy agenda that invests in human beings. To this end, we are calling for the creation of “Communities of Opportunity” where there has been historic neglect and economic apartheid. These “communities of opportunity” should eliminate all forms of economic predators that preclude economic development. Federal, state and local resources should be made available to community groups and efforts that create economic opportunity in these communities. Partnerships between corporate and community based groups that open doors of opportunity and invest in the “least of these” should be encouraged and rewarded. Communities of Opportunity will necessitate a comprehensive economic policy on the National, state and local levels which places the interests of people in need over the interests of corporate greed. Government must regulate corporations and end the transfer of jobs out of the country. Legislation must be passed that forbids the closing of plants and business headquarters without a public hearing and insures compensation for those who suffer job loss.
One in every six children in America is a victim of poverty. One in three children of color is growing up in poverty. Every child should have access to quality health care, education, and housing and live in a safe community.
All people should have “equal protection under the law” and the poor must be protected from injustice in the legal system. The poor are often warehoused in the nation’s prison industrial complex, which has become the 21st century’s version of slavery. The poor must be guaranteed competent representation and equal justice. The poor must be assured of justice in civil and criminal courts.
The poor must be protected from state sponsored terrorism in the form of police brutality. The poor have a right to be protected and served, as opposed to being abused and exploited. We call for unequivocal civilian control of our neighborhoods and citizen review boards with the power to discipline police abuse and misconduct. A community partnership for the elimination of crime and violence in poor communities must be established between the police and community based groups.
The poor should have the right to full employment and a guaranteed income that enables them to rise above the poverty level. We call for government investment in community-based and cooperating partnerships that generate jobs. Wherever there are areas of concentrated unemployment there must be a concentrated effort to bring jobs and opportunity.
The poor should not be victimized by inequality of opportunity. Pay equity for women and people of color must be legislated. Women must be legally protected from sexual harassment and abuse on the job and domestic violence.
We believe in the liberation and empowerment of oppressed people all over the world. Dr. King maintained that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” WE demand that the foreign policy of the United States is characterized by justice and freedom. This policy must insure that economic exploitation of impoverished nations is eliminated. This is moral bill of rights, tooted in faith as Christians. The implementation of this bill of rights will move us closer to being” one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”