“We Have to Keep the Pressure On”: Lawyer Benjamin Crump Knows Justice for George Floyd Might Not Come in the Courtroom
On the eve of closing arguments and jury deliberation in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd last May, the Hive spoke with civil attorney Benjamin Crump. The lawyer and civil rights activist has won more than 200 cases involving police brutality, representing the families of slain or injured loved ones, including Michael Brown Jr., Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery, and, as of last week, Daunte Wright, who was killed during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, about 10 miles from the courthouse where the jury in the Chauvin case began deliberations Monday.
Vanity Fair: Where are you emotionally right now? The New York Times published an article recently about the number of people who’ve died at the hands of law enforcement since the start of the Derek Chauvin trial. In the past month, we’ve seen the release of a video documenting the encounter of U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario with officers in Windsor, Virginia; the death of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; the release of a video documenting the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago; as well as the announcement that Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer Rusten Sheskey, who shot and seriously injured Jacob Blake, is back on full, active duty. What’s your perspective on the progress we are making, nationally, in the fight for police accountability?
Benjamin Crump: To be fully honest, I’m keeping my eyes on the prize. It is a journey to justice, and nobody said it was going to be a smooth journey. Nobody said it was going to work perfectly, but the one thing I know we have to do as soldiers is that we have to keep in this war for equality and justice for our people. We have to keep marching forward. You know, a lot of times this becomes very emotional, heartbreaking. When Daunte was killed, I just couldn’t fathom a police officer would even pull a weapon in Minnesota, considering that the Chauvin trial was going on for use of excessive force. But yet, [former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter] engaged in what has become all-too familiar in our community, which is this engagement of excessive force when it’s unnecessary.
The fact that she was arrested within the week, I find it very encouraging to show that we are making progress. The activists and the protesters and the young people are making a difference.
That blood—from Michael Brown to Eric Garner to Stephon Clark and Alton Sterling, all those cases where police engaged in excessive force and killed brothers and sisters and there was no accountability—it’s from their blood that we get to Minneapolis, which is ground zero for this civil rights racial reckoning in America, where we think about George Floyd, and [where] his killer, Derek Chauvin, is on trial. We know now that we will get the killer of Daunte Wright having to face the evidence against them in a court of law, which is not common at all in America. So, I’m marching forward.
Where were you when you heard the news about Daunte Wright?
I was getting on a plane from Minnesota to Florida, going home for the weekend to be with my family. I was boarding the plane. One of my paralegals called me and said, “Attorney Crump, you’re not going to believe this. They killed another brother.” I said, “You gotta be kidding.” When he said [it happened] here in Minneapolis, in Hennepin County, I almost fell out of my chair, man. I just could not believe it. If ever there was a time for officers to de-escalate and use the greatest standard of care, it’s now.
Do you think police officers—even in this moment—know how to de-escalate?
They know how to de-escalate just fine. Look at how they de-escalated with the white nationalists who were attacking the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Jimmie, I don’t think they respect our rights to the Constitution. [When] they do everything that the Constitution says you have to do for our white brothers and sisters, you have to do that for our Black and brown brothers and sisters as well. On my social media, @AttorneyCrump, I put four or five videos out there that show white men not just resistant to police, but assaulting and battering the police. They had guns. They took police cruisers, and yet still the police were not shooting them.
I’m just drawing analogies [with the videos]. Apples to apples. They [show] white American citizens, how they are treated, versus how [police officers] treat Black people. [If] a Black person moves a certain way, they’ll shoot to kill them. [A white person] can literally attack, spit on them, take their car, and drive towards them, and they still don’t shoot.
When did you start posting these videos?
I’ve done it before, but in light of Daunte’s [death] I wanted to drive home the notion that [he] should not have been killed. They did not have to arrest him. They could’ve given him a ticket and [court] summons. They didn’t have to tase or shoot him.
George Floyd’s girlfriend, a teacher, taught Daunte Wright in the past. It’s an eerie coincidence these two families would be connected by the same type of tragic losses, no?
That was so ironic. Almost a year ago, the [Floyd] family was dealing with the same situation, and now you have the Wright family starting that path. No parent wants to be part of that fraternity. In fact, it’s harder [for the Wright family] because they’re seeing George go through a character assassination, knowing that they’re going to have to go through the same thing with [Daunte] as well.
When a family comes to you after losing a loved one to a fatal police encounter, what do you say to them?
