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“The Whole System Needs to Be Indicted”: Attorney Benjamin Crump on Overhauling U.S. Policing

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The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on a sweeping police reform bill that would ban chokeholds, prohibit federal no-knock warrants, establish a National Police Misconduct Registry and other measures. The legislation, known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, is in response to a series of high-profile killings of Black people in 2020 and the nationwide racial justice uprising they sparked. Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has represented the families of Floyd, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other victims of police and racial violence, says the legislation is “crucial” for reforming police culture across the U.S. and reducing violence against Black people. “We need systematic reform,” says Crump.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A warning to our audience: Our first segment today contains graphic descriptions of police violence.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on a sweeping police reform bill that would ban chokeholds, prohibit federal no-knock warrants, establish a National Police Misconduct Registry and other measures. The bill is called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, named after the African American man who was killed last year by a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Video of the incident sparked international protests. This comes as the trial of the officer, Derek Chauvin, who has been out on bail, begins March 8th.

Meanwhile, in Rochester, New York, protests broke out this week after a grand jury decided not to file charges against the Rochester police officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude. The Black father died last March from asphyxiation while experiencing a mental health crisis. Officers handcuffed him while he was naked, put a hood over his head in the freezing cold, then pushed his face into the ground for two minutes while kneeling on his back. Prude’s brother had called the police while he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill on Thursday to ban some no-knock police warrants. This comes nearly a year after 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her own Louisville home by plainclothes officers serving a no-knock warrant.

And in Georgia, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery has filed a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit against the white men who chased down and shot to death her 25-year-old son while he was out for a jog. The lawsuit also accuses law enforcement officials and local prosecutors of attempting to cover up evidence about the killing. Tuesday marked the first anniversary of Arbery’s murder.

We begin today’s show with one of the nation’s leading civil rights attorneys, Benjamin Crump. He has represented the families of George Floyd, Daniel Prude, Ahmaud Arbery and many other victims of police violence.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Let’s begin with this legislation that’s going to be on the House of Representatives next week, to be voted on. Can you talk about this George Floyd bill?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yes, ma’am. Thank you so much for having me, Amy, and talking about these important historical matters that will hopefully change policing in America, change the culture of policing in America. We need systematic reform, and the George Floyd Justice and Accountability Policing Act is so crucial.

Last year, it passed the House of Representatives, but Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate at the time, refused to bring it to the floor. And so, it is our hope that it will pass the House of Representatives again next week, which we fully anticipate on Thursday, and then it would go to the United States Senate, where we anticipate it may be a very partisan vote, that Vice President Kamala Harris may have to be the deciding vote that gets it passed in the United States Senate. And then the expectation is for President Joe Biden to sign this historic piece of legislation within his first 100 days of his administration.

And that is crucial, Amy, because aside from banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, it also speaks to having a national database of these police who engage in this excessive use of force and misconduct, so they can’t simply be exposed for killing a Black person or brutalizing a person of color and then go down the street in the next city and get another job, as was the case with Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old kid who was killed on the playground. The officer that killed him, just three [sic] months prior, had been terminated from another police department, where they said he was unfit to be a police officer. And then he got a job in Cleveland within two [sic] weeks. He then killed this little 12-year-old child playing on the playground by himself. And that’s why we need this bill.

And also, it speaks to qualified immunity that the Supreme Court put forth, giving police officers a way to — get-out-of-jail pass when they kill, especially a marginalized person of color, in Graham v. Connor, in Garner v. Tennessee, where, literally, all the police has to do is say three little words, and they will be justified in whatever way they kill us. They say, “I felt fear,” “I felt threatened.” And the Supreme Court said, “Well, you can’t Monday morning quarterback the police. You were not there. You don’t know what their subjective fear was.” But we have video. We have objective evidence saying that this was an excessive use of force when you shoot yet again another Black man in the back running away from you. How could you say that you were in fear of your life?

We got example after example, whether it’s Terence Crutcher walking away with his hands up, whether it’s Jacob Blake Jr. walking away, trying to get away from the police, whether it’s Laquan McDonald. I mean, in all these situations, the police tried to say they were in fear of their life, even though the Black people were running away from them when they killed us. So, that’s why we have to pass this legislation, to have systematic reform and a change in culture so we can truly say that the courts respect Black Lives Matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Crump, I wanted to ask you also about the new federal grand jury that’s been impaneled in Minneapolis, and the Justice Department has called new witnesses as part of its investigation into Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who goes on trial next month on the murder charge of George Floyd. The significance of this? And could this lead to more charges filed against Chauvin?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: We certainly expect the federal government to bring charges against officer Derek Chauvin in violation of the civil rights of George Floyd, who he tortured to death by putting his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. And as we all know, it was captured on video with citizens practically begging officer Chauvin to take his knee off his neck, while George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” for 28 times.

