Q&A: The fight for a better America
October 2017 - Q&A with Benjamin Crump, by Diane M. Zhang
Attorney Benjamin Crump was nine years old when he attended a new, integrated school in Lumberton, N.C. It was there that he first noticed the inequality between his community and the white community in the area—and vowed to do something about it. Today, Crump is a civil rights attorney who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other victims of police violence.
Trial talked to Crump about facing challenges and controversy when handling these cases, the people who inspire him to push forward, and what must be done to truly ensure equal justice under the law.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I grew up in Lumberton, N.C.—a rural part of the country. It’s very small, very conservative, and it was not until I was in the fourth grade that they integrated the schools. I was bussed from South Lumberton to the new integrated school in the white community. At lunch, I saw this little white girl holding a $100 bill. I was raised by a single mother, and my two brothers and I watched her work two jobs—one at a factory and one at a hotel—to keep a roof over our heads. I just remember thinking, my mother would have to work a whole week to make $100.
As I rode the bus home that day back to South Lumberton, I wondered why certain people in certain communities had it so good, while people in my community had it so tough. My mother and the teachers told us the reason we got to go to the fancy new school was because of Brown v. Board of Education and Thurgood Marshall. And I remember thinking, I want to be like Thurgood Marshall because I want to make it better for my community too.
You’ve represented the families of some extremely young victims—Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to name just two—who are going through an incredibly painful tragedy. How do you approach your relationship with them?
I try to understand that this is absolutely the worst time in their lives. It’s the most unnatural thing to happen—losing a child. Add to that the fact that their child has been killed by the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them. And many times—whether it’s the families of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Alesia Thomas—they have to grieve this horrific loss very publicly.
These families also have a difficult decision to make: If they want any chance at getting justice for their child, they have to do media interviews, speak at community rallies, and talk about something that is so painful. I’ll never forget when I went to New York with Trayvon’s family about two and a half weeks after the tragedy, and his mother and father did nine interviews in one day. And at the end of every interview, it was still the same ending: Their child was shot in the heart, and he’s never coming home.
I told them over and over again, “You’ve got to do this interview because it’s important, and I know it’s going to be hard, but this is the only way you even have a chance to get justice. And unfortunately, because we live in a society that doesn’t always value people of color, you’ve got to fight extra hard to get justice.” So I share this with people: What you do now gives it a chance to make it fair—at least you get an opportunity to sit in a courtroom and have the person who killed your child answer to the witnesses and evidence against him.
The media attention turns these tragedies into nationwide stories. How do you deal with such extremely polarizing, high-profile cases?
Thurgood Marshall is my personal hero, and he and all the civil rights vanguards knew their lives were in danger. They knew it was going to be high-profile, and they knew they were probably going to lose. But they went into these cases knowing that the best they could hope for in those local courtrooms was to set the record for appeal and try to get to the U.S. Supreme Court. I always think that as bad as it is now, we don’t have it worse than them.
And it doesn’t matter if the incident is on video or if there is an audio blow-by-blow of what happened. Some people will say that I’m wrong, and that I’m causing all this racial conflict. But that’s the same thing they said about Martin Luther King Jr. when he was down in Birmingham. They called him an outsider and agitator.
You have to do what you believe is right in your heart. You have to have courage and conviction. You get death threats, but you’re not doing this for popularity. You do it because you believe that our children’s lives matter, and if we don’t speak out for our children, and if we don’t fight for our children, nobody’s going to do it for us. Our lives matter too. Our life experiences matter.
What are some of the legal hurdles your clients face?
The courts, the judges, the prosecutors, the district attorneys, the governors, the legislatures: They’re the ones who have the power to make sure minorities get equal justice under the law. When you go to court, you think, well, the U.S. Constitution is going to work for us too. But when you look at the history, it hasn’t worked for us. Screws v. United States [325 U.S. 91 (1945)], the first time the Supreme Court ruled on a matter of police brutality, set the precedent for intellectual justification of discrimination based on color. So today, when you see these outrageous results—Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Tamir Rice—to me, it merely confirms that.
When a grand jury declines to indict because it decides what the officers did doesn’t really rise to the level of a crime, then nobody’s going to be held accountable—even if an unarmed person of color was shot in the back while running away or just minding his own business walking home. Justice is about getting to the truthand that’s why we’ve got to keep putting the mirror in their faces and saying, “We just want equal justice.”
On the civil side, it’s a bit different because we can’t just look at a single incident: If you’re going to recover, you have to prove pattern and practice. As trial lawyers, we have to be creative to navigate all these hurdles, these barriers to justice—and we find a way to do it.
How do you approach jurors in these cases?
