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In the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a key witness for the defense was the former Maryland chief medical examiner, Dr. David Fowler, who contradicted most other expert witnesses in the trial and suggested heart trouble and other issues, not the police restraint, caused George Floyd's death. The decision by Chauvin's legal team to rely on Fowler's testimony shocked many in Maryland, where he is being sued by the family of 19-year-old Anton Black, an African American teenager from Maryland who died in 2018 after he was electrocuted with a Taser, pinned in a prone position and crushed under the weight of three white police officers and a white civilian as he struggled to breathe and lost consciousness. After an autopsy, Dr. Fowler ruled Black's death an accident, and no one was charged with a crime. The wrongful death lawsuit says Dr. Fowler delayed release of an autopsy report for months and covered up police responsibility for Black's death. Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, says there is "a pattern of conduct in Maryland involving police violence against Black people that then are characterized as anything other than homicides." We also speak with Richard Potter, the founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black and president of the Talbot County branch of the NAACP, who says officials in Anton Black's case spent months dragging their feet after the teenager's death. "Nobody was giving the family any information in terms of a cause of death," he says.
Liberty University's Standing for Freedom Center—until recently known as the Falkirk Center—announced its new class of fellows Thursday, making it clear that the organization may have a new name but it has not abandoned its purpose of promoting the religious right's "biblical worldview" in culture and public policy. The new fellows are former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Arkansas Governor and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, anti-abortion rights activist Abby Johnson, and brother anti-LGBTQ culture warrior duo David and Jason Benham.
Earlier this year, the university ditched the Falkirk name, presumably to distance the center from its disgraced co-founder and former president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. It has also said goodbye to its earlier crop of fellows, which included Falkirk Center co-founder Charlie Kirk, president of right-wing youth organization Turning Point USA; Jenna Ellis, a Trump attorney who now hosts her own TV show, unironically called "Just the Truth"; pundit, conspiracy theorist, and so-called Stop the Steal activist Eric Metaxas; and Steve Bannon acolyte and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka.
Executive Director Ryan Helfenbein remains in place. As Right Wing Watch noted in December, when the center celebrated its first anniversary, Helfenbein touted the organization's aggressive posture, saying, "We don't just want to be an organization that barks; we want to be an organization that bites." The center bragged that it had "consistently encouraged churches and pastors to defy" pandemic-related "lockdown orders." Among the center's first-year accomplishments was "Get Louder," a "faith summit" held last September, which included Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar on a panel moderated by Metaxas.
The Standing for Freedom Center's new fellows have the credentials one would expect for a religious-right center that aims to bite:
Mike Pompeo used his position as secretary of state to promote the religious right's agenda at home and abroad. He created the Commission on Unalienable Rights—which has been repudiated by the Biden administration—to create justification for a narrow view of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. As secretary of state, Pompeo opened doors in other countries for a Bible study ministry that teaches public officials that the Bible requires them to back right-wing social, economic, environmental, and criminal justice policies. Pompeo and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar worked to create a new global "pro-family" coalition of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice regimes and to celebrate governmental enforcement of "traditional" religious values on gender, sexuality, and family. Pompeo is a longtime religious-right favorite who, as a member of Congress, promoted Christian nationalism and associated with anti-Muslim activists. Axios reported this week that Pompeo is "pouring money" into a new PAC called Champion American Values in apparent preparation for a 2024 presidential run. Update: "Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violated federal ethics rules governing the use of taxpayer-funded resources when he and his wife, Susan, asked State Department employees to carry out tasks for their personal benefit more than 100 times, a government watchdog has determined," Politico reported Friday.
Mike Huckabee, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2016, has remained active in religious-right politics since turning to punditry after his failed 2016 campaign. The former Arkansas governor is the honorary chairman of the religious-right get-out-the-vote operation My Faith Votes, which was active in the 2020 elections, including the Georgia Senate runoffs. Huckabee spoke at the Falkirk "Get Louder" summit last year and appeared on an Intercessors for America call in September, where he warned that if conservative Christians didn't turn out to vote, the government would force churches to shut down. He also appeared in "Trump 2024: The World After Trump," a religious-right "documentary" that promoted Trump's reelection. Last year, Huckabee said, "Redefining gender and sexual identity is the 'greatest threat' to the moral fiber of America," and blamed the existence of transgender people on Christian churches' failure to teach a "biblical standard of maleness and femaleness." Huckabee has railed against the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling and has claimed that the president could criminalize abortion without a Supreme Court decision or constitutional amendment. Huckabee's daughter, former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is running to follow in her father's footsteps and become the next governor of Arkansas.