I always tell them, the fact is we can’t guarantee they will get justice, but we will get the truth of what happened to [their] loved one. I think that’s very important because you want to believe that truth is tantamount to justice, whatever that truth is. Sometimes we went into cases thinking one set of circumstances [happened], and then find out another. So, I always like to be very honest with them to tell them that nobody’s going fight harder for you. We’re going to get to the truth, and you won’t have to be mystified or be concerned [about what happened to your loved one]. We will get to the truth.
As I’m sure you’re aware, televangelist Pat Robertson spoke out against police abuse this week. Will it make a difference?
I want to believe that when you look at that , it is so inhumane that once you see it, hopefully it galvanizes [the] spirits within you to do something, just like it galvanized people all across the world. When I think about Daunte Wright, you know, it’s just so difficult to believe that [the officer] didn’t realize she had a taser. The gun [is supposed to be kept] on the dominant side, and then the taser is on the non-dominant side. So you would have to reach across your belt to get that taser. The taser is [often] yellow, and the gun is black. In fact, the taser has a little button apparently that you need to test it and gauge it. Then finally, the taser itself is eight ounces. So if it’s so small, you can’t tell what kind of weight level, what kind of object is in your hand? It’s hard to believe they continue to try and justify the unjustifiable, but again, you’ve killed another African American. [Editor: The officer has yet to tell her side of the story in a court of law.]
In Pat Robertson’s statement about issues with policing, he spoke of training issues. Is training actually the problem?
I don’t think it’s the training. They can de-escalate just fine when they want to. Just think about Kyle Rittenhouse. Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed, they grabbed his T-shirt running away from them. But then then you see a young white man [Kyle Rittenhouse] shot three people—killing two of them—walk down the street with the assault weapon towards you, and none of you arrest, detain or shoot him in the back, or kill him. Only Black people seem to have to worry about the police shooting first and asking questions later. I think it’s an implicit bias dynamic. We have to have people who live up to the promise that was made to American people in the Declaration of Independence.
America–and police in America–when are you going to hold true to that Declaration about us having a right to be alive, having a right to be free and have liberty, having a right to have economic stability, to pursue happiness in America? When are you going to do that for Black people?
I understand that since that trial began you hold a briefing or protest outside of the courthouse every weekday. There are critics who say you’re distracting from the court proceedings and [may even be] hurting the prosecution’s case.
Look at the history, the lack of police [officer] convictions when we didn’t have public, press conferences that engage the court of public opinion. You see how that turned out for us? So, if we keep doing the same thing and expect different results, that’s the definition of insanity. We have to keep the pressure on. I believe we have to fight them in court of public opinion, and in the court of law. If [the critics) have a better way of helping us get equality and justice, please step up to the plate. I need people to join us as allies in this battle. I’m doing everything I can to deter them for killing our children—whether that means having a press conference and [engaging the press] to talk with us about the humanity of Black life. You see, I’m unapologetic in my defense of Black life, Black liberty and Black humanity. If anybody has a criticism of me, I have no problem with that. I am unapologetic and deliberate in what we’re fighting for.
What has been the emotional journey throughout this trial for the Floyd family? For you?
The journey has been an emotional roller coaster for them. Every day they go into the courtroom and have to witness their brother and their family member being killed all over again. They’re a very strong family in their faith and understand like I do that this is a precedent-setting case. I believe that [Derek Chauvin] getting accountability for what we saw in that video, hopefully will start a precedent of [cases involving] unjustifiable, unnecessary and unconscionable use of force resulting in the death of marginalized minorities [also] having accountability. The fact [that Minneapolis] police officers, including the chief of police, pierced the blue wall of silence and testified truthfully, I believe sets a precedent. The fact that you have a prosecution team so selflessly prosecuting the cop for killing a marginalized minority is something that’s unusual. The fact that you have a jury–God willing–come back and hold that police officer criminally liable sets a precedent.
Is there even a small part of you that acknowledges Derek Chauvin could get off?
No question. No question, man. I’ve been a civil rights attorney for the balance of my professional career, but I’ve been Black all my life. We know the reality of the American legal system. I wrote about it extensively in my book, Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People, that you have you have to acknowledge in every situation that poor people get the most of injustice and the least of justice. So, we can never take for granted that a police officer will be held accountable for killing a Black person unjustly in America because history has told us. There is no guarantee that there will be accountability
What’s your view of the prosecution’s case?
