Justice in America Episode 25: Conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill

Josie Duffy Rice and guest co-host Darnell Moore talk with Sherrilyn Ifill about policing, civil rights, the criminal justice system, and more.

Justice in America Episode 25: Conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill

Josie Duffy Rice and guest co-host Darnell Moore talk with Sherrilyn Ifill about policing, civil rights, the criminal justice system, and more.

On this episode of Justice in America, Josie Duffy Rice and her guest co-host, Darnell Moore, talk to Sherrilyn Ifill about policing, civil rights, the criminal justice system, and more. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights law organization. LDF was founded in 1940 by one of the most important civil rights lawyers in history, Thurgood Marshall, who later became Supreme Court justice. Ifill began her career as a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, before joining the staff of the LDF as an assistant counsel in 1988, where she litigated voting rights cases for five years. Her 2007 book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” was highly acclaimed, and is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation. Ifill is one of our heroes, and it was an honor to speak with her for this episode of Justice in America.

One of Sherrilyn Ifill’s Book Recommendations, The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures: Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia by Martin Kilson. 

Please listen for more wonderful book selections.

Additional Resources:

For more on Ifill’s incredible career and the critical work being done by NAACP LDF, please click here

National Police Funding Database

Using Data to Promote Fair and Accountable Policing Practices


Here is an op-ed Sherrilyn wrote for CNN around the database launch:


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Our email is justiceinamerica@theappeal.org



[Begin Clip]

Sherrilyn Ifill: So many lynchings took place on the courthouse lawn in this country. When I was growing up, I really believed that lynchings took place in the woods somewhere and that’s just not true. So often, the courthouse lawn was a very deliberate place for lynchings to happen because the lynchers and the crowd meant to be saying something about who was in control of justice, and they meant to be critiquing the formal justice system.

[End Clip]

Josie Duffy Rice: Hey everybody, I’m Josie Duffy Rice.

Darnell Moore: And I am Darnell Moore.

Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works. 

Darnell: Thank you everyone for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page, find it at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear from you.

Josie: So we’re really excited about our interview today. We started this episode with a clip from our featured guest Sherrilyn Ifill. Sherrilyn is literally one of the most remarkable civil rights leaders, lawyers and activists in America. I mean, she is a true true living legend. She’s a law professor, she’s an author, and she’s also currently the President and Director of Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She is the Legal Defense Fund’s seventh president since Thurgood Marshall himself founded the organization back in 1940.

Darnell: We’re so excited recently Sherrilyn spent some time with us in New York, where we discussed her work with the Legal Defense Fund, policing, how it works and what it should look like. We talked about her book, which is titled On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century, and much more. Sherrilyn just brings so much passion, so much verve, the brilliant context to her work, and this is a person who has long, long, long been doing the work and particularly when we’re thinking about civil rights work, and as a sort of long trajectory where black men are often lifted up as the people who are doing things, but then you have black women who have always been doing the work, people like Sherrilyn have been doing it and we’re so happy to have talked to her.

Josie: Yeah, it was a really incredible conversation. We’re excited for you to hear it. So stay tuned for our talk with Sherrilyn Ifill.


Josie: So we’re so excited today we have a very, very special guest Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director of Counsel at NAACP LDF, Legal Defense Fund, premier civil rights organizations in the country of our time, and over the last almost 80 years. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you. Happy to be here. 

Josie: So tell us a little bit about your career leading up to LDF and we could do a whole podcast on just that (laughs) but as we’re kind of getting into the issue of the day, which is policing, I thought just people understanding what you’ve done in your career and how you got here is good context.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, it’s an interesting arc because I started my career at LDF largely. I graduated from law school and then went to the ACLU for a year and did a fellowship and then came to LDF and I was a voting rights attorney for five years. This was my absolute dream job. I just loved it. I just knew this was the right place for me, and knew this was the work I wanted to do. I’d wanted to be a civil rights lawyer from the time I was a kid and it was happening and that was fantastic. It was incredibly hard work, it was the hardest work I’ve ever done. I’ve always said that if I didn’t get an ulcer the first 18 months I was at LDF it will never happen because it was just super stressful. And the stress was largely that, first of all, I was working in a building with the smartest people I have ever met and secondly, I was extremely green, I was a very young lawyer, and what I discovered on my first trips South — most of our clients and cases are in the south, we were in the South then and still are today — was how much confidence our clients had in me simply because the LDF lawyer was there, was coming. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I was learning as I went and that was incredibly stressful. And the stress was that our clients really believed in us and you had to figure out how to merit that confidence, you couldn’t just say, you know, I don’t know what I’m doing. You had to learn, you had to know what you were doing and so that was incredibly stressful until you started to get the hang of it. And then once you get the hang of it, there is a sweet spot that you hit where you do know what you’re doing, but you’re still learning and your clients are amazing and extraordinary and you’re being creative in the work and it’s just wonderful. So I did that for five years. And then I left to teach law school.