Abby Johnson is an anti-abortion rights activist who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention and participated in the so-called Stop the Steal campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Johnson has become a religious-right superstar with her disputed story—dramatized in the movie "Unplanned"—about having worked for Planned Parenthood before having an epiphany about abortion. The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Johnson spoke at the D.C. rally at which Stop the Steal's Ali Alexander led cheers of "Victory or Death!" Johnson told the crowd she was there "to defend the most pro-life president we have ever had in the history of the United States." She said that she is tired of "compromise," which she said "has led to our houses of worship being unconstitutionally closed for months and months." In her speech at the Jan. 5 rally, she shamed American Christians for not doing more to shut down clinics that perform abortions, saying, "It is time, patriots, to stop worrying about offending your neighbor and start worrying offending the heart of God." She also targeted COVID-19 vaccine research, saying, "Shame on us for accepting and peddling vaccines that were produced on the back of aborted babies." And she exhorted, "It's time to rise up. It is time to fight back. It is time to be bold. Enough! Enough of these cowardly leaders!" Johnson once said it would be "smart" for police to racially profile her adopted biracial son because "statistically, my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons."
David and Jason Benham. The Benham brothers became religious-right folk heroes and martyrs to "political correctness" in 2014 when HGTV canceled plans for a television show starring the duo after Right Wing Watch and others reported on their anti-LGBTQ activities. The brothers, who have repeatedly portrayed the "homosexual agenda" as aligned with Satan, were actively involved in pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation in North Carolina in 2016; they had earlier called for the Charlotte city government to deny permits for LGBTQ pride events and organized an anti-gay prayer rally when the Democratic National Convention was held there. The brothers are also active opponents of reproductive choice. In 2017, a month before they appeared at the Values Voter Summit—not for the first time—they said that hurricanes striking the U.S. were a warning for the country to repent for "breaching the boundaries of God" on gender, sexuality, and marriage. That summer, they declared, "Discrimination against gay people simply does not exist." Earlier that year, the pair said they would skip the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Lady Gaga, warning, "The vine of Sodom has pierced and penetrated our nation at one of the biggest sporting events of the year." The Benhams initially backed Sen. Ted Cruz for president in 2016 and joined a campaign advisory council that recommended that a President Cruz roll back federal job protections for LGBTQ people. In 2015, David Benham spoke at the supposedly "nonpolitical" prayer rally organized by Christian nationalist political operative David Lane and railed against the LGBTQ movement and the church for not doing enough to stop it.
In other news, on Thursday, Liberty sued Falwell for $10 million, alleging that he "withheld scandalous and potentially damaging information from Liberty's board of trustees while negotiating a generous new contract for himself in 2019 under false pretenses," the New York Times reported. The lawsuit also alleges that Falwell failed to disclose his "personal impairment by alcohol."
Corporate America is taking a stand against new voting restrictions around the country, boycotting states that imposed harsh new laws and speaking out against proposed limits in others. But many top corporate political donors who have touted their commitments to racial equity and diversity have also funded the Republican lawmakers who are pushing bills aimed at making it more difficult to vote.
Three of the top five corporate donors to state lawmakers in Texas promoted their commitments to racial justice — but have also donated $493,000 to state senators who sponsored Senate Bill 7. That legislation would limit early voting and absentee voting while empowering partisan poll watchers and clearly targets Houston, the state's densest population center, where a majority of voters are people of color, according to a new report from the left-leaning government watchdog Accountable.US.
Top corporate donors in Arizona, including defense contracting giant Raytheon, which made a $25 million commitment to help "racially and ethnically marginalized communities," have donated $76,647 to three sponsors of state Senate bills that would limit mail-in voting and purge residents from voter rolls, as the state tilts blue as a result of quickly changing demographics.
Four of the top five corporate donors in Florida, including Disney, have contributed more than $230,000 to state legislators behind bills that would restrict mail-in voting and make it a crime to give water or food to voters in long lines — despite vowing their support for inclusion, racial equity and Black Lives Matter.
The effect these laws may have on voter turnout is not entirely clear, but the bills — which are among more than 360 introduced across the country in response to former President Trump's and his allies' baseless claims of election fraud — will inherently make it more difficult to vote. Some, like many of Trump's election lawsuits, appear directly targeted at areas with large numbers of voters of color. One Black Texas pastor has condemned the Texas legislation as Jim Crow "in a tuxedo."
"These corporations tout commitments to diversity and racial equity, then they turn around and donate thousands to lawmakers responsible for stripping voting rights away from Black and brown Americans," Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig said in a statement to Salon. "As these states actively attempt to suppress voter participation, corporations need to live up to their values and disavow racist attacks on our democracy."
Utility firms Exelon Corp. and Oncor and the tax firm Ryan LLC, the three biggest corporate donors in Texas behind Blackridge and AT&T, all expressed commitment to equality and diversity in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests. Exelon even features a Black Lives Matter page on its website to highlight its "fierce commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity." But the companies have given nearly a half-million to sponsors of SB 7, including some that have "troubling prior histories of racism, discrimination, or voter suppression," according to the Accountable report. The voting bill has sparked concerns that lawmakers are targeting "innovations that were especially effective last year in reaching voters of color," according to the Austin American-Statesman, and could contribute to a "surge in voter intimidation" by empowering partisan poll watchers.
