Ayanna Pressley rebukes pundits for referencing Boston Marathon bomber to ‘derail’ discussion on voting rights

"Don’t dare invoke one of the darkest days of terrorism in MY city to stoke fear and derail a meaningful conversation."

Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley makes her way to the stage during the Election Day Massachusetts Democratic Coordinated Campaign Election Night Celebration at the Fairmont Copley Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts on November 6, 2018. - Democrats seized control of the lower house of Congress in midterm elections on November 6, 2018, dealing a stern rebuke to Donald Trump almost two years into his polarizing, rollercoaster presidency. Fox and NBC television networks called the result in the US House of Representatives, while confirming expectations that Trump's Republicans will retain control of the Senate. (Photo by Joseph PREZIOSO / AFP)JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images
–JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley denounced “pundits” on Thursday for invoking Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during discussions on whether people in prison should have the right to vote. 

References to Tsarnaev in the debate over enfranchising people serving prison sentences started earlier this week, when 2020 presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about his stance on the issue at a CNN town hall. A Harvard student asked if the senator supported enfranchising people “like the Boston Marathon bomber.”

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Sanders said. “Yes, even for terrible people. Because once you start chipping away, you say, ‘Well that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote,’ or, ‘That person did that, not going to let that person vote.’ You’re running down a slippery slope. So I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price. When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote. But I do believe that even if they’re in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

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In a series of tweets, Pressley expressed frustration at the way ensuing conversations about Sanders’s comment and voting rights for felons were being framed.

“As someone who is acutely aware of the trauma caused by having a loved one in and out of prison, I am dedicated to fighting to change a criminal legal system that is fundamentally unjust,” the congresswoman wrote. “Pundits, if you want to talk about re-enfranchising folks let’s talk.”

Pressley pointed out that in Massachusetts, people serving prison time for felonies weren’t explicitly banned by law from voting while they were incarcerated until 2001. The passage of the law followed reports in 1997 that prisoners in MCI-Norfolk were organizing to form a political action committee.

“They were calling for a more just system and humane treatment of those incarcerated,” Pressley tweeted. “They were reaching for the ballot to fight modern day slavery. As a nation we are facing a mass incarceration crisis that destroys families and communities.”

“Don’t dare invoke one of the darkest days of terrorism in MY city to stoke fear and derail a meaningful conversation about fundamental rights & what justice looks like for the 1000s of black & brown folks who are stripped of their liberty & civic participation for minor offenses,” the congresswoman concluded.

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Pressley wasn’t the only member of Congress who argued that the focus on Tsarnaev was being used to distract from larger issues of criminal justice reform. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connected mass incarceration to slavery in the United States, saying the criminal justice system “routinely criminalizes poverty.”

“Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’ try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped [with] a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’” she wrote. “[Because] that question reflects WAY more people.”

Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for his role in the 2013 bombings. He’s behind bars at the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, while he appeals his conviction.   

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