Darnell: And now here you are-

Sherrilyn Ifill: Back.

Darnell: Back.

Josie: (Laughs.)

Sherrilyn Ifill: Return engagement. By the way, a lot of LDFers who are on their second, third, sometimes we have one person who at some point was on her fourth round, people do come back, you know, to LDF, because it stays in your blood. I was away 20 years and if you asked me where my professional home was I would have still said LDF.

Darnell: Wow. And LDF does a lot. You all have a lot of issue areas that you’re focusing on. So along with education, access to the ballot, economic justice and other issues, you do a ton of criminal justice work, specifically on policing. So can you talk a bit about how LDF is sort of your entry point to policing and how you manage that?

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, it’s interesting, because now people talk about policing and policing reform, but if you think about some of LDF earliest work, if you think about that Pulitzer Prize winning book from 2013, Devil in the Grove, you know, in which Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg are representing several young men who had a fatal encounter with local sheriff, you know, if you go back into LDF’s history, so much of our work involves actions by law enforcement, and I think people forget that because for some people, it feels like policing reform is a new issue, but for us, it’s not. LDF actually litigated the case Tennessee versus Garner, which is the case that provides us with the principle about what police officers can do in encounters and whether or not they can engage in deadly force and use deadly force when someone is running away. And in Tennessee versus Garner, the Supreme Court’s decision was that you can’t, is that like if someone is running away and they’re not harming you, you can’t just shoot them, because in that case, they shot a 15 year old boy, who they believed had been engaged in robbing a home and he was running away and climbing over a fence and he was shot. And essentially, what the court said is that you can’t do that unless the person is a threat to others or a threat to you in some way. And so what should have been kind of a win, right? Which is that you can’t shoot this kid in the back who’s running away, has turned into an elaborate redefinition of what constitutes a threat and so essentially, now what you hear and that’s why it’s almost become stylized, is that you hear police officers say that they believed, you know, this person was dangerous to other people, right Walter Scott is running away-

Josie: Right. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, he’s 53, he’s not an athlete. 

Josie: Right. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: But, you know, he might have harmed someone else that he encountered, right? It isn’t that Mike Brown wasn’t running away is that ‘He might have harmed somebody, there was a housing project’ said Officer Darren Wilson ‘right there and he might have harmed someone going in there.’ So it’s a real testament to how the arc of the work and the kind of attention you have to give to legal standards that get developed, and then redeveloped and then reshaped and then undermined and then misused and then really turned into something that they were not originally meant to be.

Josie: The Tennessee versus Garner case, this idea of threat is that just directly related to this, ‘I feared for my life’? So we hear this a lot. 

Sherrilyn Ifill:  Pretty much so. It is, you know, ‘I feared for my life or I feared for others,’ right? It’s either ‘The person that I was encountering made me afraid and made me believe that they could harm me’ and thus, it feeds into the very lurid descriptions that you hear, right? The person was bulking up, you know, like the Incredible Hulk.

Josie: What did they say about Mike Brown? 

Sherrilyn Ifill: That was it. Yeah, it was “running through the bullets,” you know, and I mean, so it really lends itself to these kinds of lurid descriptions of the fear or even someone like Eric Garner who’s being choked to death, but he’s a large African American man and so, and all you have to do is say these words and because they play into the stereotypes and fears of so many white decision makers, grand jurors, judges, average people in the media and so forth it’s carried this currency and so you hear this kind of choreography develop. But I started out saying this, because if you just think about the arc of LDF’s work, going back to the forties, but then even in a seminal case, like Tennessee versus Garner, this has been work that we’ve been deeply engaged in, over many, many years.

Josie: And you guys all have kind of been beating a drum or making the point for decades that this idea that it’s a few bad apples, this idea that it’s just a couple of people who have bad intentions, but everybody else has good intentions, you guys have been the one sort of saying, and I think your last point about Tennessee versus Garner kind of embodies this, that this is a systemic problem, and that the entire industry of policing needs to be basically refashioned from the ground up. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, I think it’s very comforting for people to see, I mean, this is a classic move in the civil rights space, which is to see every civil rights violation as its own individual thing that has no connection to anything else and if you thought that in 1960, in Mississippi, if you thought every time an individual was denied the right to register to vote, that it was that individual encounter of that one person with that registrar, right? If every time a black person wanted to register at the University of Alabama, and they were denied admittance and you treated that as one individual person who was denied admittance by one registrar to the University of Alabama, you wouldn’t even have a civil rights movement. You couldn’t coherently make the case that there was something systemic happening that needed to be addressed. If it was actually just about Rosa Parks not being able to sit in the front of the bus that day, right?

