Rev. Sharpton, Ben Crump, and the Pursuit of Justice
Lee: There's a question I think about a lot. Can black people in this country ever experience true justice? Looking back on this year, it felt like maybe we got closer in 2021.
Archival Recording:: All rise for the jury.
Lee: In April Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd.
Archival Recording:: Second degree murder while committing a felony, find the defendant guilty. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: And just last month, the day before Thanksgiving, three white men were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
Archival Recording:: Jury verdict form: count one, malice murder. We the jury find the defendant Travis McMichael guilty. (APPLAUSE) I'm gonna ask that whoever just made an outburst be removed from the court, please.
Lee: Ahmaud was killed while he was on a run almost two years ago in February 2020. To many, his murder was a lynching, with three men tracking Ahmaud down a suburban, Georgia street in broad daylight tryin' to stop him as he ran past, and then gunning him down.
Still it took 74 days and a leaked video of the killing for authorities to arrest father and son, Travis and Gregory McMichael, and their friend William Bryan. Black people across the country celebrated these guilty verdicts in Minnesota and Georgia, because after so much heartbreak, this felt like something close to justice.
Archival Recording:: You all heard the gut-wrenching grunt that came out of Marcus Arbery when they pronounced Travis McMichael guilty. Every parent in America can take solace in knowing that we have an example of how to deal with tragedy and grief when they look at the example of Marcus Arbery, and Wanda Cooper, and we should applaud them. (APPLAUSE) They should be applauded.
Lee: But 2021 wasn't all about victories. Just days before the McMichaels and Bryan were found guilty, a jury in Wisconsin cleared Kyle Rittenhouse of multiple homicide charges. In August 2020 when he was 17 years old, Rittenhouse shot three white men at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, killing two of them. His lawyers successfully argued that he fired his semi-automatic rifle in self-defense.
Archival Recording:: Kyle Rittenhouse protected himself, protected his firearm so it couldn't be taken and used against him or other people. Ladies and gentlemen, that's what the evidence will show.
Lee: Rittenhouse says he showed up in Kenosha with his weapon to protect property for a protest that erupted after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black man, in the back, paralyzing him. Activities worried the verdict sets a dangerous precedent were armed counter-protesters will be able to intimidate crowds or worse by claiming self-defense.
And earlier this spring, protesters in Oklahoma faced a setback as well. The government signed a bill that protects drivers who use their cars to injury or even kill people in a protest, if the driver believes they need to flee to save their life.
Just this weekend around 100 members of the far right Patriot Front organization staged a rally in Washington, D.C. Patriot Front is an offshoot of the group that held the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017. And while police, journalists, and tourists far outnumbered the protesters this time, it was a chilling reminder of the violent January 6 insurrection. So at the end of this year of mixed verdicts, and mixed emotions, I wanted to hear from two of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders of our time.
Reverend Al Sharpton: We are continuously on this journey, we take sometimes some steps forward, and then there're gonna be steps back. But I think we ought to mark those victories we get, so we people will know we're not fighting alone.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today Attorney Ben Crump, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, on the state of justice in 2021, and what they're watching heading in 2022. Reverend Al Sharpton is the founder of the National Action Network and a host here at MSNBC. He's spent most of his life, since he was just a kid, protesting in the streets for racial justice, and organizing others to do the same. So when a jury found Kyle Rittenhouse innocent, Reverend Sharpton said it was a blow to activities just like him.
Sharpton: The signal it sends is a very dangerous and frightening to me, because what it actually does, it says that someone can go into an area where there is a protest, and aggressively seek to confront people, and then kill them saying that it was self-defense, and cite the Rittenhouse verdict as a reference point.
I think it increases the danger for those of us that engage in public demonstrations and protest. We've seen violence at protests before. I was stabbed once leaving a protest in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn over the racial killing of Yusef Hawkins.
So I've watched this personally, and I've studied this, and this is another level. Let's not forget there were people from one of the right wing groups that was found out to be the ones going to Minneapolis and do some of the burning, and they blamed it on some of the protests.
Now we have this violence with the Jacob Blake Junior shooting in Kenosha. So it's always been some, a lot of it is the hate, and the anti-justic movement, and some of it is the rage that is expressed on our side that we've been able to tell people, "Strategically, you don't want to play in to that."
