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Transcript: Sherrilyn Ifill on


The following is a transcript of an interview with Sherrilyn Ifill, President & Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, that aired Sunday, April 25, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”

JOHN DICKERSON: We go now to the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill. She joins us from Baltimore. Good morning.


JOHN DICKERSON: Sherrilyn, there is a long history of protest and reform and struggle that has been in American life since the 60s, but something changed with George Floyd’s murder. And I wonder, with the conviction this week, what you think changed and what you think did not change?


IFILL: Well, I think what has changed since George Floyd was killed last summer is that people who have been in this fight for a long time and let’s be clear, many have been in this fight for decades. The issue of police violence against unarmed African-Americans is an issue of the 20th century. We can go all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century and find these incidents and find this unrest as Black communities have resisted this. It was a signature issue of the unrest in cities across the country during the 1960s. And we emerged from that decade with three core civil rights statutes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But we emerged with nothing on the issue of policing and racism in policing. So I think where we are now, JOHN, is that people are fed up and that’s a good thing because it’s time for a fundamental change. If you can recall, we’ve been in these conversations for the last seven years since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. And there’s been some tinkering around the edges. There’s been some movement. The most powerful movement has been that the conversation has shifted away from talking about tinkering around the edges and modest reforms to radical changes and a radical envisioning of what public safety needs to become in this country.

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JOHN DICKERSON: Where should we put our focus when we- what’s an example of what you’re talking about? In other words, not tinkering, but- but real reform?

IFILL: Well, you look at places like the city of Berkeley that has decided that armed officers will no longer be involved in traffic stops or mental health calls. Or the experiment happening in Ithaca, where the entire police department is being set down for a new community solution and public safety core. It will include some armed law enforcement officers, but it’s focusing on the root causes of crime. It’s shifting resources to mental health, to homelessness services, to youth services. And then it’s focusing on what is it that you actually need armed police officers to do to deal with the most violent of circumstances. But the truth is, it’s a re-envisioning of what public safety needs to be. Do we need an- officers of an armed constabulary to come out to address the possibility that someone is passing a bad $20 check? Do we need armed officers to come out and address a homeless person who won’t leave your front stoop? We have to actually get into thinking about what public safety is supposed to mean and not assuming that we have to continue the current structures. But being bold. What we’ve been doing, JOHN, is something akin to “all deliberate speed.” You’ll remember the admonition of the Supreme Court in the second Brown case, which actually slowed down desegregation. We’ve been moving at a snail’s pace. And I think even for myself, I’ve been involved in this work for quite some time. There’s- there’s just a fundamental shift and we realize that reform around the edges is not going to do it. We’re looking at Elizabeth City today. We’re looking at Spotsylvania County, where there have been additional killings. We need the killings to stop. And that means we’re going to have to have fundamental change.

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JOHN DICKERSON: I wonder if you think there’s also common cause that can be made with a lot of police officers who express this sentiment when I talk to them. They say, you know, we’re in a system where these communities we work in have been failed by education, by the jobs system. There are guns everywhere. And we’re being asked to be the- go in there and- and sort of face all of these problems on our backs. And that requires a broader lens to. Would you agree?

IFILL: I agree. I’m so glad you said that, JOHN, because this is the place- when people talk about making common cause with existing police officers, it’s not about having a pancake breakfast or playing basketball. It’s about some real, honest talk. Police officers need to begin to be honest about the fact that open carry laws and concealed carry laws actually make them nervous. It endangers them. They don’t like people having guns on the street and having concealed carry and walking around with weapons. It makes them nervous. But you don’t hear police or organizations or law enforcement organizations telling the truth, the things that they will set- say behind closed doors about how they feel about these gun laws. It is also true that rather than actually solve the problems of our community, problems of education, problems of poverty, problems of homelessness, we have shifted all of the resources to deal with those problems into our criminal justice system. And we’ve used the criminal justice system as a holding pen for resolving the- the core problems that any healthy democracy has to solve. And that’s the conversation we need to be having now. We are now in a moment where we should be able to look squarely in the face, the issues that have to be addressed, that relate to our young people, that relate to jobs, that relate to homelessness, that relate to the mental health crisis happening across the country, and that COVID will only exacerbate. We need to be putting our resources and attention to those problems and not shunting them off to the criminal justice system and asking police officers, armed officers to address issues that we have been too cowardly to address as a democracy.

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JOHN DICKERSON: As we’re running out of time here, I wanted to ask you about the Justice Department decision this week to open a pattern and practice investigation into Minneapolis. How do you think things will be different under the Biden administration in- in dealing with these issues?

IFILL: Well, I don’t- I think it’ll be night and day from Bill Barr for sure, and I think, you know, Judge Garland, Attorney General Garland, that’s an opening salvo. Barr was asked last summer whether he would open a pattern and practice investigation into Minneapolis, and he blankly said no. So it was important for Judge Garland to say that today. I don’t think this will be the only one. I think this will be the first of many. And one of the things that needs to happen is the reupping of those investigations into unconstitutional policing and bringing resources–

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, Sherrilyn–

IFILL: –to bear to show that we are serious about it. So we were very encouraged.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, Sherrilyn Ifill, thanks so much for being with us. And we’ll be right back.

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