I think [this] is one of the best prosecutions I have ever seen for the unjust killing of a Black person, the most zealous prosecution. [Minnesota Attorney General] Keith Ellison [and] his team have done a yeoman’s job in fighting for criminal liability against Derek Chauvin, fighting for justice. We get civil justice under the Seventh Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution]. It’s only the prosecutors who can get criminal justice under the Tenth Amendment. All we can do is encourage them, engage them, give advice and counsel when asked. Then, you got to just hope they do their job. The defense did exactly what we thought they were going to do. They were going to come and try to distract us. They were going to try to assassinate the character of George [Floyd], talking trace amount of drugs in the system, talking about a health condition that nobody knew about, throwing things on the wall to see if they could get something to stick.
Mr. Crump, we’re both fathers. Coming off a week of so much death and violence centered around Black and brown life, what do we tell our kids?
It can’t only be what we tell our children, it has to be what we do for them so they can see we stood up for them. We fought for them. We spoke up for them and will fight for them until hell freezes over, and then we have to fight on the ice. We believe that much in their future to have a better world, to have equal opportunity, the American dream. We always have [to show] that we didn’t look the other way, and didn’t lose sight. As my preacher says, ‘You can fool a fool, you can con a con, but you can’t kid a kid.” Because no matter what, children are always watching you. My eight-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, was talking about Adam [Toledo] and Daunte [Wright] when I got back [home] today. They’re watching and they need to see what we do.
I sometimes wonder if Black death at the hands of police has reached the level of spectacle, to be consumed and played over and over by media.
Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary that we continue to see the horrific acts that they do to us, because America always has to be reminded over and over again, the two justice systems that exist. They try to ignore these conversations that we need to have a long time ago. I hold a mirror to their faces and say, “Look at it this policy of disparate treatment.” You almost have to have a constant reflection of America [held up] to let them see how bad they’re treating Black people, because they want to say it’s a figment of our imagination. “You must have done something. The police couldn’t have just done this to you.” Thank God for video. The only difference between the video of Rodney King being beat almost 30 years ago and the George Floyd video today is the quality. We have to continue to show them in high definition how [America] treats [the] marginalized compared to how they treat white Americans.
America is telling us they’re not gonna give us anything. If we’re gonna get equality we have to take it. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” and America over and over again continues to demonstrate that for us…. America [wants] to sweep it under the rug. They want to look the other way. They don’t want to have to deal with this racial oppression and discrimination. We have to make them deal with it. I’m a disciple of [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall, and I think what he said is so true [in that this country] never meant for the Constitution to be ours. But, we’re going to make it ours anyway because we’re Americans.
When the verdict comes down, guilty or not guilty, will the next day look any different to you?
No, not at all, because we have gotten further on our journey to justice. I’ll continue to try to evolve and be as strategic as possible to achieve the desired effects. I want to believe that we can learn something every day. And I also want to acknowledge that we learn from the young people every day. I want them to know that what they’re doing is making a difference, with them protesting, using activism, and exercising their First Amendment rights. It makes a difference. The only reason we got an arrest in the Daunte Wright case is because people demanded it. We have engaged our people. We have educated our people. We have empowered our people.
Has the Biden-Harris administration reached out to you, the Floyd and Wright families?
I have been contacted and spoken to people in their offices. [The administration] has offered their sympathies. They’ve spoken to Daunte [Wright’s] family and obviously spoken to the Floyds prior to the Chauvin trial beginning. I told them two things. I always want to be respectful to President Biden. When he makes a comment about how tragic it was what happened to Daunte Wright, [how] it’s unacceptable to have looting and violence. I want him to add a line to his declaration to America in all these tragedies. He also has to say it’s unacceptable for the police to kill unarmed Black people. That’s unacceptable. I always try to be respectful. But as my grandmother taught me,” always speak truth, when you get opportunity always speak truth to power.” She said, “You do it, baby, you do it.” I [also] reiterated they have to use their influence with the United States Senate to finally pass the [George Floyd Justice in Policing Act] so we can have systematic change to reform the behavior and culture of policing in America as it relates to their engagement with marginalized minorities.
— Inside the Messy Breakup of an OnlyFans Model and Her Über-Wealthy Boyfriend— Wyoming Tells Donald Trump Jr. to Sit Down and STFU— A Wave of Displaced New Yorkers Is Upending the Hamptons Social Order— How a Group of Rich Memphians Acted on Trump’s Big Lie During Capitol Attack— Prosecutors Are Lining Up Witnesses in Trump Investigations— Republicans Brave Plan to Stop Mass Shootings: Do Nothing— Next-Level Harassment of Female Journalists Puts News Outlets to the Test— Six Photographers Share Images From Their COVID Year— From the Archive: American Nightmare, the Ballad of Richard Jewell— Serena Williams, Michael B. Jordan, Gal Gadot, and more are coming to your favorite screen April 13–15. Get your tickets to Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour, Live! here.