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'Stay Focused': Rep. James Clyburn Warns Against Undercutting The Movement For Racial Justice

Rep. James Clyburn says he agrees with calls to defund law enforcement but warns against allowing "sloganeering" to undercut the movement for racial justice.

On CNN this week, Clyburn said "nobody is going to defund the police," while advocates are calling for municipalities to reinvest money from large police budgets into schools, housing, mental health and other areas.

Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, fears misconstrued headlines could deter some people from supporting the movement. People need to clearly express what they're fighting for, he says.

His experience with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s demonstrates that words have consequences, he says.

"It was distorted because headlines broke out: burn, baby, burn. It frightened people. It destroyed the movement," he says. "And when you start appealing to people’s fears or even playing into their fears, then you’ve got a problem."

Clyburn says he has been "crying out" to restructure law enforcement and change police policies and procedures for years. Stay focused on these goals, he says.

"Let’s keep the goals in the headline," he says. "Let’s not put headlines out there that would run people away from the cause."

Interview Highlights

On whether big civil rights legislation may come out of this moment as it did in the '60s

"Yes, I do. We need to restore the Voting Rights Act. We know that it was gutted by Chief Justice [John] Roberts. I can’t get excited about the chief justice being on the right side of one issue and the wrong side of another. I don’t know what can be more important than voting. He just gutted it, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It has been neutered. And I don’t see this kind of clamoring for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. That’s what’s going to save us in November. And so I just want us to really stay focused on what we’re all about here, because this is not just about restructuring our judicial system. This is about restructuring our health care system. COVID-19 has revealed some real issues in our health care delivery system that we know has adverse impacts. All of them, more than one, have had adverse impacts against people of color. So let’s just stay focused on all of these things and not let one headline kill us."

On whether enough Republicans would join Democrats for legislation to pass

"Yes, it can. If we stay together, if we do not turn on each other, if we don’t undercut the movement, if we have solidarity in this cause, we can get much of what we need to get. You may not get all of it, but we can come back later and get the rest. But we’ll get none of it if we allow sloganeering to undercut the cause."

On if he supports reparations

"I always say the root word for reparations is repair, repair, repair. We need to repair what’s going on in this country. These fault lines that have been opened up need to be repaired. And to the extent that reparations mean to repair, I am totally supportive. When you start talking about reparations in terms of monetary issues, then you lose me because nobody can put a value on the loss of education. Nobody can put a value on the loss of a life. Let’s repair what’s wrong with America and not allow ourselves to spend the next 150 years studying what a monetary value needs to be assigned to the loss of these freedoms and liberties."

On the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta

"There is a culture existent with police. We know that. We saw in Atlanta with a woman police chief, a Black woman mayor. But the police not just in this shooting, but when they arrested, what, four, five policemen descended upon an automobile with two college students in it. And the yelling — the culture that was on display there was just absolutely insulting. And so the African American woman mayor of Atlanta fired them. And she should have. It’s a culture we are battling here, not the acts of one person.

"All you’ve got to do is look at the comparison between the arrest of Dylann Roof and what happened with the arrest just several nights ago. I mean the attempted arrest several nights ago of this young man in Atlanta. Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in the basement of a church while they were in Bible study. He was arrested two days later and the police, when they arrested him, [they] didn’t snatch him out of the car and slam him into the ground yelling epithets. No, they didn’t keep their guns drawn when they went to his automobile. They reholstered their guns before they ever opened the door to invite him out. He said he was thirsty and they gave him water to drink. He said he was hungry and they took him to a Burger King and then they brought him back to be tried and he has been sentenced to death.

"Compare that to the way we saw these arrests being made in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in Atlanta and snatching students out of an automobile. Come on. That’s what’s going on in this country. A lack of respect that has developed in a culture of policing that takes place all over this country, not just in the South, but all over this country. New York with the chokehold or Atlanta with these students. Minneapolis, with a man over a $20 counterfeit bill. Come on."

On COVID-rates rising in his state of South Carolina

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are not being as careful as they should be. I think a lot has to do with the fact that we do not have the leadership at the national level that we should have. We should not have 50 states doing 50 different things. We ought to have one coordinated effort coming from our national government, led by our president and doing what is in the best interests of this country. That’s what we ought to have. This whole notion of having every state doing its own thing harkens back to states' rights, and that’s where this president’s head is. He is more interested in states' rights than he is in doing right."

On the possibility of another COVID-19 relief package

"Well, remember, the House has just passed a $3 trillion bill called the Heroes Act. It’s out there, it’s passed the House. It’s now over in the Senate. It should happen what the American people need to [do is] weigh in on the leadership of the Senate. Mitch McConnell boasts about running a graveyard, burying good legislation. So there should be another at least $3 trillion that’s sitting there in the Cares Act, $1 trillion of which goes to state and local governments. And that’s got to be done or something has to be done for them by the end of June. Many of them [are] on fiscal years from July 1 to June 30. So by the end of June 30, a lot of cities, a lot of towns and counties are going to be in a bad place."

On whether Joe Biden should accept the presidential nomination in front of a crowd

"I think, first of all, I do offer advice to the campaign on various things, but I don’t [do] it publicly. When I speak with the vice president, I do so in private. And I don’t discuss those conversations in the public. But as far as his acceptance of the nomination, I think he ought to accept it like a leader of this country ought to accept it, utilizing the best practices when dealing with a pandemic. This whole thing of needing a crowd in order to boost your ego. I don’t think the vice president needs that. This vice president or this former vice president and this candidate is demonstrating what needs to be done in order for the soul of America, the goodness of America to be shown through. I’ve said often, and I really believe that most Americans are good people and America is a great nation, but this greatness is under threat because our goodness seems to be dissipating."

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn. (Alvin C. Jacobs for Here & Now)
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn. (Alvin C. Jacobs for Here & Now)