I'll give you an example. They want to act like Jacob Blake was a hoodlum. They want to act like Ahmaud Arbery was a hoodlum. So for us to be violent is to play into a jury that we're exactly what the opposition is saying. So they've got to bring the violence to us to try to provoke us.
Lee: So on one hand, you know, you don't want protesters to kind of play into their hands, right, and use violence the same anyway the opposition is.
Lee: But all across the country, states are passing laws that allow people to use their cars to plow through protesters. We saw this Rittenhouse case where he shot two protesters. Do you think any of this will deter people who are movement builders and organizers from protesting?
Sharpton: I think that ones that respond to incidents that deal with trending, it may. It may, I hope it doesn't. Those of us that have ongoing organizations like National Action Network, like NAACP, like Urban League, have all constituency-based, it will not.
Because we know where our people are coming from, and they're educated, and organized. But some people that react to a particular situation, this may give them pause for cause, which may be why they're doing this, and why they're putting this legislation out. They are methodical in what they do, and we must be just as methodical in response.
Lee: You know, on the opposite side of the Rittenhouse verdict, we have the guilty verdicts in the Travis and Gregory McMichaels, and William Bryan case for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. And the last time we spoke, we actually were talking about that case, because the video of that young man's killing had just come out. And I wonder how that all sits with you. You were there with the family, and you've been with all these families before, but to get that verdict, what was it like in that moment? And how did the family feel, obviously elated.
Sharpton: You and I talked right when the tape came out, and as you recall, we had already been involved in the case before the tape came out. So one of the reasons that I was there with the family and NAN was on the ground, is we were there when the family and I didn't even know there was a tape.
A lot of people think we run in when the cameras are there. We are there when everybody doubted that there would be cameras. So we went through this whole year and change with the prosecutor not wantin' to prosecute. Then we get to trial, and finally they're going to select a jury. The mother, and father, and I, and Attorney Ben Crump, and Attorney Lee Merritt stayed together throughout all of it. And then they get 11 to 1, white to black jury, in Brunswick, which is 55% black. (LAUGH)
Sharpton: How do you get 11 whites and one black in a jury of 12 in a city 55% black?
Lee: Not by accident. (LAUGH) Not by accident.
Sharpton: Not by accident. They used their preemptive strikes to get a race jury. So I kept preparin' the parents for the worst. The mother is a solid woman of faith, kept sayin', "No, god'll make a way." And I understand that but I was in the courtroom with Amadou Diallo's mother when those police were acquitted with four blacks on the jury. I was in the courtroom with Sean Bell's parents. I could name the cases that we thought the evidence was tight. Trial starts, evidence was tight, then the defense lawyer tries to make an issue out of me being there, that Wednesday.
Sharpton: And no more black pastors.
Archival Recording:: I have nothing personally against Mr. Sharpton. My concern is if we're gonna start a precedent starting yesterday where we're gonna bring high profile members of the African American community into the courtroom to sit with the family during the trial in the presence of jury, I believe that's intimidating, and it's an attempt to pressure.
Could be consciously or unconsciously an attempt to pressure or influence the jury. Obviously there's only so many pastors they can have, and if their pastor's Al Sharpton right now, that's fine. But then that's it. We don't want any more black pastors coming in here, sitting with the victim's family, tryin' to influence a jury in this case.
Sharpton: We go to lunch after the closing arguments, the father now, the mother had gone to her home, and Ben Crump. And we're sitting there, we get the text, "Come back to the court." It's Thanksgiving eve, they've been out two days, they have a verdict.
And when we go into the court they say, "We'll allow the lawyers, mother, father, Reverend Sharpton in the courtroom." We sit on the literally back bench, and the mother grabbed my hand, started prayin', my right hand. The father grabbed the left hand.
And I was just, like, bracin' myself. And when I heard the first guilty, the father jumped up, literally, and started sayin', "I knew we'd get justice." And the mother just broke down cryin'. Then I kept hearin' guilty, guilty, guilty. And I felt like you'd taken 100 pound weight off my back.
