NAACP LDF’s Sherrilyn Ifill: Protesters have "lost faith in the justice system"

This week, America lurched from the quiet emptiness of lockdowns to the clamor of crowds as protesters filled streets and plazas around the country, demanding justice for George Floyd, a black man who died as he was forcefully restrained by a white Minneapolis police officer. 

How did we get here?  

60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker this week posed that question to Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The organization, which has argued cases of racial injustice before the Supreme Court, is independent from the NAACP and serves as the legal arm of the civil rights movement. 

For protesters, the video that has sparked demonstrations around the world is clear—George Floyd was was killed at the hands of the police. Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin is seen on tape appearing to squeeze the life out of Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.  

But legally is it so straightforward?

“I think it is,” Ifill said. “We will let the justice system do what it does.”

The issue, she continued—and the reason people have taken to the streets—is that they do not trust the justice system will be fair. 

“They’ve lost faith in our elected leaders,” she said. “They’ve lost faith in the justice system. And why have they lost faith in the justice system? Because too often it has not produced justice.”

Ifill cited other recent cases of white police officers killing black men, including Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Terence Crutcher. In these instances, the officers involved were either acquitted or never charged. 

“We’ve seen too many of these cases in which there has been no accountability,” she said.

For years, videos showing law enforcement using extreme—sometimes fatal—force against black men have galvanized a movement against police brutality. But not everyone who views these videos sees police acting excessively. As Whitaker pointed out, a jury of 12 Californians watched the 1991 video of Rodney King’s beating and agreed the police were justified in their use of force. 

“Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter,” Ifill said, “which is about the narratives that exist in our society that have been created and constructed about black people and that white people have internalized and sometimes even black people internalize about who we are.”

Those narratives, she said, create a picture of black people as criminals who are inherently frightening. According to Ifill, they also work to make people distrust black men’s words.

Ifill pointed to a moment in the video in Minneapolis when Floyd, struggling on the ground, begs to be released from Chauvin’s maneuver, saying, “I can’t breathe.” Another officer is heard responding, “You’re talking just fine.”

“Not even when we’re dying will they believe us,” she said. “And that is because of the stories that have been created from the days of slavery to justify the most inhumane and immoral act, to justify it by suggesting that we were somehow deserving of the fate in which we found ourselves.”

Hours before a white police officer kneeled on a black man’s neck in Minneapolis, a video of a white woman summoning the police on a black bird watcher in New York’s Central Park made its rounds on the internet. 

The man, Christian Cooper, had asked the woman, Amy Cooper, to put her dog on a leash, as is required in the park area where they were standing. She responded by saying she was going to call the police to report “an African-American man” who was “threatening” her life.

“I saw white privilege on full display and the full realization of white people that they can weaponize the police,” Ifill said of the video. 

Ifill told Whitaker the dog owner’s response has its roots in the post-Civil War period, when southern states created so-called black codes, or laws that governed the conduct of freed slaves. Ifill said the laws allowed white people to question black people and ask them to produce papers proving their employment. 

Today, Ifill said, this history has emboldened white people to call 911 and summon law enforcement in everyday situations.

“It is directly connected to this period after slavery in which white people basically deputized themselves to be able to do this, to question black people in public spaces,” Ifill said.

On Tuesday, in reaction to protests growing nationwide, President Trump stood in the Rose Garden, referred to himself as “your president of law and order” and demanded local officials “dominate the streets.”

Ifill rejected his approach. If the president wanted to bring order, she said, he would have used his bully pulpit to speak to the pain of black Americans and demand that justice be served.

“It doesn’t ring with sincerity that this is about wanting to make sure that there is order,” Ifill said, “because he had many opportunities to try to speak into this moment in its earliest phases and chose not to do so.”

Ifill pointed out that her NAACP Legal Defense Fund has represented peaceful protesters for decades, and when these movements gain national attention, some leaders turn the national focus to “law and order.” 

But, she said, the country will continue returning to a state of civil unrest until it addresses the fundamental issue of racial injustice in policing.

“I know that just as we are back in this situation in 2020,” Ifill said, “we will back here again unless we break the cycle of taking our eye off the prize and focusing on the outcome of the event that is the anger, the rage, the pain, rather than the underlying cause.”

Editor’s Note: Several days after Bill Whitaker’s 60 Minutes interview with Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ViacomCBS announced that it was making donations to a number of organizations that support communities of color, including the one that Ms. Ifill heads. ViacomCBS, the parent company of CBS News and 60 Minutes, makes charitable contributions that are wholly separate and apart from 60 Minutes and our editorial decisions.

The videos above were edited by Will Croxton. 

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