Darnell: Right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Then it wouldn’t even be significant that she refused to give up her seat and that you could start something like a Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this is not an unusual tactic to use in the civil rights space. And that’s the tactics being used around policing, unconstitutional policing and police violence against unarmed African Americans that every encounter is to be seen as an individual encounter on its own merits without any systemic resonance or significance. Now, the examples I just gave of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, of voting rights, of segregation, it’s absurd to imagine those encounters as each being individual now. But that’s precisely what people are doing, who are making the bad apples argument around policing because at some point, you reach a critical mass, where you have to recognize that you have a systemic problem, and you have a systemic problem when it presents itself so similarly, across geography, across different parts of the country, across police departments, across kind of encounters, across gender. I mean, it’s, at some point the commonalities become more than the idiosyncrasies of the encounters and that’s when you know you have a systemic problem. That’s the first step to being able to solve the problem. You have to name the problem appropriately to solve the problem. And so getting away from this idea of bad apples is really important and it’s become a kind of, in my view, really irresponsible defense.

Darnell: Yeah, so you’ve been naming the problem. You’ve been at the forefront of discussing systemic issues, particularly as it relates to policing and other forms of injustices. In your book On the Courthouse Lawn, it’s an incredible history of lynching in America and one of the things you do is you connect and you weave together the sort of notion of lynching with policing. Talk a bit about this idea of lynching and its connections to policing and how it worked in the past.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I don’t want to overstate it because I don’t know that I would describe the connection as that direct except in this way, lynching was used as a form of the white community taking into their hands what they believed justice should be. And the name of my book is On the Courthouse Lawn, because so many lynchings took place on the courthouse lawn in this country. When I was growing up, I really believed that lynchings took place in the woods somewhere and that’s just not true. So often, the courthouse lawn was a very deliberate place for lynchings to happen because the lynchers and the crowd meant to be saying something about who was in control of justice and they meant to be critiquing the formal justice system, right? To say, ‘We know what justice is, we know who did it, we are going to make it happen fast, we’re not going to go through all this process, we’re not gonna let this person have counsel, we’re not gonna let this person have due process, we’re not going to allow witnesses to be brought forth and to be questioned, we’re not going to challenge the story of the victim,’ none of that, right? ‘We’re going to do this.’ So it’s a very deliberate articulation of challenge to the formal justice system. Not that the formal justice system was great. The formal justice system was rife with discrimination and so forth. But nevertheless still not good enough for those who believed they had to take the law into their own hands. So that’s one piece of it. The other piece of it is that one of the most, I think, chilling aspects of lynching is the complicity of the institutions of our legal system, right? The other most chilling aspect of lynching is the involvement of ordinary people in lynching and we’ll talk about that in a minute too. But the role of institutions, the role of local newspapers, the role of judges, the role of law enforcement, the role of prosecutors in condoning lynching, the number of people who were removed from a jail and lynched.

Darnell: Yeah.

Josie: Right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: When Matthew Williams was lynched in Salisbury, Maryland on December 4, 1931 at eight o’clock at night, and he was taken from Peninsula Hospital and dragged from Peninsula Hospital to the courthouse lawn to the corner of Maine and Division in the town of Salisbury, multiple witnesses reported that there was so many people in the crowd the police officer was directing traffic. Police Officer wasn’t trying to save Matthew Williams’ life, he was on crowd control.

Josie: Making it easier for everybody to get there. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Right. You know, when black men were accused of violent crimes against whites on the eastern shore of Maryland in the 1930s, which is the subject of my book, it was understood that if you wanted them to live, you had to get them to Baltimore City and you had to get them into the Baltimore City jail for what they called “safekeeping.” And so there are multiple stories and some of them I recount in the book of black men who were then brought to Baltimore City and who were maintained there, who were accused of these crimes on the eastern shore, and by the way, that was before there was a Bay Bridge, so this was a pretty big deal, you had drive up through Delaware. I mean, it was a big deal. But local sheriffs who did that could save the life, often temporarily, because the man often then would be subject to what some people will call legal lynching or at least a legal system that left much to be desired in some cases, and would be executed anyway. But at least the person went through a legal process. But, you know, there are cases like George Armwood in 1933, who was brought to Baltimore City for safekeeping after being accused of assaulting an elderly white woman and under pressure from the community, the sheriff brought him back the next day and he was dragged from the jail-

Josie: The Baltimore sheriff running back or the sheriff from?