Even though I knew the defense did not do a good job, even though I knew that the prosecution was solid, the make up of that jury bothered me. And I felt this was a real good sign, and I said so outside to the press. To have 11 whites in the deep south, this wasn't even Atlanta, this is Brunswick, in the deep south vote against their neighbors, knowing they're sending them to jail for life, means that maybe we are seeing a shift in some cases.
Certainly doesn't mean that we don't have a long way to go, certainly doesn't mean that things are not unequal. But I think that we ought to mark those victories we get, so we people will know we're not fighting alone. So I can say as I talk to you, the best at what you do, as we are now in the last month of this year for me, and I've been out here for decades, to be there in the center of Chauvin gettin' convicted, and the three get convicted in Brunswick, it's been a good year in those respects.
Lee: You know, in this case, it's similar to Chauvin where we all watched that officer murder George Floyd. We watched those men murder Ahmaud Arbery. But then we have Rittenhouse, we have the George Zimmermans, we have so many other cases. Do you really believe, and you've been around, and have all this experience, that we are at a movement? Like, a pivot point here towards justice for black people? Or is it still tenuous at best?
Sharpton: I think that we are better than we was, but nowhere near where we have to go. We gotta change the laws. The reason why they could do what they did with Rittenhouse is the Wisconsin laws permitted that. And that is why we have fought so hard about the Voting Rights Act 'cause we gotta put people in these state legislatures by voting that will change these state laws in Wisconsin, change these state laws in Florida, "stand your ground."
We have been able to build a movement that has had more numbers than we've ever seen all of the world around George Floyd. What we've not been able to do is do the legislation, Voting Rights Act, George Floyd Bill, which is why those of us with Civil Rights organizations have been puttin' pressure on Biden. We need to change the law.
Lee: The George Floyd Justice and Policing Act is a sweeping criminal justice reform bill first introduced in 2020. Some of its notable provisions include ending qualified immunity for police officers so they could be subject to civil cases, banning choke holds, and improving police training. The bill passed the house earlier this year, but it's been stalled in the senate for months.
Sharpton: What made the '60s successful, and I studied, I was a kid, I came in, like, in the '70s, is that they got the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of '65, Open House '68, that was successful. Nobody remembers every picket line, every march, who fought who, who got the face time on TV.
They remember the laws and those laws lasted a half century before voting rights (UNINTEL) that. We must not stop until we change the laws, and that's why we're putting people in these congressional and state seats. If the laws don't change, it becomes just a hashtag that'll go out of style.
Lee: You know, speaking of policy and legislation, there are a lot of black people in this country who believed Joe Biden when Joe Biden said, "You've had my back, and I'll have yours." But we can't get the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act passed, there's not an anti-lynching bill, are you personally disappointed in Joe Biden for not doing more in the face of this ongoing violence that we face as a community?
Sharpton: I'm disappointed in the senate, and the Congress, and I put it on Joe Biden. Because Joe Biden alone is not the reason we don't get around that filibuster. I blame him for not standing up publicly, and I've said this to him on several occasions, calling on us to carve out the filibuster.
But don't get Manchin and Sinema, and then we'll pass. And I think that the pressure has got to be put on them. Why? If we had not, we bein' blacks, had not turned out in record numbers, Sinema and Manchin wouldn't even be in a position of power to even negotiate what they got.
The reason the senate is tied because black folks voted and put in Osoff and Warnock in Georgia. So if we put you there, and you do carve outs for judicial nominations, carve out for budget, you can do carve out for voting. The president ought to call them on that. But the senators are the ones that could do it. We need to blame all parties.
Lee: With 2022 approaching, I wonder what advice you would have for those folks out there who believe in justice and equality, and want to see America finally be some version of what it said it has always been, but has fallen, and it's very fallen very short, and failed to be. What advice would you have for them, what action can folks take this coming year, today, tomorrow, next year, to push the ball forward?
Sharpton: They must organize around these mid-term elections to change those that are in the state houses, and Congress with the commitment from them, that they will go against the filibuster and change the laws, policing laws. In New York we have the Eric Gardner no choke hold law, by law.
In other states we've changed some laws. We need federal laws, and they need to do it by in their state, making sure they're involved in the senate races, and the state legislative races. The year '22 must be the year that we press down to change the lawmakers, and change the law. Otherwise this moment will pass us, and we will not have something concrete done.
