Carole Levine January 5, 2022
It’s 2022! Over the last week, we have been bombarded with year-end reviews of 2021, and endless solicitations for year-end donations to charities and political campaigns. For many of us, we have also toyed with the question of do I, or don’t I make some New Year’s Resolutions that I will inevitably break, (especially the ones about losing weight). But no matter what one decides about resolutions or the significance one places on them, reflecting on the past year has value.
2021 was a year in which we witnessed events that shocked, frightened, and angered us. We lived through moments that caused us to hold our breath and then sigh in relief (sort of) when they passed. There were times that made us lose faith in government and also made us feel that there still might be hope for government; events that made us feel like we were 2nd class citizens; moments that made us see People of Color elevated to roles they should always have had; times that destroyed our trust in politicians; and other times that made us want to work harder to ensure voting rights and women’s rights.
This was a year that left us feeling we had just gotten off a roller coaster. This was a year in which one might rightly ask: “Is our cup half full? Or half empty?”
For many, moving on to the next year was eagerly anticipated as 2021 was a year they wished to “leave behind.” But for most of us, the events and actions of 2021 will remain with us, perhaps well beyond the coming year as the ramifications of 2021’s laws, appointments and actions carry forward into this year and beyond.
This is not my review of 2021, but more a look at some of those key events that have jumped out of the pile because, to me, they were most meaningful as is the follow up to them.
Let’s start with the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. So many of us watched in horror and dismay as the seat of our federal government was overrun by terrorists seeking to disrupt the ceremonial tallying of electoral college votes. We viewed the break-in of the Capitol by armed terrorists wearing MAGNA hats and carrying Confederate flags and Nazi symbols. We saw the Capitol Police ask for help from the Department of Defense and the President and not receive it. We saw our elected leaders and their staff wearing gas masks being led to “safe” rooms as their chambers and offices were ransacked by these invaders. And yet, hours later, the Senate and House reconvened to do what they intended to do, certifying the election of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President of the United States, in the early morning hours. It was a frightening day and an auspicious beginning for 2021.
Since January 6th, federal prosecutors have charged more than 727 with crimes related to that insurrection. The FBI has sought the help of the public to identify people who participated in what has been called one of the most documented crimes in U.S. history. The numbers charged will continue to grow as more people are identified. In addition, the House of Representatives narrowly voted to create a Commission to investigate the events of and leading up to January 6th. The Commission includes two Republicans, making it a bi-partisan Commission. The work of this Commission may result in recommendations of criminal charges against members of the Trump administration who may have helped to orchestrate this attack. The former President could be included. This began our last year and carries over into the next one.
The courts and our nation’s legal system had 2021 moments we should not lose sight of. High on this list are two trials of white police officers who killed black men. One as the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, for the murder of George Floyd, a Black man. Where to begin? Perhaps one needs to first acknowledge the bravery of young 17 year old, Darnella Frazier, who saw what was happening and took out her cell phone and videotaped Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck for over 7 minutes. That video outraged the nation and became the key evidence in the trial and the conviction of Chauvin on all counts he faced. A second Minneapolis former police officer, Kim Potter, a white woman, was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a young Black man, Daunte Wright, during a traffic stop when she drew her gun instead of her taser. Again, we waited with bated breath on both of these trails.
In rural Brunswick, Georgia, three white men were charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging through their neighborhood. All three were convicted of multiple counts of murder in a trial that almost never happened as “friends” of those convicted tried to shield them from prosecution. “The jury system works in this country. And when you present the truth to people and they see it, they will do the right thing.” Said prosecutor Linda Dunikoski.