Sherrilyn Ifill: The sheriff from the eastern shore ordered that he be brought back, got on the boat across the river and brought him back and he was taken from the jail and hung and burned on the courthouse lawn of Princess Ann in Somerset County, Maryland. So that question of law enforcement complicity in lynching is a connection that I just think has to be explored. But in my view, it’s terrible and awful, but also terrible and awful was the role of other institutions, was the role of the media, in some instances, not even reporting on a lynching that happened, really gaslighting the black community into maintaining silence about events that took place or reporting the events in ways that presumed the guilt of the African American person who had been subject to no true investigation, no real due process and so forth. So I don’t mean to suggest that law enforcement was alone as an institution in its complicity, but since lynching was really a challenge to law enforcement it really mattered. And the role of DAs in particular was really quite egregious even when it was apparent who the lynchers were, the refusal to prosecute them, the insistence and acceptance of the testimony of witnesses that, you know, ‘I didn’t see anybody’ in the lynchings that I wrote extensively about, there were no masked lynchers. They were there quite openly, and yet witness after witness after witness after witness saying ‘I didn’t recognize anyone.’

Josie: Right. You brought up the complicity of media, which, again, I don’t want to overstate the commonalities, because I don’t want to downplay just the terror of lynching, we still see these patterns of some injustice being, the over prosecution or the over punishment of some but total lack of accountability for others, and the media not being responsible, or reporting on some of the stuff that they should report on. I was just looking up a death penalty case a couple weeks ago where I can’t find any articles about this guy who’s been sentenced to death by the state. That to me is shocking. And I wonder how you see today as the conversation about policing has, in some ways gotten better and some ways gotten worse, how you see the complicity of the media or what you wish you would see differently from the media?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I really want to credit here, this is why for real progress, civil rights progress to happen, you need a confluence of factors. So I’m a civil rights lawyer and I lead a civil rights legal organization but I’ve never been of the belief that lawyering alone can produce seismic change. You need movements to produce change, also. And one of the things I think has come out of our kind of post Ferguson moment is a measure of accountability, particularly for media and reporting on these stories and how they report on these stories. We’re still not there. It’s still like appalling to see the way young black men and women are described and the kind of presumption of criminality that often attaches to them and the failure to really humanize many of these stories is just still stunning and appalling and what we’ve learned, we’ve learned by pushing. Now some of it is because there’s a deliberate masking of the truth. So if you just accepted Michael Slager’s police report after he came back from killing Walter Scott, and you were a nice, intrepid reporter, and you got the police report, the police report would show you that this officer had this encounter with this violent black man who tried to take his taser from him and he was able to save his own life by killing this man. And so I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t deliberate cover ups also in the case of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, where, you know, ‘He’s got the big knife and he’s advancing on us,’ but in fact, it’s not true. He’s actually walking away and you also have then four other police officers who cosigned that description. So that’s real that some of this is masked deliberately by police officers. But this is where we get to the systemic issue. If you are an intrepid reporter in Chicago, if you are an intrepid reporter in North Charleston, if you are an intrepid reporter in New York, if you are an intrepid reporter in St. Louis, then you should know something about this systemic reality and you should be probing beneath the surface of the unadorned report that you receive. So when we see one of these videos that will come up on social media of police officers appearing to unconstitutionally assault or unconstitutionally kill an unarmed African American, I too pull the police report, I want to know what the police said but I don’t stop there. 

Darnell: Right. 

Josie: Right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, I mean, obviously, I keep going because we know this systemic reality. So I do hold the media responsible for not going that extra step, for being willing to accept the received wisdom or the packaged story when by now we know that the packaged story very often — not always but very often — doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s number one. Number two, is about whether or not you believe in the full humanity of black people and if you do, then there is a way you talk about a black person who has been killed. And in particular, a black person who is unarmed, and who has been killed. If you believe in the humanity of black people, and you actually watched the video of Eric Garner being choked to death, I’m assuming that for many people, maybe that’s the first video they saw of someone being killed before their eyes. 

Darnell: Yeah. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: So if that doesn’t get you in a place where you’re hearing that man say, ‘I’m tired of it’ and you don’t hear him, you’re just like, he’s big and he’s black, like if that’s the story that’s going around your head, and if your inclination is to believe that the officer was frightened, then I do blame you. I blame you because you are required to be a human being in whatever profession you are in and you are required to bring humanity to whatever work you do and by the way reporters do bring humanity to work that they do when they feel it, when they feel the humanity of a person, then they will describe the grieving widow, then they will describe the young, promising man, then they will describe the elderly person who survived World War II, I mean, then they will describe the heroism that is inherent in people so it’s not as though they never do it. And that I think bothers me most of all, because that makes it very, very difficult to do this work, when what is being sold, and what is being approved, is a vision of black people that denies their humanity. When a child, happened just recently, is arrested at age six for having a tantrum in school and interestingly, the headline is like “Grandmother Outraged Over Child’s Arrest,” and I’m thinking-

Josie: I had the same thought.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, the child’s arrest is outrageous in a completely neutral way, you know, I don’t know that the grandmother’s outrage is the story.

