New Hampshire has seen an increase in grassroots organization around racial justice this past year, and more activists are showing up in legislative sessions to push for civil rights. Now, those advocates are leading conversations on criminal justice and police reform at the State House.
If you tune in regularly to committee hearings in the state Legislature, you’re likely to hear Asma Elhuni testifying on all kinds of bills.
“It could be anything from policing, to immigration, to individual civil rights, to women’s rights,” Elhuni said.
Elhuni has been fighting for racial equity as an organizer in the Upper Valley for years. And this year, she’s been spending a lot of time talking with lawmakers in her newer role as the politics director for Rights and Democracy NH, a grassroots organization focused on human rights.
With most legislative activity now happening on Zoom because of the pandemic, Elhuni says it’s easier for people to get involved, and organizers of color in the state have created a support system that's led to more action and visibility at the State House.
“I’m happy to see that more people of color are testifying, are being heard, or at least making space for themselves to be heard,” Elhuni said. “It’s up to legislators whether they take what’s being said or not.”
Jeanne Hruska, who's been lobbying at the legislature for years with the ACLU of New Hampshire, says there’s been a noticeable difference in who is showing up for hearings, especially when it comes to criminal justice reform bills.
“It’s no longer that people advocating for police reform are outnumbered by people in uniform,” Hruska said.
Usually, dozens of law enforcement officials show up in uniform every session to testify on all kinds of criminal justice bills. Hruska said this change is putting racial justice at the forefront more than ever in many of these conversations.
“And it’s forcing witnesses, it’s forcing legislators, it’s forcing everyone involved to really address that,” Hruska said. “And I do think you’re seeing tension on that, because there are still, again, just so many people and organizations in this state that are resistant to the idea of systemic racism.”
Casual racism and offensive comments from lawmakers are not out of the norm at the New Hampshire State House. But now, with almost every legislative hearing available via live stream, such moments are much more visible than before. And it's creating new tensions between lawmakers and those seeking to testify before them.
Last month, Black Lives Matter Nashua founder Jordan Thompson came before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to speak in support of a police reform bill he helped write. The bill would have banned the use of rubber bullets and tear gas by police.
A lawmaker, who had testified earlier in the hearing, accused Black Lives Matter chapters across the nation of mob behavior and inciting violence. Thompson called out these kinds of comments as racist.
“Frankly, the casual racism that has gone on in this hearing is disgusting,” Thompson said. “We are talking about unarmed, peaceful demonstrators that are your constituents. They marched for peace, equity and justice--”
Thompson was then cut off from speaking, silenced when Republican committee chairman Daryl Abbas muted his mic.
“Excuse me, the witness will suspend,” Abbas said. “The chair does not perceive any testimony today to be racist towards anyone.”
When Thompson’s mic was turned back on, he said: “Silencing me in this moment is racist.”
Abbas muted Thompson’s mic a total of three times during his testimony. NHPR reached out to Abbas asking for an interview, but he never replied.
Republican committee member Rep. Gary Hopper laughed in response to Thompson saying that silencing him was racist.
But Thompson later said he was frustrated by the response from the entire committee, not just Republican members.
“We had Democratic committee members that were sympathetic to me, sympathetic to my testimony, and sympathetic to the bill, but when they were in a position of power to speak up about what was happening that day, they were silent,” Thompson said. “They were back channeling and trying to message me via email. When you’re in the hearing, you can say something.”
There have been many other examples of lawmakers making racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic comments during legislative hearings this year. Thompson says it can be uncomfortable to send volunteers to testify when committee hearings can be so hostile.
“It’s a really difficult situation right now where we have to decide sometimes is it even worth doing a call-to-action on this specific piece of legislation,” Thompson said. “Or is it just dead in the water and maybe we can use our resources and prioritize something that is more practical.”
He and Black Lives Matter Nashua say they'll keep the majority of their focus on building change within their local community.
Elhuni, with Rights and Democracy NH, says another approach to racial and criminal justice reform is to get more people of color into office.
“That’s one of my roles in Rights and Democracy: To see if we can run people from affected communities, people from disadvantaged communities,” Elhuni said. “So they can be in the seats and truly represent the people in New Hampshire that are often left behind.”
She said it’s essential to raise up new leaders who can help change the tone in the New Hampshire legislature.