And so, normally, the federal government in most of these Black Lives Matter police killings, they say that there is not enough evidence for them to bring federal charges, because it’s such a high bar to have to prove that there was a violation of civil rights, because they say that they can’t infer what was in the mind of the police officer. Well, here we know Derek Chauvin had ample time to take his knee off his neck. And when asked by other officers that were there also restraining George Floyd, “We are concerned about him. Maybe we should turn him over,” his words were, “No, we will keep him like this.” That tells us his mindset, that he intended to continue to punish George Floyd. And for what reason? We saw in the video George Floyd was very compliant with the police officers. They did not have to torture this human being to death.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Ben Crump, about another case that you’re involved with, and that’s the case of Daniel Prude, this horrific killing almost a year ago in Rochester. Major protests this week because a grand jury refused to charge any of the officers involved. Daniel Prude’s daughter, Tashyra Prude, appeared on CNN in September calling for the Rochester officers involved in the killing to be fired and charged with murder. This is what she said.

TASHYRA PRUDE: I would like to see them be fired and charged with murder. There is video footage of these people suffocating my father. My father was murdered by these police officers. There’s no reason why they should be on a paid suspension. They should be arrested, and they should be tried as the killers that they are.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, now this grand jury has refused to indict, despite the calls for the charges to be brought by New York’s Attorney General Letitia James, whose office led the investigation. She said, most recently, “Daniel Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and what he needed was compassion, care and help from trained professionals. Tragically, he received none of those things.” Can you talk about the refusal to indict?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yes. It’s regrettable that many times, because the grand jury proceedings are secret, we don’t know what evidence was offered by the prosecutor to the jurors in making their determination. We must remember Breonna Taylor’s case and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, case, one of the rare instances where we saw the inner workings of the grand jury. We saw that the prosecutors put forth a very weak case. And when you put forth a weak case to get a prosecution, then you won’t get the grand jury to decide.

Amy, it has been said that a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich, because 99.999% of the time, when a prosecutor wants an indictment, a prosecutor gets an indictment. Oftentimes prosecutors, because they have this symbiotic relationship with law enforcement, will give greater consideration to police officers than the unknown African American or Hispanic citizens that they have no relationship with when they go in that grand jury proceeding. We saw it so many times throughout the country. It is historical, where they will try to wash the blood off their hands by saying, “Well, we presented to the grand jury, and the grand jury found no probable cause.”

Well, we don’t buy that. We know that’s part of the intellectual justification of discrimination that leads to the legalized genocide of Black people in America. And that’s why we have to have systemic reform to change the entire culture of criminal justice in America. As we said after Michael Brown grand jury decision was announced, the whole system needs to be indicted. Other than that, they will continue to kill Black people with impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, who you know well, spoke to Waynesboro, Georgia’s TV station WRDW on the first anniversary of her son’s killing this week.

WANDA COOPER-JONES: I wouldn’t say that I’ve healed much. I’ve learned how to take day by day, sometimes hour by hour. I mean, I pray, and I stand on my — I stand on my faith. God will get me through.

INTERVIEWER: What’s been the hardest part?

WANDA COOPER-JONES: Just imagining life without Ahmaud. I’m very confident that we will get justice, but we’ll still feel from his death. After justice, Ahmaud won’t be with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the substance of this lawsuit, as we wrap up this segment of the show?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: I can, Amy. This lawsuit was filed by our legal team to be able to make sure that this murderous father-and-son duo of Travis and Gregory McMichael will be held accountable. But also, Amy, attorney Lee Merritt, attorney Chris Stewart and us, we want to make certain that the government officials, like the district attorney and the police department there in Brunswick, who seem to have condoned, at best, and in ways participated or conspired to allow these murderers to evade justice — remember, Amy, it took 10 months for them to just be arrested. You know, we had to get the video released, because even though the police saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being lynched for jogging while Black on the first day, they took the word of the lynch mob, who said it was self-defense. It wasn’t until we the people, who saw the video, when they finally arrested these murderers after 10 months of them sleeping in peace in their bed.

And that’s why we continue to argue, whether it’s in the Malcolm X case or it’s in Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake Jr., we argue transparency, transparency, transparency. We won’t let you kill our leaders and our people and then sweep it under the rug and say that their lives didn’t matter. Ahmaud Arbery life matters. Breonna Taylor life matters. George Floyd life matters. Daniel Prude life matters. And Malcolm X, who I argue was the personification of Black Lives Matter, his life matters. And that’s why we’re demanding transparency plus accountability. That’s the only way we get to justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to our next segment. Benjamin Crump, we want to ask you to stay with us, civil rights attorney representing the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, the family of Ahmaud Arbery. In all of these cases, Taylor and Prude and Floyd, the victims of police violence. He’s staying with us after this short break, after new calls to reopen the probe of Malcolm X’s assassination following the release of a deathbed confession of a former undercover New York police officer. We’ll be speaking with the officer’s cousin. The officer admitted to being at the scene of Malcolm X’s assassination, working undercover in an FBI-police conspiracy targeting Malcolm. Stay with us.

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