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BPR Interview: Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill is the seventh President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She has served as a fellow at the ACLU and is on the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law.

Brown Political Review: As a top civil rights lawyer, what keeps you up at night?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Ferguson has kept me up all night. I worry about the safety of people who are advocating for their civil rights. I think anyone who saw the first nights of the Ferguson protests — the snipers, the gas grenades, the tear gas — can understand why safety is an essential concern at this point. I worry about the ability of marginalized young people to have a chance. That means an education system that gives them real economic opportunities, so they can have their own families and realize their dreams. I also worry about those who have taken a path of crime and who need a path back. To be perfectly honest, I worry about almost everything about the criminal justice system. We’re talking about real people whose liberties are infringed, real people whose lives are taken away, real people who don’t get second chances. I worry that racial discrimination affects the criminal justice process, which delegitimizes the process. That’s dangerous and corrosive to our democracy. Needless to say, I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights.

BPR: It has now been two months since the shooting in Ferguson. What impact has it had?

SI: The issue of police officers shooting unarmed African Americans did not begin with the Mike Brown case, although it did constitute something of a tipping point, both for the people of that community and nationally. Three weeks before, Eric Garner was killed by police officers in Staten Island. However, with Garner’s case, we very quickly learned the name of the officer. He was placed on administrative leave, and preparations were made to engage the mayor and police chief. Ferguson was such a stark contrast. The lack of transparency was astonishing. What we saw in Ferguson was an utter lack of respect. The conduct of police officers during the protest was shocking and appalling and revealed to Americans the militarization of our police forces. People are also now aware of a broader lack of accountability in government, given that officials refused to release documentation about the shooting and that the incident report was not contemporaneously created. What happened in Ferguson is reflective of a broader phenomenon where incredibly weak local governments do not take accountability for real leadership on economic or educational development. I bet, to this day, you can’t even tell me the name of the mayor of Ferguson, or any councilperson, or the town manager. We were presented with the police chief, who works for them. Elected leadership is just passive.

BPR: Did you get the sense that the case of Michael Brown was a touchstone that aggravated existing racial tensions?

SI: Very much so. Killing Mike Brown and leaving his body in the street for four hours reflected a level of disrespect for the community from the police. This community has a deep mistrust for the police department to begin with. Ferguson and the towns surrounding it rely heavily on traffic fines for revenue, so as a result of the excessive reliance on speeding tickets and of the constant engagement with the police, many people feel harassed. There are also pretty awful incidents of police brutality that have been alleged against the police in Ferguson that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is now investigating as part of their [civil rights] investigation.

BPR: What policy ramifications should come of this event?

SI: Four days after Mike Brown’s killing, the Legal Defense Fund submitted a letter to the attorney general with proposals aimed at changing police culture in this country. Through their Justice Assistance Grant Program, the DOJ provides $400 million in funds to police departments around the country. We suggested that those funds come with certain requirements, including training around both explicit and implicit biases, training for de-escalation of violent encounters, training on encounters with the mentally ill and requirements for the use of body-worn cameras. Police officers should be credited for not discharging their weapons and for de-escalating a situation. We really believe that the funding streams present an opportunity to change the culture of police departments around the country by requiring intense training around a core set of issues and by incentivizing police [departments] to not engage in violence…to have a more diverse police force and to engage with the communities they serve. What we too often see on too many videos from all over the country are police officers using every opportunity to ramp up the conflict to a higher level of aggravation. They are supposed to be trained to stop it. What we have continued to see linger is the perception of young African-American men as dangerous and criminal. Until we begin to reverse this perception, and until all Americans — white Americans in particular — believe in the humanity of black people, we will continue to have these incidents of violence, particularly when we are talking about police, who need the training to control what might be their own irrational biases or stereotypes.

BPR: Is the United States backsliding in race relations?

SI: I don’t know that the bar was very high, so I don’t know that we can be backsliding. But I think people forget. Every day I watch people interacting with one another in hotels, in train stations, in bus depots, and other people don’t even know why they’re able to do that. They don’t even know that it came at the cost of lives and struggle. We now just breathe that like air, and it seems perfectly normal. That all goes back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so it would be impossible for me to say that I think we’ve gone backwards. We have every reason to want and demand greater progress. We’ve made progress in enormous ways, progress that is so vast, and so fast, that we almost don’t recognize it has happened anymore. And then in other ways we haven’t made progress; in other ways we still have such a ways to go, and now our expectations are higher than they ever were.

About the Author

Sam Rubinstein is a sophomore, studying Public Policy and Economics. He is an interviews associate at BPR, and is from West Caldwell, NJ.