On the eve of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's death, Sojourners' Terrance M. McKinley spoke with Benjamin Crump, a national civil rights leader who has served as the lead attorney for the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and other Black people wrongfully killed by police or vigilantes. They discussed the road ahead and whether proposed policy change at the federal level could lead to needed change in policing. —The Editors
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Terrance M. McKinley: [This week] we are commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd … As you look back now, how are you reflecting on this past year, and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?
Benjamin Crump: I am always trying to look at, historically, what each day means. Despite how daunting the obstacles are before us, how stacked with punishment and struggle for Black people in America based upon this racism and discrimination, I still think about how our ancestors overcame so much — how they overcame slavery when they said slavery would never end in America. How they overcame segregation, when they said segregation would never end in America. So, when people say we would never have equality in policing, I just think about our ancestors and how we continue to do things people say we would never do. So when I reflect on the one-year anniversary [of George Floyd's murder], I am very faithful in my belief that we are going to overcome this, I believe we are going to get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed, and we will give George Floyd the legacy he so rightfully deserves ...we are finally ready to have a conversation regarding a racial reckoning that we have long tried to ignore.
During the Derek Chauvin trial, New York Times reported, “more than three people a day died at the hands of law enforcement,” with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead. Of course, we tragically lost Daunte Wright during that same period of time. Considering this context, I am interested in hearing your thoughts about what a faithful response to this moment looks like.
We have to have our church leaders and spiritual leaders make sure that people understand that “faith without works is dead.” We need to not lose this moment, where we can get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed. If we do that, it will be the first time in 57 years that we have gotten meaningful police reform on the federal level in America. So, we all have to engage our community, we have to educate our community, and, by God, we have to empower our community.
We should all be continuously in contact with our senators, because the Senate is going to make this decision and if we don’t keep the pressure on, they will move on. They will sweep it under the rug as if George Floyd didn’t matter at all. … So, our spiritual leaders, as we continue to pray to make America live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all, we need to also encourage our congregations to act … to act, because even though we are finally having this conversation about racial reckoning in America, talk is cheap. Your actions speak louder than your words ever will — on both sides. For the powers that be in America and for us.
What are we willing to do to make sure that George Floyd’s blood, which is on that legislation, will be meaningful? That we will be able to get beyond this qualified immunity that absolves police officers who commit brutality upon Black people. Shooting Black men in the back on an epidemic basis. I mean every month we are hearing about a Black man being shot running away from the police. As I say every time, Rev., on these interviews, “What is it about a Black man running away that seems to be the most dangerous thing to white police officers in America, where they have to shoot them in the back?”
You mentioned qualified immunity. Anything more you want to say about that?
We have to understand that until we hold these officers accountable, then I don’t believe they are going to ever do anything differently. They say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing and expect different results. Well, we know that qualified immunity is one of the big reasons why police officers and police departments are not held accountable, so until we have that amended or abolished, we are going to continue to see Black people killed by the police unnecessarily, unjustifiably, and unconstitutionally.
The law protects them to the point where they can shoot first and think later when it comes to Black people. As Justice Sonya Sotomayor said, this makes the Fourth Amendment “ring hollow” when you have the courts continuing to exonerate these cops who can kill Black people unjustly.
As I write in my book, Open Season: The Legalized Genocide of Colored People, what it really is is them coming up with intellectual justification for discrimination — coming up with all of these technical reasons for why the police can get away with murdering us by saying it is legal. And I always remind people of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Just because [something] is legal, that doesn’t make it right.”
Everything Hitler did to the Jews in Germany they said was legal, but that didn’t make it right. Slavery was legal, but that didn’t make it right. Segregation was legal, but that didn’t make it right. How they killed Breonna Taylor in her own apartment, in the sanctity of her own home, mutilating her body with six bullets, while she was in her nightgown, they said that was legal. But I submit to you, that don’t make it right. And we have to continue to follow our conscience and stand up for what is right.
I think one of the most powerful and positive moments from nearly one year ago, was when George Floyd’s daughter Gianna said, “my daddy changed the world.” She was speaking prophetically into our reality when she said that. In your view, how do we live into that prophetic reality?
I think in many ways, Gianna’s words were prophetic. Unfortunately, he had to lose his life for this world to have a spark, to finally get to the point where we said we are going to make the Declaration of Independence be true when it says that all men are created equal … they are endowed by certain unalienable rights, and so on. And, I think that George Floyd galvanized cities all across America — in fact, he galvanized cities all across the world … In many ways George Floyd did change the world because, like Trayvon Martin raised the awareness level, George Floyd took it to the top conversation in America: Once you saw that video, you could not unsee that video. ...
So, I think that bears witness to how he is changing the world. His legacy should really be what impacts the world, so we have to fight for his legacy.
We have all experienced collective trauma over the past year, beginning with the loss of George Floyd. How do we as a nation start to heal collectively?
In my mind, healing is a part of the struggle. … So I pray, “God I am not asking you to keep the storms from coming upon me, I pray that you give me the fortitude to make it through the storms.” That’s what we have to pray for.