It boggles the mind that an African American organization whose membership is 50 percent Democrats could honor President Donald Trump for criminal justice reform. But that is what the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center did last Friday when it awarded him its Bipartisan Justice Award at its Second Step Presidential Justice Forum. To make matters worse, the group chose historically black Bennet College in Charlestown, S.C., as the venue and made available only 10 tickets for students.
Trump was honored, the center said, for signing the First Step bill into law, a positive step that cleared the way for thousands of federal prisoners to be released and set the stage for some criminal justice reform. But, as Eugene Scott noted in the Washington Post back in June, the First Step initiative was actually started during the Obama administration but was stalled by the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
Trump spent more than $80,000 on full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for reinstatement of the death penalty and applying it to four African American and one Latino teenagers falsely charged with the 1989 brutal sexual assault of a jogger in the city’s Central Park. The suspects, who maintained they were coerced into confessing, spent years in prison but they were eventually exonerated and awarded $41 million in compensation. Up to this June, 30 years later, Trump was still insisting, the Washington Post reported, that he was right to call for their execution, saying, “You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt… Some of the prosecutors think the city should never have settled that case and we’ll leave it at that.”
There is more. Soon after Trump took office, his then Attorney General Jeff Sessions set about reversing almost all policies which his predecessor, Barack Obama, implemented. These included scaling back Justice Department investigation of the police for abuse and racism and charging drug offenders facing minor counts with the maximum force of the law. Also at a time of Black Lives Matter, Trump resumed giving surplus military equipment to law enforcement. That militarization of the police began in the 1990s and resulted in the transfer of military equipment worth $5 billion, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles, bayonets, explosives, battering rams, riot helmets and shields. The Obama administration had begun curtailing this program, resulting in 126 tracked armor vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets being returned to the military. Of the 10 leading Democratic presidential candidates invited to speak at the forum, California Senator Kamala Harris, one of two African Americans in the race, was most vocal in criticizing the award and quite appropriately refused to attend. “Donald Trump is a lawless president,” Harris said. “Not only does he circumvent the laws of our country and the principles of our Constitution but there is nothing in his career that is about justice, for justice or in celebration of justice.”
Harris accused Trump of having a history of “decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk.”
The college stepped in and did the right thing, dropping the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center as a forum sponsor and opening the remaining sessions to all Bennett students. Harris then changed her mind and attended. New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, the other African American candidate, criticized the center for providing the president with “a platform unchecked for close to an hour” which allowed him “to create some illusion of support from this community when, in fact, he excluded it.”
How could the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center decide to present the award to Trump, given his dismal record on criminal justice? The organization says it was formed in March 2015 by attorney Ashley D. Bell. – whom the White House appointed in February 2018 as regional director of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Southeast region. The inaugural membership of 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats has grown to more than 80 and now includes, the organizations says, “mayors, city, county and state officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys, political strategists, community leaders, activists, police chiefs and other law enforcement executives.” Its leadership comprises Bell, with another attorney, Candice S. Petty, as executive director. There is a board of directors and an advisory board, with Democrat Tishaura Jones and Republican Rufus Montgomery as co-chairpersons.
With that sort of membership, how could the organization not know that an award for criminal justice reform would be inappropriate for Trump? If it wanted to honor a criminal justice champion, there are many around with impeccable credentials, notably Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Either the leadership was unaware of Trump’s, which would be highly unlikely, or they used the event at Bennett College to provide a platform for the president to make a pitch to African Americans as he campaigns for reelection while facing a Congressional impeachment inquiry into whether he has abused his power. “I have my own experience, you know that,” Trump told the forum in his one-hour speech. “You see what’s going on with the witch hunt.”