Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
PETERSBURG – With the clock ticking down to Election Day, the Legal Center for Social Justice brought in a heavy hitter to push voters to mark “Yes” on Amendment 4, which restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence.
Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, who serves as senior pastor of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to a small crowd at Eckerd College Monday night.
A distinguished writer whose social justice work shows no bounds, he is an advocate for prison reform, voting rights and Medicaid expansion. Although he lives in Georgia, Rev. Warnock felt voter restoration in Florida is so important to the country as a whole, he made the trip to St. Pete to push for votes.
Anchoring his sermon on Act 16: 16-26, here we find Paul and Silas imprisoned for expelling an unclean spirit from a slave girl who made her masters great profits by fortunetelling.
“She was not simply a slave girl with a gift; her gift brought her owners money, said Rev. Warnock. “She had great gifts, but her gifts were their gig. Somebody was banking on her bondage.”
That is the story of oppression, not only in America but all over the world. The reason why there are systems of oppression, he said, is because somebody else is always “banking on another person’s bondage.”
When her owners saw that their hopes of making money were gone, they seized Paul and Silas and forced them into the marketplace, and called on the authorities to throw them into Rome’s “prison industrial complex.”
Bringing the scripture into today’s context, he asked, “How is it that the land of the free is the incarceration capital of the world?”
No other nation comes close in numbers or in percentages of their people who are locked up and warehoused in prison–with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and only five percent of the world’s population.
Rev. Warnock said America has a higher number of black bodies locked up in jail than South Africa had during the height of apartheid, most of which are for non-violent drug-related offensives.
On June 18, 1971, President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs. Prison and prison construction started to rise regardless of crime rates. The issue was not public safety, Rev. Warnock asserted, the issue was that somebody was banking on another person’s bondage.
“Black folks are 12 percent of the population and over 50 percent of the prison population. The data shows that white people and black people both use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates.”
Cities such as Baltimore, New York, Newark and others across the country “have been devastated not simply by drugs, but by the war on drugs. Young black men snatched out of their communities and away from their families and warehoused in America’s prison industrial complex. They are causalities of the war on drugs,” he averred.
Rev. Warnock said that now we are dealing with opioids and meth in the suburbs and in rural communities, all of sudden we have a public health emergency.
“Politicians on both sides of the aisle are talking about dealing with the opioid crisis as a public health emergency; meanwhile, they are raiding and rushing into communities in Harlem, Baltimore, Atlanta and in Miami taking down black and brown bodies.”
He posits that as we talk about giving felons their franchise, we are on a collision course with the powers that be.
“You’re talking about taking on privatized prison systems that are traded on in the stocks markets. You’re talking about privatized prisons that have stocks that are being invested in the retirement plans of municipal workers whose pensions you pay with your tax dollars,” he boomed.
When profits collide with prophets, he said, the first thing you witness is the assertion of propaganda. The Bible said when the slave girl was set free by her owners, they went to the authorities and told them that Paul and Silas were disturbing the city.
What is so scary about one girl being set free, Rev. Warnock wanted to know. “When you talk about giving felons their franchise, you really are talking about upsetting the apple cart,” he said.
In 1957, Dr. King delivered a speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C., called “Give Us the Ballot,” where he asserted if African Americans had the right to vote, it would correct the wrongs in the South.
“Dr. King understood way back then the reason why people are engaged in voter suppression is because a diverse electorate has public policy implications.”
Every system of oppression, no matter how destructive and divisive, exists because somebody benefits. Rev. Warnock feels the only resistance to Amendment 4 is the ambitions of politicians.
“They are worried about the changing demographics and the increasing diversity of America,” he said, adding that they are trying to defend the indefensible.
Rev. Warnock said politicians are aware they can’t win on anti-immigration, no healthcare and continued low wages, so their only recourse is to shrink the electorate with voter suppression, racial gerrymandering and unnecessary voter identification laws.
He got the crowd laughing when he explained how ridiculous it is to think that people will obtain fake IDs to vote twice.
“Talking about people might vote twice, it’s hard enough to get people to vote once!”
Rev. Warnock said when profits and prophets collide, you’ll witness anxiety in the people.
The Bible said that the crowd joined in on attacking Paul and Silas.
“I understand why the one percent got upset with Paul and Silas because they busted up their gig. I even understand why the politicians did what they did because they are owned by the one percent. What I don’t understand is why did the whole crowd join in on attacking them?”
Answering his own question, Rev. Warnock said the crowd was driven by fear and bigotry, which caused them to stand with those who looked like them rather than those who lived like them.
“There’s always somebody who engages in propaganda; they convince the crowd to vote and to live and to argue against their own enlighten self-interest.”
He said if you listen to certain politicians, you’d think that the greatest threat to America is the ragtag group of poor people on the other side of the border trying to escape “horrible conditions that we created.”
“Have you noticed that they are talking about it like it’s a nuclear missile?”
Rev. Warnock pointed out that while they are busy stigmatizing a group of poor brown folks on the other side of the border, somebody who is homegrown walks into a synagogue and creates real terror.
After Rev. Warnock’s sermon, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition members David Ayala and Cora Nichols shared unique stories of being disenfranchised returned citizen. Dream Defender Ashley Green was also on hand to encourage everyone to vote “Yes” on Amendment 4.