Lee: While Reverend Sharpton is using protest and clout to force change from the streets, Benjamin Crump is fighting for racial justice in the court of law. This year he represented the families of both Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, among dozens of other cases. In fact, the Rev likes to call Crump Black America's Attorney General.
Attorney Benjamin Crump: I understand it's a great responsibility.
Lee: Coming up, Attorney Ben Crump on what justice meant this past year, and his outlook moving into 2022.
Lee: Ben Crump, how you doin' good brother?
Crump: I'm doin' good, King. Happy to be home for a moment.
Lee: I know that's right. Man, it's been a little more than 10 years since I first met you months before Trayvon was killed, and the world got to you know after that. Your involvement in so many other really important cases of justice in America, not just justice in black America, but justice in America. In these almost 10 years, as we move into 2022, how much do you think things have changed, and how much has remained the same?
Crump: When I think about Trayvon Martin, really, it's hard to believe that comin' up in February, it would be 10 years since Trayvon Martin was profiled, pursued, and shot in his heart, and it became the impetus for the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter.
And we had a video of Ahmaud Arbery where we could actually see what transpired. For decades before this we always had to speculate about what happened. But because of the advent of technology, we get to have ocular proof, and that has made all the difference, Trymaine, all the difference.
Lee: Ben, let me ask you this. We saw the conviction of the father and son McMichaels in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. And I wonder if pound for pound, everything we've been through, and what that family has been through, and you were so intimately involved in this case, and with the family, if Ahmaud Arbery's family got some semblance of justice in the conviction of his murderers?
Crump: I think Ahmaud Arbery's family got a measure of justice, obviously the justice they wanted was Ahmaud Arbery to be home for Thanksgiving, but I think that verdict right on the eve the of Thanksgiving 2021 made a profound statement that justice is possible for black people in America, who are killed unjustly by white people. The fact that you have a jury of 11 white people and one black person, and then the defense attorney in summation said that Ahmaud Arbery had long legs, and dirty toe nails.
Archival Recording:: Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts, with no socks, to cover his long, dirty toe nails.
Crump: In many ways, harkenin' back to a runaway slave that they had the right to capture Ahmaud Arbery by any means necessary, even if that meant killin' him. And so despite all of that, that jury looked past that, looked at that video, and said that he was lynched. And our verdict is going to speak to that lynching, and that gives us hope, that gives us hope for America.
Lee: So in 2021 we saw the convictions of the McMichaels and Bryan in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, but then we also saw the conviction of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd. But we also saw Kyle Rittenhouse set free, found not guilty for the killing of two protesters, and the wounding of another. Where does that situate us?
Crump: Well, I think you also have to add in there Jacob Blake Junior in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for which crazy reason Kyle Rittenhouse was there in the first place, you remember that brother was shot seven times on video and paralyzed, yet they didn't bring charges.
So video certainly isn't the end all. I don't care if we have video, I don't care if we have audio, it doesn't matter. We can never take it for granted that white people in America will be held accountable for killing black people unjustly in America. Everything is gonna be a journey. We're continuously on this journey. We take sometimes some steps forward, and then there're gonna be steps back.
Lee: While there's still no George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Attorney Crump says he's seen legislative victories on the state level. Like when Georgia repealed its slavery era Citizens Arrest Law after Ahmaud Arbery was murdered.
Crump: I thought it was extremely encouraging that Georgia repealed the Citizen's Arrest Law after the uproar over the Ahmaud Arbery lynchin'. Even though we might not get the federal legislation that we hope for, and fight for, and march for, we have to acknowledge the victories that we're getting on the local and the state level.
The fact that the state of Minnesota outlawed the choke hold after George Floyd was a huge victory, the fact that the state of Kentucky outlawed no-knock warrants after the murder of Breonna Taylor, give us hope to come up with a strategy, how to dismantle these discriminatory laws that are focused and concentrated on black people.
Lee: Do you expect to see other states follow suit now that some of these laws are being repealed? Do you expect others to follow?
Crump: I think many states will repeal these laws, or they will possibly have a George Floyd, or a Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery on their doorstep if they don't do it.
