Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice are just a handful of the many unarmed Black people police have killed in just the 2010s. When George Floyd awakened May 25, 2020, he had no idea that was the day he would join them.
In response to the graphic video shot by then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier capturing 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Floyd’s horrific death as a Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a nearly 20-year veteran of the force, held his knee to Floyd’s neck, presumably over a counterfeit $20 bill, people all over the nation and world flooded the streets, in a pandemic. A year later, George Floyd’s murder appears to be a tipping point that’s been a long time coming. On April 20, 2021, Chauvin was convicted of his murder. And one of the people at the center of this promise of future justice is attorney Benjamin Crump.
A year later, Crump, who proudly embraces his nickname as “Black America’s Attorney General,” is still in this fight, most notably for the families of 20-year-old Minnesota native Daunte Wright and 42-year-old Andrew Brown, Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. And while the threat police pose to Black lives has not yet been eliminated, the Florida-based freedom fighter is optimistic that Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George Floyd’s murder is a major step forward.
“It is critical that we take advantage of this moment since it has sparked a notion in America that we are finally going to deal with this issue [that] we have tried to ignore forever and that is our racial reckoning,” he says via phone to EBONY in the middle of a packed schedule the day before the one year anniversary of this incredibly tragic event.
For Crump, who has sat with far too many families, joining them in the fight for justice and accountability for the killings of their loved ones who are parents, siblings, partners, and much more than the latest Black Lives Matter hashtags, this moment is different “because we had never seen a video like George Floyd’s. George Floyd’s video captured by Darnella Frazier and those police body camera videos were the most documented videos of any American citizen being tortured to death by the police ever viewed in the world. And I think that once you see that video, you cannot unsee that video.”
Not being able to “unsee that video” prompted veteran California Congresswoman Karen Bass to sponsor the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in February. Despite passing the House, it lingers on in the Senate, with Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott from opposing parties coming together, also fighting to get it passed. While most Democrats are reportedly on board, Republicans largely object to “a provision to curb qualified immunity,” reports CNBC and others. Lawfare, the blog published by the Lawfare Institute in cooperation with the Brookings Institution addressing national security issues describes “qualified immunity” as “a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations—like the right to be free from excessive police force—for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law.” That provision has prevented grieving families from directly suing police officers who have killed their loved ones. Eliminating qualified immunity, many believe, is so central to true systemic change that they are more than willing to delay the bill’s passing until it is adequately addressed.
“As we’ve always stated, for it to bear George Floyd’s name," Crump maintains, "[this bill] has to be something meaningful that will address the police unjustifiably, unnecessarily, and unconstitutionally killing Black people in America. So, therefore, we want it to be meaningful. And we have to look at the final bill to see what that bill looks like to see if it's meaningful or not.”
Crump defines “meaningful” in this instance as “legislation that will prevent some of these killings from happening by holding police officers accountable and making sure that Black people can get full justice if police officers kill us. That's one of the things I continue to do when I talk about raising the value of Black life. You've got to make it not 'business as usual.' Police officers have to go to jail and cities have to empty their budgets. And when those things happen, there'll be less Black people being killed in America.”
To that end, Crump has secured some historic civil wins, most notably Minneapolis’ $27 million settlement to the Floyd family and Louisville’s $12 million settlement to Breonna Taylor’s family, in the only manner legally allowed him. “I, as a private citizen cannot arrest anybody. I cannot indict or charge anybody and I cannot convict anybody. Only the prosecutors can do that. I thought that was illustrated very well during the Derek Chauvin trial. Hopefully, people understood that [Minnesota’s] Attorney General Keith Ellison, the prosecutor, was the person who put Derek Chauvin in jail and the only person who could try the case. The only thing I could do was make sure that George Floyd got a record verdict, got a record amount of money, because, under the Seventh Amendment, that's all you can get from civil justice. You can't bring them back to life; all you can do is get monetary compensation.”
Crump is hopeful that collective action will yield more Keith Ellisons to secure criminal justice as well. “If you are upset that police officers don't go to jail, then you need to try to do something about it,” he urges us all. “You need to go vote out the prosecutors who fail to get convictions or refuse to indict officers like in Kentucky with the Attorney General Daniel Cameron. If you're upset about Breonna Taylor not getting justice, you have to go vote.”
Even though the police brutality division of his national law practice with 14 offices, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Tallahassee, Houston, and the Atlanta metro area, is the least profitable, Crump says his commitment that “Black Lives Matter” supersedes profitability. “I believe when you've been blessed, you have to use those blessings. When you have influence, then you have to use that influence when it matters most. And when you've been given a voice, you have to use that voice to help give voice to the voiceless.”
For him, the change swirling around George Floyd’s murder signals a new day. “I know we’re going to win this war because when they said, ‘slavery would never end,’ we overcame slavery. When they said, ‘segregation would never end,’ we overcame segregation. And I know, based on the precedence of Black people in America, when they say, ‘police brutality will never end,’ I know we’re going to overcome that too.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies, available now.