Josie: Right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Appreciate the attention to her outrage but it doesn’t seem like the headline. And so there are these ways in which I just think that many members of the media have to begin to question themselves, we have to begin to understand how racial exclusion produces a failure, a kind of inability to discuss in real human terms who people are and that that’s influential, that that cascades out to the public. I’m not actually blaming the media for it, because racism is a very deep, deep sickness in American life that was not created by the media but I am saying that, particularly in reporting on the kinds of encounters that we’re talking about, the media plays an oversized role in helping people understand in that initial first hour, ‘How should I be thinking about this?’ ‘How should I be thinking about this?’ And now we’re having this conversation because of these videos but it’s not as though this wasn’t happening long before we were seeing any videos.

Darnell: For sure. 

Josie: I’m thinking about those “I can breathe” sweatshirts the cops started wearing kind of, in The Times, like marching through the streets after Eric Garner and the inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You just watched this man die and it’s crazy that like the response is-

Sherrilyn Ifill: And you take his last words. Yeah. 

Josie: And the media, maybe there was some sort of bigger media response in the outskirts of the media, but the traditional media was not, these are our public officials, they are state actors walking around clowning this guy’s last words. That’s beyond comprehension.

Darnell: Particularly within this moment, so here we are in the midst of an election cycle where policing, policing reform may or may not be a single sort of issue that some candidates will talk about, but it’s an issue for sure, particularly within communities of color, within black communities and I’m interested in the work of police reform. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. 

Darnell: Right? Which isn’t an easy fix. Talk to us about police reform, what it actually takes to change a system that’s deeply entrenched with a lot of issues that you raised, policing power is largely local but the federal government also has its hands or can have its hands in the work of police reform. Talk a bit about that.

