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Attorney Ben Crump on Trayvon Martin, racial hypocrisy and signs of progress


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump has been called the African-American family's emergency plan. He has represented the families of black men and women killed by the police, including cases that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and legislation on the use of police body cameras.

Yamiche Alcindor is back, and sat down with Crump to talk about his new work for our Bookshelf.

Yamiche Alcindor: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Botham Jean, all unarmed young black men killed in high-profile, racially charged incidents.

Each one of their families turned to the same civil rights attorney to call out what they believed is a deadly pattern of injustice. His name is Ben Crump.

In 2012, Crump gained national prominence when he took on the case of Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old was killed in Sanford, Florida. After his death in the fall and the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

Now Crump has written a new book, "Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People."

He argues that the killings of many are part of a racist criminal justice system.

Thanks so much, Ben, for joining me.

You use the word genocide to describe what's happening to African-American men and women across this country. Why use that word?

Benjamin Crump: Because it is very intentional, that we bring attention to the way black and brown people are being killed, not just by the bullets in these high-profile police shootings, but, more poignantly, how they are killing our people, especially our young people, every day, in every city, in every state, in every courtroom in America, with these trumped-up felony convictions.

In many ways, what I endeavor to do with this book, "Open Season," is hold a mirror up to America's face, so they would have to acknowledge the hypocrisies, that they would acknowledge that racism and discrimination is part of the governance of all the institutions that exist in America.

Yamiche Alcindor: You came into prominence when you represented the family of Trayvon Martin. That's when I met you as a reporter.

You write in this book that, when you were first speaking to the father of Trayvon Martin, you said he wasn't going to need you. You thought that that George Zimmerman would be immediately arrested.

But he wasn't. Explain what happened there.

Benjamin Crump: Because, as an officer of the court -- that's what all attorneys and judges are -- we have to believe in the system, that it will treat each citizen equally.

And, Yamiche, you knew about when Trayvon happened, because you covered it so diligently, that they never intended on arresting the self-confessed killer of an unarmed teenager who had the proverbial smoking gun in his hand at the time.

But when I had that call from his father, I just absolutely believed that you have to arrest him because, in our community, people would get arrested with no evidence at all, on an innuendo or a hunch. And think about all these black men who have been wrongfully convicted.

So I just thought they had to arrest him at least. And so I told his father, you know, you don't need me. Give it a couple of days.

But then, a couple of days went by. And he called me back. And he says, "See, attorney Crump, I told you. They told me they were not going to arrest him because of this thing called stand your ground."

Yamiche Alcindor: After the death of Michael Brown, thousands of people gathered to protest in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, but African-Americans are still being killed by police in these racially charged incidents.

What do you make of that?

Benjamin Crump: Well, I think it's a long journey to justice. And I think we get progress slowly. But I do see progress.

I think about, as tragic as the killing of Michael Brown was, there was some positive that came out of it. President Obama signed legislation where $50 million were allocated to equip local police agencies with body camera video. And that has made a world of difference for transparency.

Yamiche Alcindor: You also have a chapter in your book called "Police Don't Shoot White Men in the Back."

Tell me about that in the situations that you have seen where white people get treated one way and African-Americans get treated in another.

Benjamin Crump: You know, I go around the country speaking at a lot of universities and civic organizations.

And one of the things I do, Yamiche, I say, can you tell me a black or brown person who has been killed by police brutality or shot in the back by police while they're running away?

And, I mean, immediately, people just start spouting off names that we have become familiar with through hashtags.

And then I say, now tell me the name of a white person who's been killed by the police from a shot in the back. And it's silence, because the police just don't do it, or it's so rare that we don't know any of their names.

Yamiche Alcindor: You're talking about hypocrisy in America.

You have also experienced and witnessed a lot of trauma of families that have personally experienced these. How has that affected you and how has that affected these families?

Benjamin Crump: I still talk to many of them daily.

I was just in Saint Louis doing a book signing. And Michael Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, introduced me. And we talk about how it's been five years, and, every day, we continue to try to define the legacy of her firstborn son, Michael Brown.

Trayvon's parents -- Sybrina is seeking political office, trying to transform the pain into power, because there is a hole in their heart that will never be filled. And, in many ways, even though we win the civil rights lawsuits in federal court, but the cost of prosecutors when they are trying to prosecute the killers of unarmed people of color, especially police, it's like a fish-out-of-water experience.

They're so used to prosecuting and putting black and brown people in jail, that, when they have to try to dignify them and talk about them as honorable American citizens, they have a difficult time to do it -- doing it.

Yamiche Alcindor: And you write that America is both a racist nation, but also the greatest nation.

How can both of those things be true? And what do you think is the solution to all of this?

Benjamin Crump: Yes, Yamiche, I think about we have to make these dead words on paper, no matter how glorious they are, a reality.

And the only people who can do that is us. And America is still the greatest country in the world, where disenfranchised people and marginalized people can change their destiny in life.

It's just that we have to make everybody have an opportunity to the American dream, not just a few. That means black and brown people, too.

Yamiche Alcindor: Well, the book is "Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People."

Ben Crump, thanks so much for being here.

Benjamin Crump: Thank you for having me.

Judy Woodruff: And thank you, Yamiche.

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