Eric Holder announced Thursday his decision to resign as Attorney General of Obama’s administration. His tenure has left a contradictory legacy, which in many ways mirrors that of Obama’s presidency. Both men believe in a strong federal state that will enforce civil rights. However, the corollary of this belief is that the state has to be kept strong by purging dissidents – whistleblowers like Edward Snowden from within and “terrorists” from without.
After Holder’s announcement, the NAACP called him “one of the finest attorneys general in the nation’s history,” while the ACLU on the other hand cited his record of approving the legality of drone killings of US citizens, approving the NSA’s mass surveillance program, failing to prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture, instead prosecuting whistleblowers and journalists.
His main achievements have been in the field of criminal justice policy: reforming federal drug law sentencing minimums, which disproportionately impacted African Americans, finding ways to sue states for passing discriminatory voter-ID laws even after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, and criticizing “stand your ground” laws after Trayvon Martin’s killing. He met personally with Ferguson residents and activists to talk about racial profiling, and pressured the police department to stop officers wearing bracelets bearing the message “I am Darren Wilson,” the officer who shot Michael Brown.
Holder earned the enmity of Republican politicians for reinvigorating the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. He challenged them soon after Obama’s inauguration: “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” he said. His bête noire, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, who had Congress declare him to be in contempt over the ill-fated “Operation Fast and Furious,” described Holder as the “most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history … needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement.” Surely there must be a market for t-shirts with the slogan: “I am in contempt of Darell Issa.”
The two radically different sides of his record were discussed in an important debate on Democracy Now: Robert Weissman of Public Citizen criticized his failure to prosecute any of the Wall Street executives responsible for the banking crash of 2008 and subsequent recession. The Justice Department “decided not to criminally prosecute them, on the grounds that they were too big to fail, or, as it became known, too big to jail. Essentially, a decision was taken that if you are a financial institution and you become big enough and powerful enough, you are above the criminal law.”
Sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson responded that Holder’s reforms of the justice system far outweighed his failure to prosecute bank criminals, because of the disproportionate imprisonment of the poor and minorities. He accused the left of neglecting “what is important to the masses and millions of people who were never under the purview even of the white left to be concerned about some of the issues that African-American people and Latino people … have been concerned about.”
Dyson argued that the left also underestimated the importance of racial politics in impeding black people in government taking an aggressive posture toward the banks. Since there had been uproar when Obama mildly criticized police who arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates, “in its real political context,” he said, “what do you think will happen then if Eric Holder, as the first African-American attorney general, is seen to be going after mostly white CEOs and other corporate titans within the economic infrastructure? … To ask him to … overcome an entire history of structural and perceptual inequalities that exist, I think is just asking too much.”
The flaw in Dyson’s argument is that he, like Obama and Holden, identifies power with the political establishment and not popular sovereignty. The uproar over the Skip Gates affair came entirely from within this establishment and its attendant media, not from the social movement that elected Obama precisely in order to settle accounts with the banks that defunded thousands of minority communities with subprime loans. It was Obama’s belief that banks are the “lifeblood of the economy” that led him to support the bank bailout, not his aversion to the headline “Nation’s First Black President Allows Financial Institutions to Fail.” Both he and Holder share an ideology that holds the rich must be allowed to continue enriching themselves for the poor to have equal rights – if not equal wealth.
The Occupy movement was in many ways a continuation of the movement that elected Obama, and far from having vanished, has splintered into a thousand community-based activist groups which are actively fighting on issues of concern to African Americans and Latinos, from housing to cancellation of subprime loans to low wages and lack of jobs.
Holder oversaw and encouraged the militarization of the nation’s police forces, which became concrete and visible in Ferguson. Security and constitutional rights issues may seem removed from the daily problems of the poor and minorities, but the build-up of resources in the name of Homeland Security is creating a force to suppress domestic resistance and preventing it from getting traction in poor communities.
Holder’s role model as Attorney General was Robert Kennedy – and in this lies the key to the contradictions in his record. He sees civil rights as something administered to the poor by an enlightened elite, relying on the federal state rather than social movements to enforce rights and ameliorate the excesses of a capitalist economy. But to be able to successfully do that, from this point of view, the elite and state must be protected by suppressing opponents and whistleblowers who could uncover the inner deliberations of the political class.
It was the determined protests by Ferguson residents that brought Holder to the city and made him push for federal intervention to reform the police department. That fight is by no means over, and looks set to continue until officer Darren Wilson is charged with Michael Brown’s killing. Justice under the law is one thing, but real social justice needs a much bigger movement to achieve it. The good news is that signs of such an inclusive and pluralist movement are present in the Fight for 15 and other struggles in America today.
[UPDATE] Anticipating Holder’s retirement, Cornel West told Salon in August that Obama sent Holder to Ferguson because he was “on his way out.” “He’s concerned about his legacy as if he’s somehow been swinging for black folk ever since he’s been in there,” he said. “That’s a lie … He’s made a couple of gestures in regards to the New Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex, but that’s just lately, on his way out. He was there for six years and didn’t do nothing.” When Ferguson residents reacted to arbitrary police power, “what happens is you got Eric Holder going in trying to create the calm. But you also got Al Sharpton. And when you say the name Al Sharpton, the word integrity does not come to mind. So you got low-quality black leadership. Al Sharpton is who? He’s a cheerleader for Obama.”