Tom Perez. Sean Gallup / Getty Images Staff
Many of the high-profile attendees at the National Action Network annual convention in New York on Wednesday were the same that appeared at the convention last year.
Much as he did last year, host Al Sharpton pointed out members of his family, famous radio hosts, and parents of the victims of gun violence.
But one year later, the environment has changed.
In his opening remarks, Sharpton recalled what black Americans could do — when President Barack Obama was in office — when faced with discriminatory voting laws and instances of apparent racially biased policing.
“We could say we were going to the Justice Department, we were going national,” Sharpton said. “That does not seem like an option that will bear fruit.”
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez framed the situation more bluntly.
“I miss Barack Obama,” Perez said in the opening of his speech.
With Obama’s former attorney general and deputy attorney general for civil rights onstage, the opening speeches in midtown Manhattan were colored by the contrast between Obama-era criminal justice and voting policies and the new administration’s tough-on-crime promises and support for more restrictive voting laws.
Many prominent African-American political figures have voiced concern that the new administration will not take an aggressive stance on prosecuting potential civil-rights violations. Activists have criticized President Donald Trump’s past birther crusade against Obama, bizarre accusations against the exonerated “Central Park 5,” and selection of Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney despite his failed prosecution of a 1985 voter fraud case against black civil-rights activists.
Top Trump allies have praised the new administration’s planned shifts.
Speaking at an Intelligence Squared debate in Manhattan on Monday, top Trump surrogate and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach praised Sessions, saying the DOJ has “a lot of ideologically driven attorneys in the civil-rights division, especially.”
During the 2016 election, African-American voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton, who addressed the conference last year while pledging to push for criminal justice reform and gun control.
Clinton’s name wasn’t mentioned by NAN’s keynote speakers on the first day of the event. They focused instead on resisting Trump through grassroots action, legal opposition, and voter mobilization to win back state and local offices, where Democrats have seen record losses over the past eight years.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at length about the need to fight restrictive voter ID laws that critics say have unfairly attempted to curb minority voting.
“Let’s signal to the world that in America today, the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on,” Holder said. “Generations before us did not fail in that quest. Now it is our time.”
Holder mocked Trump’s claim that the 2016 election was “rigged,” saying the president’s unfounded assertion that 3 million to 5 million people voted against him in the 2016 election laid the groundwork for restrictive voting laws.
“With undoubtedly false claims that 3 to 5 million voted illegally in the last election, a predicate has been laid for further voter suppression efforts,” Holder said.
Other speakers at the event pledged to take up the mantle where the Department of Justice stood down and wage aggressive legal battles against any perceived discrimination.
Referring to Sessions as the nation’s “so-called attorney general,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman blasted Sessions’ dismissal of Hawaii as an “island in the Pacific” after a Hawaii judge blocked Trump’s proposed travel ban.
Schneiderman touted his own legal actions against Trump University last year, telling the crowd to applause that the sole silver lining was that activists at the conference could confront discrimination head-on.
“The difference now is that the lines are more clearly drawn,” Schneiderman said. “What was once hidden and said in whispers is now out in the open for all to see.”
He added: “We should take this conference as the chance to rise … from the chaos of protest and resistance to a movement of social equality, which is what this will become.”