Last night, United States Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. Holder’s commentary was straight forward and direct as he addressed many of the issues surrounding #Ferguson as well as equal justice maters within communities of color on a broader scale. Here are five takeaways from his remarks:
1. He knew where he was…or did he? Holder predictably made references to the legacy of Dr. King early and often. It makes sense. He was in the church where King famously pastored while leading the fight against racial inequality in America. To not do so would have bordered on aloof. However, there is still an over emphasis on the need for non-violence and “constructive” action in the wake of events in #Ferguson. This continued the rhetoric of President Obama’s remarks of a week ago immediately after the grand jury’s decision was announced. Between Gov. Jay Nixon’s calling in of the National Guard and the repeated warnings about the need to protect property, it is disappointing that isolated violence and destruction in Ferguson and elsewhere has become the dominant storyline. Even in the same breath that Holder himself acknowledged that the looting which was so prominently covered by the media even in the face of much more peaceful protests, he still felt it was prudent to speak to the need to address violent responses to injustice. Inside that historic church, Holder was rather literally preaching to the choir. There is no question that public safety must always be of paramount concern, but it stands to reason that if there was just a modicum of the same regard given to the issues causing the violence as there was the violence itself, this would likely not be a conversation. Folks are reacting to a police force that kills instead of serving and protecting, and a criminal justice system that repeatedly seems to deal unfair hands to persons of color. If there is anything that warrants repeated discussion, it is that. The violence in response is a footnote this administration continues to spend too much energy speaking on. The focus should be on addressing the illness of racially fueled over policing in communities of color, rather than the symptomatic response of resistance from oppressed people.
2. The Federal investigation in Ferguson isn’t over. What he said was…that the Federal investigation into events in Ferguson was ongoing, comprehensive, and independent. What he meant was…Darren Wilson’s investigation is all but over and because of the high legal standard needed to bring forth civil rights charges against Wilson, it is unlikely that much will come of that. However, the investigation now moves forward with respect to the constitutionality of policing tactics in Ferguson. It is possible that the legacy of Michael Brown in Ferguson is ultimately a DOJ consent decree with the police department that requires new hires, greater diversity and more community policing in Ferguson. Though that is only partially the outcome that many of us had hoped for, it is still significant. Part of the problem in Ferguson is there was a huge chasm between law enforcement and the community before Mike Brown was killed. Much of this was the result of racial profiling tactics among lower-income Black residents. DOJ’s investigation hopefully stands to prevent the tragedy of Brown’s death not just from repeating at the hands of another Ferguson officer, but also not being just limited to him alone.
3. Blacks are (still) catching hell from law enforcement. He gets it. Holder spoke frankly about the distrust that communities of color have for law enforcement and his remarks expressed an understanding and sincerity that many of us had hoped to get from President Obama. He went beyond the conversation of Ferguson and placed Ferguson within the broader context of the criminal justice system as a whole, making references to sentencing guidelines, racial profiling, as well as the need for support for black boys. He understands that this is not limited to Mike Brown, but that what folks are responding to virulently are the systemic manifestations of racism, inequity, and privilege in what is held out to be an equal justice system. Similar to the President’s remarks of a week ago, he didn’t go as hard as I would have liked, but he did go harder. That is the luxury of being an outgoing US Attorney General. (What you gonna do…fire him?)
4. He’s been putting in work. When I listened to his remarks, I wondered how Holder intended to achieve his stated goal(s) of bridging that gap that he identified. It wasn’t too long before he began to discuss specifics, and he referenced many of the programs and collaborations that began under his tenure as Attorney General. In fairness to DOJ, there may not be enough credit given to his efforts simply because the public may not have taken the time to inform themselves. Holder talked about the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative which is well known, but he has also experienced success with other programs like COPS and DOJ investigations of police departments across the country. It is clear that Holder understands the need for a serious upgrade on all facets of law enforcement and that he’s down to do it. What isn’t clear is what will happen once he leaves the office in a few months.
5. Speaking of his resignation, after these mid-terms, we don’t know what happens next. Remember when you didn’t think voting in mid-term elections mattered that much? While Holder did not touch on this point, one cannot help but to wonder with the changing tide in Congress after the elections, whether many of the initiatives which began under his tenure and are likely to continue under Loretta Lynch will have the support needed to be viable. There has been a consistent push from the GOP and conservative right against many of the initiatives which Holder advanced, and the excuse is always the need to shrink government. With over $200 million in funding going to support the President’s police body camera initiative, it is possible that much of the law enforcement over haul which Holder has supported may be characterized as too much government oversight for an issue that is “over blown.” Of course, this is mainly because the people who are making those arguments do not look like the same folks in the street that are being blown over by police.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a legal analyst federal civil rights attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.