Lee: Taking account of various laws that are in place all across the country that, again, have been weaponized against black folks. In our flesh we're criminal, right, and they've been usin' these laws. But I wonder what laws are you payin' attention to across the country in 2022. Are there certain states or certain state laws--
Crump: Oh, yeah.
Lee: --that you're looking at, paying close attention to?
Crump: Certainly. I'm lookin' at in the state of Georgia all these voter suppression laws that are bein' passed, and then followed by the state of Texas, I'm lookin' in the state of Florida at the anti-first amendment protest laws that have been propagated by governor Ron DeSantis.
They know that we've been winnin' in the court of public opinion, and they want to try to deny us that strategy. And so that's very troubling. I'm always worried about qualified immunity, and the fact that the United States Supreme Court seemed to have doubled down in the aftermath of George Floyd. And so I'm watchin' all these laws, and hopefully with this new-- social justice center down at Saint Thomas University Law School, we can track it.
Lee: Attorney Crump recently announced a partnership with the Saint Thomas Law School in Miami Gardens, Florida to open the Benjamin Crump Center for Social Justice. Saint Thomas is among the most diverse law schools in the country. The center will encourage law students to take on Civil Rights work.
Crump: I mean, we have to make sure that our young people are well-armed not with violence, or bullets, or guns, or anything like that. But that they're well-armed with intellect, and diplomacy, and strategic thinking, because that's how we're gonna win this war.
Lee: To do all this, the law school needs money. And Crump has a plan for that.
Crump: One of the things that we're tryin' to do continuously is to raise funds to endow that law school. We had all these corporations after George Floyd say that they are pledging hundreds of millions and billions of dollars to demonstrate their commitment to social justice, but yet many people don't know whatever happened to these pledges and these commitments. So we're hoping to give them a way to fulfill that commitment to social justice by helpin' us train up the future generation of Civil Rights lawyers.
Lee: That's right, you love freedom, you love justice, show us. Show us. Put your money where your mouth is.
Crump: Exactly. Put your money where your mouth is. Your actions speak so loud that you don't even have to tell us about your pledges no more.
Lee: As we're leaning into 2022, with everything we've seen, we've seen the up verdicts, the down verdicts, and everything, all the protests, all the ongoing killings, if you ever think that black folks will truly achieve justice, and in 2022, if we're poised to get closer to that idea?
Crump: You know, Trymaine, I believe black people will achieve justice in America because we have the precedent of being able to achieve justice even in the face of overwhelming odds. What it tells me brother Trymaine, is no matter what the enemies of equality throw at us today, we as black people, we gon' be all right.
Lee: Yes, sir.
Crump: We gon' overcome.
Lee: Black people in this country have never known justice, not true justice at least. And as I think on the question of whether or not we as black people will ever know justice in its fullest sense, the Reverend Al Sharpton says it's important to remember the long arc of history. We may not be there yet, not even close, but the Rev says in these waning days of 2021, there's still a lot to be thankful for.
Sharpton: I'm thankful to god that I was mentored and raised by people that taught me how to struggle. And I thank god that I never left that struggle. And that I've lived long enough now where I can teach some of the younger folk at NAN and in two or three years they will take my (UNINTEL).
So I've been a long distance runner. I thank god I was well-trained, and I thank god I've become a trainer. I remember, Trymaine, when I was 17, I was gonna be 18 that October, I became youth director for Shirley Chisholm's campaign for president.
And I thank god I lived long enough, she did not become president, but I sat on the stage and watched Barack Obama become president, and Kamala Harris become Vice President. I've seen a woman like Shirley, and a black, so I've seen things that seemed unbelievable in my youth comin' to realization.
That is why I know we can win. 'Cause I know how far back we were. A lot of people get disillusioned 'cause they don't understand how far back we were. My mother, my mother, I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but my mother was born and raised in Dothan, Alabama.
My mother could not vote in her hometown till she was in her mid-30's. But when she died, the first black president of the United States wrote the letter we read at her funeral. So I know how far we can come. 'Cause I've traveled some of that distance, and I thank god for church.
Lee: Tell us what you think justice meant in 2021, and what you're looking for in 2022. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCuni.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters U-N-I.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks this week Stefanie Cargill, Adrien Mariner, and Russ Mick. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.