Sherrilyn Ifill: It’s a great question because it takes soup to nuts and I get so frustrated when we feel like people feel like maybe police reform is not happening or maybe it’s over or, or people think the one thing they’re doing is policing reform, or think that you can have criminal justice reform without policing reform. Like there’s just so many layers to this that are important. I think what is critical to remember is when we talk about systemic injustice in the way we’ve just been talking about it, and the way we’ve been talking about the culture of policing, that it takes from soup to nuts, right? Systems and deeply entrenched culture are not created just by the actors who are in that system. It takes reinforcing messages, it takes resources, it takes support, it takes impunity, it takes a whole series of actors all working together, even if they don’t know they’re working together, even if you could give them a lie detector test, and they would not know that they were working in concert to preserve a culture and a system, it takes all of that. So begin with the idea that to dismantle it requires you to be operating on all those levels. So the local, we know, there are efforts to address policing reform at the local level. And one of the things that was really helpful to us is places where you have these consent decrees because you essentially have permission to be in it and to be monitoring every practice and to be collecting data. One of the big issues is do we have the data? To be collecting data, to be requiring changes in police training and practices and the kinds of things that change culture at the very local level so you can engage with police chiefs, you can engage with the mayor. We do a lot of work in Baltimore, where I spend quite a bit of time and it’s like you are in it. And you’re working with community groups who are in the face of public officials all the time and you can really break it down at a very minute level. And it’s really important because you have to understand everything from soup to nuts. You know, I’m a big believer that you can’t leave recruitment off the table, because who are these people? Right? Because sometimes you read some stories, if you read about the guy who arrested the six year old in Florida, and you’re saying, so why is he a police officer? So first of all, you want to get rid of the psychopaths and the people who just should not be police officers. And interestingly, when you talk with police leadership, police chiefs, like most people who are running an organization, they also would like to not recruit crazy people for the most part, right? So there is some commonality there about how we can sift, right? How can we retain the ones who are good? How can we train people in constitutional policing and what do we do when people fail to absorb what the training is? What does that training look like? So there’s a lot to be done at the local level, and it’s stop and start and fits and starts, it’s minute, it’s looking at how does the field training officer engage with the person who just graduated from the academy? We had a situation in Baltimore last Summer where a young man who graduated from the academy was highly decorated and then two or three weeks later was on a video punching the hell out of a citizen. Just so violent, so outrageous. Now he was convicted, just to show you how things have changed a little bit, he was convicted of that crime but this is somebody who had just graduated from the academy so it’s like back to the drawing board. How is it possible somebody got through with this level of completely ill equipped and shouldn’t be a police officer. Something’s wrong with your screening. Something’s wrong. So it stops and starts back and forth. Then you have the issue of prosecutors and a big aspect of policing is impunity. Police officers have to know that, like everyone, that if they violate the law, they’re going to be punished. There have to be internal punishments, right? I mean, no one believes that anyone who makes a mistake on the job should be fired immediately but the mistake is not like punching out an unarmed citizen, right? That is illegal. And to the extent that prosecutors are not part of the fix, of understanding their role, being to do justice, even when it means that that justice is to be done in a way that means that a police officer has to be held accountable for his illegal actions. That’s a problem. But I don’t want to leave on the table, the federal piece, because we only have to look at our history to understand the vital role that the federal government plays in transformation to the extent it can happen. And here I’m not speaking of the federal government in an esoteric theoretical way, I’m talking about money, I’m talking about resources. So I’m from that group of young people that had the experience of being bused in the north to integrated schools in New York City. In my family, I have nine older siblings, and I’m the first person who was bused from kindergarten to integrated schools and went to integrated schools K through 12 in New York City. How does that happen in the north? So we all know about the South. We all know about the desegregation cases and LDF plays such a vital role winning the Brown versus Board of Education case and subsequent desegregation cases carrying hundreds of desegregation cases on our docket. We still have many desegregation cases under consent decree that we continue to litigate and there are still very present issues of segregation in southern schools. But in the north, it was largely after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes Title Six, and Title Six of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that the federal government cannot provide support to any program that engages in discrimination. And so it was when northern schools became aware that they could lose their funding, or at least believed some of them that they could lose their funding, that you began to see busing begin in the late 1960s, following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So people like me who benefited in that brief little area happened because of that, and then we know what happened in the early 1970s in Boston and the pushback from whites and so forth. But nevertheless, the money piece was powerful and important. It’s almost as though we’ve completely forgotten about the money piece because we give billions of dollars, when I say we I mean, you and me, people who pay federal taxes, give billions of dollars to police departments around the country and yet the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title Six says that the federal government should not give to any program that engages in discrimination. So how is it that we can have police departments who the federal government themselves, the Department of Justice has documented, have engaged in unconstitutional policing? Baltimore, Chicago, I mean, run the list, right? Seattle, how are they still getting money? So one of the issues that we stay really focused on is the federal government’s role. Now obviously, at this moment, we have a federal government that not only is immune to criticism about how it’s deploying its funds, but actually it’s like actively engaged on the other side, right? This is the Justice Department that tried to slow walk the Baltimore City consent decree. This is the Justice Department that was not even involved in the Chicago consent decree. That’s a case between the state and the city of Chicago and yet Jeff Sessions, the then Attorney General, files a statement of intent saying he doesn’t think the consent decree should happen. This is a president who describes arresting people saying you shouldn’t be too gentle, shove them into what he called the “paddy wagon.” Right? This is a president who as one of his official acts pardons one of the most notorious law enforcement officers in the country, Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, who was found to have engaged in flagrant racial discrimination and profiling against Mexican American immigrants in Arizona, and then who was held in contempt by a federal court because he wouldn’t stop doing it and this president pardons him and calls him a great patriot. So we now have a federal government that is completely on the other side. But I still believe and we still believe that it is vitally important that citizens not sleep or give up on the idea that we should not be giving money to police departments that engage in discrimination. And so we’re going to be releasing a database where you’re going to be able to search and find out how much money the federal government gives your local police departments and even more fun, you’re going to be able to also search how much your police department gives out and pays out in settlements for misconduct. 

Darnell: See, that’s good. 

Josie: I love that.

Sherrilyn Ifill: So like, what’s that about? So billions of dollars that we’re giving to police departments, and then those same police departments also pay out millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars in settlements for unconstitutional policing, for police brutality, for misconduct and so forth. So I think sometimes when we think about justice issues, we turn away from the money and I actually think where the federal government is concerned, we should be leaned in and focused because the money has provided a powerful incentive when we want change to happen in this country. When we fund something, we could make transformation happen. There’s a lot to do to make transformation happen. I’m not saying it’s a magic trick. But I am saying that if you continue to fund something, where you’re trying to make a culture change and you’re continuing to fund and seed into the culture remaining status quo, that you can be doing all the local work you want to on the bottom, but while those dollars are coming in for new toys, and new guns and tanks and more officers to be trained into the same system, and no accountability and so forth, you’re playing a losing game. So you got to be playing this game from the bottom at the local granular level and from the top at the federal government level. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do is squeeze the two and then also trying to address the prosecutor issue. So we have a prosecutor reform project, where we’re really trying to equip local civic groups, black civic groups that exist in our community, to help communities evaluate what makes a good prosecutor. And here again, not partisan, no endorsement of a candidate, I run a nonpartisan organization, I don’t get involved in endorsing candidates for election, but if two candidates are running, frankly, if one candidate is running unopposed, as a prosecutor, how do you evaluate that candidate? And we know that now we have the term “progressive prosecutor” out there, it actually is even harder because anybody can adopt that word and just because you’re black doesn’t make you a progressive prosecutor.