"This bill is anti-democratic, anti-voter, and once again, demonstrates how far current leadership is willing to go to protect their own partisan interests," the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause Texas said in a statement.
Exelon CEO Chris Crane vowed to "speak up if I see behavior that isn't consistent" with the company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. Ryan LLC has also touted its commitment to these values after it was named to Fortune Magazine's "Best Workplaces for Diversity" list for the fourth time in five years in 2019. Oncor promotes its dedication to diversity and disadvantaged communities and commemorated Black History Month by posting Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote, "It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people."
All three firms have contributed to SB 7 sponsors, including some who have supported controversial bills and made offensive statements well before the voting restriction effort. State Sen. Charles Creighton, a sponsor of SB 7, previously sponsored a failed bill that would ban local governments from taking down Confederate monuments. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who is backing seven bills that would impose new voting restrictions, previously resigned as a Harris County official after he was accused of voter suppression for delaying thousands of voter applications that were disproportionately Democratic. State Sen. Bob Hall defended a self-declared "white nationalist" in 2018 after he called for a "rope and a tree" for a Black lawmaker.
The top five corporate donors in Arizona have also touted their racial justice credentials. Utility firm Pinnacle West says on its website that "equity and inclusion is a key force driving" the company's principles and promotes its inclusion in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's 2020 Corporate Equality Index. Salt River Project, another utility company, trumpets its contributions to racial justice groups and support for diversity and underserved populations. Defense contractor Raytheon committed $25 million to support racial justice programs and support for "racially and ethnically marginalized communities." Southwest Gas, the largest distributor of natural gas in the state, says it prides itself on "our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion." The mining company Freeport McMoRan has an entire page devoted to "inclusion and diversity."
All five firms have contributed to Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who sponsored several bills that drew alarm from voting rights groups. Senate Bill 1485, which would purge inactive voters, "could lead to voters being tossed off the rolls for missing a single election," voting rights groups warn. Ugenti-Rita also co-sponsored Senate Bill 1713, which would increase voter ID burdens for mail voters. The senator previously sponsored a 2016 "ballot harvesting" law struck down by a federal court for violating the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by disproportionately impacting Native American, Hispanic and Black voters. Ugenti-Rita made headlines last year when she called to expand the rights of business owners to shoot vandals during the 2020 racial justice protests.
The five firms have also contributed more than $45,000 to state Sen. Javan Mesnard, the lead sponsor of SB 1713. Mesnard, the former speaker of the Arizona House, in 2018 formally reprimanded the only two Black members of the Arizona legislature for calling out a Republican colleague who used a racial slur.
All five companies have also donated to state Sen. David Gowan, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1593, which would limit the mail voting window. The bill could disproportionately impact Native American voters, many of whom do not have home mail service. Gowan, another former Arizona House Speaker, previously came under criticism in 2016 for authorizing a "civil rights conference" on the House floor held by a group that claims the civil rights movement had been "hijacked" by Black people and denigrates "English-speaking white citizens."
A similar trend is playing out in Florida, where lawmakers have unveiled a laundry list of proposed voter restrictions that Democrats have decried as a "voter suppression tactic" and a "backlash" to record vote-by-mail turnout that favored Democrats. Four of the five top corporate donors to state lawmakers have funneled $230,500 to legislators pushing the restrictions despite espousing their commitment to racial justice.
HCA Healthcare last year said it was "united in the public outcry to put an end to systemic racism." Walt Disney released a video last year in support of Black Lives Matter and promoted messages of racial justice from the company's Black employees. FCCI Insurance says that diversity, equity and inclusion are "integral" to the company's mission. The GEO Group, a real estate firm that invests in private prisons, includes "embracing diversity and inclusion" among its core values.
HCA and Disney have both contributed to state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 90. Baxley was accused by advocacy groups in 2019 of "proudly parrot[ing] white supremacist" rhetoric by echoing the white "replacement" theory, claiming that Europeans are being "replaced by" immigrants. Baxley was the only member of the Senate Education Committee to vote against renaming a Florida State University building named for a segregationist in 2019.
These contributions underscore the cognitive dissonance between corporate statements and their political spending, which has drawn increasing public scrutiny in the wake of Republican lies about election fraud that led to the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and a slew of restrictive legislation. Major companies like Coca-Cola, Delta and Home Depot are among dozens that spoke out against Georgia's new sweeping restrictive law, drawing complaints and retaliation from Republicans who previously sought to increase corporate influence in politics. But Coke, Delta, Home Depot and numerous other corporate critics all contributed tens of thousands to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican state lawmakers who sponsored the law.
It's possible that the growing internal pressure from inside corporate America could prompt more firms to back away from supporting lawmakers that back divisive and often racist policies. Hundreds of companies signed a statement led by Black corporate executives condemning the Republican effort to restrict ballot access.
"We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot," the statement said. "Voting is the lifeblood of our democracy and we call upon all Americans to join us in taking a nonpartisan stand for this most basic fundamental rights of all Americans."
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