By Tighe Barry
On May 1st, I stood on trial for having “greeted” Jeff Sessions in Congress before the start of his confirmation hearing in January. I was convicted along with my fellow activists, Lenny Bianchi and Desiree Fairooz. We each face up to $2,000 in fines,12 months in prison, or both. The sentencing will take place on June 21st.
On the day of the confirmation hearing, my colleague, Lenny, and I were dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members, with our white hoods and robes designed to highlight Sessions’ racist history. My performance at the hearing was a parody, but the real joke has become the US Justice Department.
To say that I was appalled that Jeff Sessions was about to become the highest legal authority in our country is an understatement. As an American who loves the constitution and the rule of law, I felt compelled to protest the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions, a man whose history of racist rulings and rhetoric has been well documented and exposed to public scrutiny. His nomination and confirmation as Attorney General make a mockery of our judicial system and our constitution in general. Even though Sessions was only confirmed on February 8th of this year, he is already setting back the progress this country has made in the areas of civil rights and race relations. In three short months, our concerns have been resoundingly validated.
On April 18, Sessions dismissed the entire State of Hawai’i as “an island in the Pacific” in an effort to discredit a federal judge’s ruling against the administration’s second so-called Muslim travel ban.
On April 21, he sent letters to nine “sanctuary cities” threatening to cut federal funding unless they complied with federal immigration laws.
On April 22, Attorney General Sessions asserted that the U.S. could pay for the egregious and, by most accounts, ineffective border wall by clawing back over $4 billion in refundable tax credits paid to “mostly Mexicans,” without any factual evidence of the recipients’ ethnicity.
First of all, Hawai’i is our 50th state, co-equal with the other 49 states, and flourishes from its cultural diversity and immigrant populations. It is much more than “an island in the Pacific.” Second, a federal judge ruled that the executive order threatening to pull funding from sanctuary jurisdictions is unconstitutional. And the less said about the ridiculous proposed border wall the better.
An independent judiciary exists as a check on the other branches of government. Jeff Sessions does not appear to comprehend the basic processes of the federal government as set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Rather than paying heed to the protections guaranteed to all citizens, Jeff Sessions is an oligarch of the first order stuck in a colonial and racist mindset in which people of color are less worthy than those of European descent.
These outrageously ignorant statements and actions are just the latest examples of the Attorney General’s disrespect for the racial and cultural diversity of America that he is charged to protect.
My CODEPINK colleague Desiree Fairooz was also on trial. She was accused of disrupting the confirmation hearing by laughing when Senator Richard Shelby asserted that Sessions treats “all Americans equally under the law”. This claim in and of itself is certainly laughable, but the focus should not be on a spontaneous chortle Desiree let out. Instead, it should be on the abominable ways the Trump administration is suffocating our right to dissent.
In the recent past, frivolous charges like these would have been thrown out of court. But, Trump and his cronies in the Justice Department are going out of their way to crackdown on dissent, especially in the form of nonviolent protest. Republican officials are jumping on Trump’s bigoted bandwagon to restrict liberties at the local, state and national level. We see laws being passed in over a dozen states to make protesting a crime, while at the same time, North Dakota has passed a law where running over a protester is not a crime. We see state laws being passed to criminalize campaigns that support Palestinian rights. We see that over 200 people who protested Trump's inauguration have been prosecuted and charged with ridiculous offenses, such as felony rioting charges. We should see our Justice Department prosecuting real criminals, like those responsible for war, not convicting people for laughing in Congress.
Unless we rise up and demand our first amendment right to dissent, then the joke will be on the American people. And that is no laughing matter.
Tighe Barry is an artist and a longtime CODEPINK activist.