Josie: Or just because you’re a Democrat. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Or just because you’re a Democrat or just because you are willing to prosecute police officers, because prosecutors do all kinds of other stuff. So if you’re still overcharging and you’re still contributing to mass incarceration, if you’re still violating the Brady rule, which says that you got to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, if you’re still violating Batson, which means that you are deliberately excluding African Americans from jury service because you think it’ll increase your conviction rate, you are not a progressive prosecutor.

Josie: Right. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: So you’ve really got to be working this thing, the levers at all the different levels if you’re serious about reform, because you have to know it’s a long game and the long game is really about trying to change culture and system but, actually, even more so I think is really helping people in communities answer the question of what they really want to see in public safety.

Darnell: For sure. 

Josie: One thing I think people don’t know about federal funding of police officers is how much of it is like you said: equipment. Military equipment going to the local police.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, there’s a program, the 1033 Program, that provides military, you remember when Ferguson first happened and suddenly the tanks were rolling out and officers were loaded with these military grade weapons, everybody was going, what is going on? Remember, they hadn’t even been trained with the use of that equipment when they were rolling it out. So there’s an actual program that provides that weaponry to our local police departments, and trying to address that program is really vitally important. So some of it is that kind of firepower and equipment. The taser, which people thought was supposed to make sure that we didn’t have deadly encounters but, you know, we should be talking about how tasers are used and what the protocols are for the use of tasers and how they are overused and the kinds of injuries that they cause. And now many of us supported the use of body worn cameras only to discover now that facial recognition technology is embedded in body worn cameras that we find really deeply problematic. So I mean, you have to be looking at the hardware itself, but then you also have to be looking at what you require in exchange for that money and that’s the part that I think is galling. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable thing to require that police departments do the kind of training, introduce the kind of accountability measures, introduce the kind of disciplinary measures and so forth, recruitment measures, that ensures that the federal money that we are giving them is being used in a manner that is constitutional. And right now, there is just no interest by this Justice Department in seeing that and in fact, as you may recall, Attorney General Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would no longer engage in pattern and practice investigations of police departments, meaning they would not investigate systemic unconstitutional policing in police departments. And the current attorney general, Attorney General Barr, has kind of continued with the Sessions edict. Now this is really important because the statute that allows the Department of Justice to do these investigations is called the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute and it authorizes the attorney general and only the attorney general to engage in these pattern and practice investigations. So we essentially have an attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of our country, who has said he will not enforce this statute that gives him alone the authority to do these pattern and practice investigations. Now, it doesn’t mean that other people can’t sue police departments. But I’m talking about this kind of pattern and practice investigation that we saw that produced what this country learned about the court system in Ferguson, what we learned about unconstitutional policing in Baltimore, and so forth. Now, LDF was part of the collection of groups that sued the NYPD around a set of police practices, largely known as stop-and-frisk and so it’s not as though individual groups can’t sue police departments. But this is very onerous work. Getting the data alone is years in the making. This is not something that you just turn around on a dime and do but when you look at when the federal government is involved, when you look at when they open an investigation against Baltimore, and by the next year, the report is out, right?

Josie: Right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: The resources they have cannot be duplicated by one, two, three, four, ten civil rights groups. And so this is a real loss. And yet we have just accepted that the Department of Justice has just said “We’re not going to do it, we know we have the statute, we know we’re the chief law enforcement officer, we know the statute only authorizes us to do these kinds of investigations, but we’re just not going to do it.”

Josie: Right. And it’s in the name. It’s called Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Right. I mean, wow.

Darnell: Can we talk about sort of the state of things, state of the US post-Ferguson, really interested in your thoughts? Ferguson, in many ways, was a galvanizing moment and galvanized people but what do you think was the impact of Ferguson on societal understandings of policing? If any.