I think many jurors, by and large, harbor stereotypes and implicit biases that they don’t even recognize they have. I always like to pose this question to jurors: “What about your moral justification? Look at that Philando Castile video. Listen to and watch the Terence Crutcher video, the Tamir Rice video, and the Alesia Thomas video. How can you say those are not injustices?” Without even thinking, those implicit biases are there, and jurors don’t even realize it.
What can police departments do to prevent future tragedies from happening?
There are five things that are germane to trying to address the situation. First, who you hire; second, how you hire them; third, how you train them; fourth, how you supervise them; and fifth, how you discipline them.
Because when you see the first instance happen, it’s only going to escalate if you don’t correct the situation. And it only takes one bad apple to have a Ferguson or a Baltimore. Transparency plus accountability equals trust. What you want to do is try to think: How do we hire police officers? How are we training them? How do we supervise them, and how do we discipline them? What happens—do we let them back on the force? Do they have one-week paid leave? What do we do to make sure that this won’t happen again? Then there are standards that are promulgated not only by the courts—the Graham v. Connor [490 U.S. 386 (1989)] factors—but also state and federal use-of-force matrices.
Unfortunately, even if you capture egregious conduct by police officers on camera, it may not result in them being brought to justice. But have these videos increased awareness of what people of color experience in their encounters with police?
We believed that if we could just show what really happened, then we would get justice. That may have been naïve on our part—because everybody knew slavery was wrong, everybody knew segregation was wrong, but people said, “If it keeps the status quo, and it doesn’t affect my life, then I’m not willing to be that concerned about it.” Shocking as it is, people are still trying to look away and say, “Well, it doesn’t affect my children. It’s not my children.”
So something I try to do when I go in the courtroom is show them that this was somebody’s child—and that they had a lot of similarities to your children. One thing that I thought was so important to do in Trayvon Martin’s case was to show that his parents were both hardworking citizens. His father was a truck driver; his mother was a supervisor at the housing authority in Miami. They took their children skiing, they went to plays on Broadway, and they went horseback riding. They loved their children just as much as you love your children, and we want to give them the same rights to the American dream.
What I tried to do as effectively as possible was say, “Imagine if this was your child on this video running away, and the police shot him in the back—and then all of the police officers on the scene lied in their reports and said that your child was attacking them. Don’t you think the just thing to do is to hold these officers accountable?” These accused officers want the jury to look the other way. Well, I’m yelling at the top of my lungs: “Don’t look the other way—look at what happened. Look at how this child’s life was ended.”
Some cities, such as Baltimore, have signed consent decrees to implement reforms within their police departments. How do you view them?
Consent decrees are just words on paper, and it’s up to us to breathe life into them—to make them real. You need citizen leadership and the U.S. Department of Justice to be committed to the orders of the consent decree. If you don’t have that, then it really is just window dressing. For example: Is it going to be a fair and impartial investigation? What are they going to do if they get a number of these complaints? Will they terminate the employment of the problematic officers? Are they going to continue to slap them on the wrist until something extreme happens—like somebody’s life is taken?
I recognize and fully support officer safety. But citizen safety is important as well. People always talk about how dangerous it is to be a police officer, but nobody acknowledges how dangerous it is to be a person of color in America encountering the police.
What is your advice for attorneys handling police misconduct cases?
You have to plead your case well to give the court a basis to get it to a jury. Most of the time, these police officers want the case decided on qualified immunity. In the Michael Brown case, for example, there was no video, and it was the police officer’s word against the witness’s word. We had to plead that case exceptionally well to survive the motions to dismiss. Many of these cases are dismissed but for a well-pleaded complaint.
Talk to other lawyers who are doing this type of work because we can help each other. Get involved in AAJ, including its Civil Rights Section. Nobody knows it all, and it’s such a daunting task we’re taking on. It takes a village to be successful when you’re representing minorities who have been killed by police officers.
You’ve mentioned Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. Is there anybody else who inspires you to keep fighting?
I’m encouraged by all the young people who are standing up and saying, “America, we matter”—whether it’s the young people in Ferguson or the young people in Black Lives Matter. I think if we show them that they don’t have to accept racism and ignorance, we can be a better society. We can be a better America for all Americans.
I’m also inspired by those lawyers who, without much fanfare and without much celebration, took on the cause. They put their lives in danger, and they still said, “We’re going to take a stand against racism because there’s nowhere we can run to escape it.” What we’re trying to do with these lawsuits is to prevent future hashtags—these hashtags of people’s children’s names becoming popular because they were killed in an unbelievable way. That’s what this is about—trying to have a better America, a better world for all our children.
Benjamin Crump is the founder of Ben Crump Law in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at email@example.com.