And there’s more good news on the justice front. Since taking office, President Biden has been making nominations to fill vacancies in federal judicial court. You might recall that these are lifetime appointments. During his Presidency, Donald Trump filled 245 judicial seats (including three Supreme Court seats) with mostly young, white, male prosecutors and corporate lawyers. Writing for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern points to the two defining features of President Biden’s push to remake the federal judiciary: speed and diversity. Nearly 75 percent of Biden’s judicial nominees are women, and nearly 65 percent are people of color. And 40 of these have been confirmed in his first year, 11 of whom now sit on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals. That is the most since President Ronald Reagan. And their backgrounds are diverse. Mark Joseph Stern points this out: “He has nominated 21 public defenders, 14 civil rights attorneys, 10 plaintiff-side lawyers, three former legal aid lawyers, three consumer protection lawyers, and one labor lawyer. Already, he has doubled the number of former public defenders on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Several of his nominees previously fought for voting rights (Myrna Pérez and Dale Ho), marriage equality (Beth Robinson), and death row inmates (Holly Thomas).” This is truly a huge change and gives hope to those who will find themselves in front of these jurists.
As Stern concluded: “The most important takeaway from this past year of judicial confirmations may be this: After years of conciliation and unilateral disarmament, Democrats are finally playing hardball with the courts.”
But, as we say, there’s more! We need to also look at what is happening with issues of equity and equal rights for all people in this country.
We are witnessing a fissure and division between states and the federal government and between people and elected officials and between our two main political parties that may not easily be put back together. The lack of trust and confidence among citizens for those who hold public office is frightening. Polls show that since 2007, the share of Americans saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%. This does not bode well for bringing our leaders together to work in a bipartisan fashion for the greater good. If no one trusts them, then why should they bother to even pretend to care about working across party lines. The Republican Party has no platform. They seem to feel having common positions and values is not necessary as people will align with them as the party of “opposition” to the “liberal, socialist” values of the Democrats.
The backlash to the 2020 election was seen and felt at both the federal and the state level. Data from the Brennan Center for Justice show that in 2021, 19 states enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans, particularly People of Color, to vote. At the same time, at least 25 states enacted 62 laws that will expand voting access. That all sounds like the good guys win and it balances out. But, not if you look deeper. The states that expanded voting access already have accessible voting and those passing restrictions, you guessed it, are the ones where voting is already hard and now it’s harder.
GOP-led state legislatures in multiple states are also gerrymandered state and federal maps to ensure that they will remain in control of government for years to come. Control of state courts, where such actions might be appealed, is also part of these plans, so the options for relief from these state situations seem few and far between. One, however, lies at the federal level, in the passage of the two federal voting rights bills (The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and The Freedom to Vote Act), both of which have passed the House and are entangled in the Senate’s inability to move around the filibuster on this issue. If the Senate could find a way to make that happen and move these bills forward, they would take precedence over these state laws and restore voting integrity to all people in all states. But, again, the question of is this possible in these times and with this leadership hovers over any determination of optimism or pessimism.
And no retrospective on 2021 would be complete without a reference to women’s reproductive freedom. Even knowing that the Supreme Court would hear a case from Mississippi (Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs) on a 15-week abortion ban on December 1st, the Texas State Legislature passed a 6-week ban with an “enforcement” means that bypassed all normal judicial and governmental options and allowed for vigilante enforcement of the law. This has created a situation that essentially has banned abortion in Texas, and no court has intervened (including the Supreme Court) to preserve women’s rights in that state. Other state legislatures are eyeing this law and we may see copycats in 2022. It was also clear from the Supreme Court hearing on Jackson v. Dobbs that abortion rights are not going to emerge unscathed from this Supreme Court. For those of us who have worked for most of our lives to uphold reproductive freedom, 2021 was not a good year.
As one ponders the future and what will happen in these topsy, turvy times, it truly is simpler to just say the cup is neither half full, nor is it half empty. It depends. If having options and seeing that some things are going well is enough to raise a smile and bring hope, then perhaps it is half full. If watching the impact of disinformation campaigns on healthcare and school curriculum is disheartening to you and you find that you cannot get a rational word in edgewise, then, perhaps, the cup is half empty. Predicting the future is never a reliable business. Let’s hope that your cup is half full of something that, for the sake of others, it can be refilled and refreshed for a future that will leave no one thirsty. As for me, I think my cup is in need of refilling…