The plan was for Daryl Jones to be in Washington, D.C., today, marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King’s family. A winter storm messed with that.
Somewhere soon, though, it's likely they'll be demanding action on federal voting rights legislation that seems all but dead.
And Jones, a soft-spoken Annapolis criminal defense attorney, just might get arrested somewhere along the way.
He's been doing this kind of thing lately. He joined a one-day hunger strike Thursday as a last-minute plea for the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voter Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
That was him on ABC News, standing behind Barbara Arnwine. Leaders of the Transformative Justice Foundation, Jones and Arnwine joined hunger strikers and activists in front of the Capitol Building as part of the one-day national protest.
In July, Jones joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Phoenix for a protest outside the office of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who is a major roadblock to the legislation’s passage. He and Jackson were among about 30 arrested during the peaceful event.
Just days earlier, Jones locked arms with eight other Black men outside the Hart Senate office building in another peaceful protest of inaction on the bills.
“We testified before Congress, raised the issue, we’ve read them the articles, we’ve met with them in Congress,” Jones said. “There comes a point in time where you've done all that you can do on the sidewalks, and it's time to get into the streets.
“And that's when we start with the civil disobedience when we're getting off the sidewalks, getting to the streets demanding that these issues be addressed and not push to the side.”
The march Monday morning was going to be led by Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King. But if a storm altered plans for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk, where the kings were going to urge the Senate and President Joe Biden to enact federal voting rights legislation.
Thursday, a more significant obstacle, maybe a fatal one, came into view.
Sinema announced that she opposed changing Senate rules on the filibuster, needed to clear the way for a vote. She suggested keeping the filibuster rule in place would encourage more compromise.
"While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema said.
Amazingly, Jones said Friday he was still holding on to hope. Maybe it's false hope, but he sees the possibility of a win.
“I understand that there are a lot of moving parts.”
It's only 30 miles from Annapolis to Washington, but it's a much longer way from the quiet courtrooms of Maryland's state capital to the national stage.
Jones said he got there through the intersection between the criminal justice system and the right to vote. In a long conversation about his work on voting rights, he used a dramatic setting to explain it: the Georgia courthouse where three white men were convicted in the murder of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery.
He picked it as an example because he was there during the trial, holding rallies with Arnwine outside the courthouse right through the guilty verdict.
Jackie Johnson, the district attorney in Glynn County when Arbery was killed by three vigilantes, sat on the case for months. She had a personal connection to one of the men eventually convicted in the crime, a former deputy sheriff who once worked in her office.
There have been numerous news reports that he actually called her after the shooting, seeking advice. She’s since been charged with obstruction of justice.
“So, she has all the information, and she refuses to act on it,” Jones said.
Eventually, a video of the murder was leaked to the news media, Johnson was removed from the case and it started a long journey to trial and conviction.
But in 2020, Johnson was seeking another term as her county’s top prosecutor. By the time her conduct became public, the deadline had passed to register another candidate for the ballot.
“The Arbery family and many other organizations joined together … and they were able to get the signatures on the petition, to get a candidate in," Jones said. "And after they got the candidate in, they worked and got that candidate elected to defeat Jackie Johnson.
“That represents that intersection between voting rights, the power of voting rights and the criminal justice system. Because that's how the criminal justice system was correcting itself, if you will, was through the power of voting rights and getting rid of bad prosecutors.
That's his world. He's been a prosecutor. He's a criminal defense attorney. He won two terms on the County Council and understands the power of the vote.
“So, it was a natural marriage for me to take this issue on the national stage. And that's where we are now.”
Anyone who knew Jones as the soft-spoken, novice candidate who won an Anne Arundel County council seat way back in 2006 might be surprised by his activism today.
Count me among them. I've known Jones since that first race. His campaign strategy was walking around his district, introducing himself as a neighbor and native son. And when he got elected, he focused on things like trying to create an arts and entertainment district in Brooklyn Park, a neighborhood along the Baltimore City line that struggles with crime and poverty.
It was during that 2006 campaign that Jones got in trouble. He failed to file his taxes, a mistake he later attributed to the stress of an ailing mother and a family business destroyed in a fire.
In 2011, he pleaded guilty to one count of failing to file a return. He paid a fine, spent a few months in federal prison, and then returned to his life, his law practice, and his job representing his constituents.
Except while he was gone, his colleagues on the council declared his seat vacant. They appointed a replacement.
Jones wasn't having it. Sitting in prison, he asked the courts to restore him to office. He argued there was nothing in the county charter that allowed the council to remove him, and eventually, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled he was right.
Jones got his seat back after about a year, finishing out the final year of his second term.
Today, Jones looks back at that time and sees it as a test.
“The question is, whether or not you're willing to stand up and fight. That's the whole question. There are going to be different difficulties that each of us encounters in our lives, in different aspects of our lives.
“Some people will be able to deal with everything privately, and no one will ever know the things that they're going through. Others will deal with issues publicly, and everyone will watch what you're going through. The question is, what is the content of your character?”
He said he chose not to be overwhelmed by his circumstances, to get up and move forward. To fight.
“That's how I view it.”
There's no desire now in Jones to return to elective politics. Instead, he sees the activism he’s pursuing as chairman of the Transformative Justice Coalition as the best way to effect change. The change he wants is in voting rights.
Although it's easy to see the current focus on voting rights as a result of the 2020 election and Republican efforts to change the rules in states where they control the legislatures, it really traces back to 2013.
That's when the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to use Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act to require some states to get voting legislation cleared through the Justice Department. Overnight, a major protection against gerrymandering to limit minority voting vanished.
Arnwine formed the Transformative Justice Coalition two years later, ending her longtime role as president of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In that job, she was involved in just about any civil rights fight you can name over the past 40 years, including passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the 2006 Reauthorization of the Voting Act.
The coalition was on the ground in Georgia during the 2020 Senate election.
“What we do on the national level is that we've tried to go into areas where people have low voter turnout, particularly in communities of color, and come up with concepts and ways to encourage them to come out and vote and increase their numbers.”
Most people know that Stacey Abrams, the high-profile political figure in Georgia, was the most visible leader of that effort. But there was a network of groups working together, including Jones and Arnwine.
The coalition organized a succession of 15 “votercades” throughout the rural part of the state, caravans of cars and people to get people excited about voting. Each event included giant banners, loudspeakers, megaphones, music, and food.
“We would go from a very popular place within a polling district and go to a polling location or to a dropbox,” Jones said. “And the concept was for the communities to follow or join in the votercade and at the end of the votercades, they would cast their ballots.”
It worked. News reports after the election said that voter turnout reached 90 percent or higher in precincts where Black voters dominated.
That effort gave the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff their seats representing Georgia, and the Democrats' control of the U.S. Senate.
Jones, Arnwine, and the coalition are now focused on Georgia again in 2022, where Abrams is running for governor, and Republicans in the state legislature led the way in changing the rules on voting. This year, early voting hours will change in some counties, absentee voting will have new ID requirements, and deadlines and ballot drop boxes will be limited.
Those changes started in Georgia, then spread to Florida, Texas, and other states.
“There's what, 34 pieces that have been passed in 19 different states?” Jones said. “And actually, there are 80 other pieces that are still pending across the country over. There are 400 that's been introduced since 2021.
“And what the interesting part of that is, all of this really kicked off in Georgia while we were down in Georgia… during the Senate run-off.”
He sees the legislation as a response to the work by groups such as Black Voters Matter, the Georgia Coalition of the People’s Agenda and the Transformative Justice Coalition,
“It was a direct result of the action that we were taking to get people out to the polls that Georgia, they began to come with these really oppressive laws to try to stem, to try to stop young voters and voters of color from coming to the polls to vote.”
So, what happens now? It seems like conflict is coming. Many of the strategies activists like Jones used to get out the vote may run afoul of new state laws.
That's where Jones' hopes come in.
“You know, the real answer to that is in the hands of the Senate right now because if the Senate passes the Freedom to Vote Act, then that will take care of all of that. All of these issues will go away. If the Senate passes the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Those issues go away. “
Advocates of the two laws call them a sword and shield.
The shield is the Freedom to Vote Act, which offers basic protections that will cover every state. It makes voting a holiday. It requires early voting in every state, including ones like Delaware that don’t have them. It mandates drop boxes and allows same-day voter registration. It would make it possible to register when they get a driving license, no matter the state.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the sword in this analogy. The federal government would use it to cut down state legislation it found discriminated against voters.
“And when you have state legislatures, that tried to pass these restricting polling places, closing polling places that are in the black or brown areas, then that sword comes out of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to strike it down so no, you can't do it. It’s not going to pass muster,” Jones said.
The bill was earlier called the “For the People Act,” written by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, but was renamed to honor the late congressman, John Lewis. They were combined into one last week by the House and sent to the Senate.
There’s plenty of criticism of the bill. Republicans say it’s a federal overreach meant to benefit Democrats. Some Democrats say it is poorly written in many places and could take years to implement, and even then might have plenty of unforeseen consequences.
Jones sees them as the best solution to those growing state laws.
“If we're able to get those two pieces of legislation in place, I think that addresses a lot of the issues we worry about,” he said. “You don't have to worry about giving a senior a drink of water so that they can take their medicine because they’ve been (waiting) on line for four hours.”
There probably won’t be much to celebrate about the legislation on Martin Luther King Day. After Sinema's announcement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed back a vote until at least Tuesday.
And yet, Jones wants to believe. He believes there may be other lawmakers who have been hiding behind Sinema and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia who's been the other public roadblock to changing the filibuster.
“I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that the exclusion carve-out for voting rights will not happen,” Jones said.
But if it doesn’t? Well, there is the street.
“I think that what then happens is that, you know, the press forward continues. That … the Transformative Justice Coalition and our partner organizations and other national organizations certainly will be in the streets trying to get people to have elected officials that are responsive to their interest and in getting this done.”
“You want someone that is going to favor your issue that's going to push on what you believe is a concern to you, what you believe is best, in society’s best interest. So that's what I would imagine happening.”
Until that happens, there are issues closer to home he wants his coalition to address.
Maryland is considered one of the best states in terms of voter access. But issues do crop up from time to time.
False information about candidates, like the robocall scandal during former Gov. Bob Ehrlich's 2010 campaign, and efforts to introduce new voter ID restrictions are a doomed perennial in Annapolis .
This year, Del. Bob Long, a Baltimore County Republican, put in legislation that would amend the state constitution to require voter ID. Jones called it the same strategy Republicans are using in Georgia and other states, trying to narrow the field when they can't win.
Jones sees the real voting rights challenge in Maryland behind bars, where people either facing charges or released after serving their sentences often don't know that they can vote.
Currently, if you’re awaiting trial in a county detention center in Maryland county you should be able to vote. But it’s unclear which counties provide a system that allows that.
“Do they request an absentee ballot? Does it come into the jail?" Jones said. "Should there be a polling place set up at the jail for the people who are there?"
And for those who are convicted of felonies, many don’t know they get their voting rights back once they complete their sentence.
“I have clients who were convicted of felonies in the state of Maryland who don’t believe that they can vote, even though they've been released,” he said.
He wants the General Assembly to mandate the rules, explaining to people released from prison that they can vote and providing a way to vote for those awaiting trial.
Jones also wants to focus more on young voters, Millennials and Gen Z. The group has been running educational programs in Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina to teach young voters how to get involved.
“The more work we do, the greater we can lift up the message and show that … we're about the community and we're trying to build communities. We're just trying to access voting rights. We don't tell people how to vote, we just want to be certain that your right to vote is protected."
If it comes to it, he sees civil disobedience as another tool for the job. Even if it means getting arrested, just as he did in Arizona and Washington last summer.
"That's rooted in our constitution, right? To address the grievances of the people."