Sherrilyn Ifill: When Mike Brown was killed, I’m pretty sure it was a Saturday afternoon because I was on Twitter, I’d never heard of the place Ferguson before. So I knew St. Louis, but I didn’t know Ferguson. And I remember seeing the first tweets about his body still lying in the street, three hours later, still lying in the street. I remember and I knew something was happening. By the time people came out on the streets and the protests were beginning by Sunday night, certainly Monday, something was happening. The question was why? And I think that’s the eye opening part because sadly, black people are killed, unfortunately, in this country every day. Someone is killed black, white, whatever race, every day and it doesn’t cause unrest, right? So if somebody is killed, and it causes unrest, it’s telling you something about the condition of people in that community and that’s the message that was being sent. It’s not as though it wasn’t about Mike Brown, but it was about more than Mike Brown. And that was very, very obvious very early on. So I think what was really vitally important that young people in Ferguson opened up was the story of the way African American people encounter law enforcement in communities around this country and have done so for such a long time and the boiling point that was reached in Ferguson. I think it was important for America to see that that boiling point had been reached. When I went to St. Louis a few weeks after, about a month after Mike Brown was killed, I actually had a pre existing commitment to speak in St. Louis. And so I went to St. Louis and I did a radio show before my talk that night and during the radio show, the host asked me about police violence against unarmed African Americans and how long this had been an issue and quite unexpectedly, I just said, you know, so actually, I remember my first knowledge of this, and I talked about being ten in New York City and remembering a boy who was killed by the police when I was ten and how powerfully it moved me because the boy was tem. So I was ten and he was ten. I was on the radio and I was saying and I still remember the officer’s name, I remember the officer’s name was Shea and I remembered parents talking about it at the bus stop. And I remember what the front page of The Daily News looked like. I still remember that. It just kind of came out in this conversation. So I was saying to the host that that’s my kind of first even knowledge of the police. Like I didn’t. I mean, I was ten. I didn’t think about police officers before that, but I remember it and it stayed with me. And here we are decades later, and I’m able to tell you this. That’s how powerful it is. So I got back to my hotel and someone on Twitter said, I found the story and they found The Daily News story, and there it is, and it’s real. And I’m stunned at how much, you know, I remembered that was real. And it happened in Jamaica, Queens, which is where I grew up. The boy’s name was Clifford Glover, and he was out with his stepfather on a Saturday morning. They were collecting scrap metal from different junkyards and two plainclothes officers jumped out of a car, so unmarked car, plainclothes officers, and started chasing them and they shot Clifford Glover and killed him, and later said they thought he fit the description of a robbery suspect. This ten year old kid. And officer Shea was acquitted. He was later fired by the NYPD, and had a pretty terrible record. But how powerful this event was, and it was real. So I sent the article immediately to my siblings, right? There was unrest, cars were set on fire, nobody knows about that story. People watching Ferguson saying it was the first time it’s ever happened and I’m telling you about the 1970s.

Darnell: Same thing in my city, Camden, New Jersey.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Camden, New Jersey. So I think for people who think it was for not, no. So often as African Americans there are things we endure underneath the surface, we talk about it among ourselves, every once in a while it springs up, you know, Michael Stewart was killed in New York and it springs up and then it goes back down and we just keep living. And this sustained period of just saying, ‘No, this is unacceptable,’ I think was really powerful. And then subsequently aided by these videos, which really helped reinforce why it’s unacceptable. Like I can remember watching the video of Walter Scott being killed in North Charleston and I will tell you as a civil rights lawyer and a much older person than the person taking the video, when I was watching it, I didn’t know what was gonna happen. And mostly watching it, I was scared for the person taking the video, because you didn’t know what was gonna happen and I didn’t know where this was going. So that should tell you something. Why should I be scared for the person taking the video? So just to put a fine point on it, it is always important to expose America to itself. We have to see ourselves and even in this very challenging moment, just challenging democratic moment in this country, it feels awful, it is terrible but it’s also exposing us to ourselves. The thing that people like me have been talking about seven years ago and if I use the word white supremacy, it was like I was the skunk at the garden party, now, people understand white supremacy is a part of American life and we have to confront it. 

Josie: I wanted to ask how much do you think this current moment of a president who says that we’re too soft, you know, this moment of an explicit — what we already knew existed — in a kind of like marriage of white supremacy, racist violence and a pro-police, a pro-law enforcement, a thin blue line culture, how much do you think that’s a reaction to what was expressed in 2014 in Ferguson or that same year in New York or in North Charleston? How much of this is a reaction to people saying we’re not actually going to take this anymore?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I think this current moment has been building long before 2014 and is made up of a lot of things. But I do think it’s a super dangerous moment. And we should be aware of how dangerous it is and how serious we have to be about countering it. I say to people all the time, you know, LDF does a lot of voting rights work. It’s really one of our core signature areas of work and, you know, I remind people all the time about the way these areas all kind of intersect with one another because I do think that we are facing a moment in which there are those who really believe in a kind of minority rule and minority rule is an actual thing, we saw it in South Africa, it can actually happen. There are ingredients to minority rule that are required. You need hyper segregation: check. You need voter suppression: check. You need serious willingness of law enforcement to engage in a kind of suppression and I would say this is not just about police, but this is about border control and ICE and so forth and then you need a dehumanizing narrative about the other. So I really warn people, that I really issue the demographics is destiny, people, because I don’t believe that. I believe that with the right level of oppression and violence, demographics is not destiny. And I think that there are those who are committed to that, unfortunately. So how do we get to this moment? I think there’s just so many things that have built up over time, unfinished business of this country in addressing it Issues of white supremacy and not confining it. I mean, I wrote this book about lynchings that hadn’t been discussed for decades. I come into these communities and you can cut it with a knife. You can feel it. And yet there’s absolute silence about it. We are master avoiders of our biggest problem and I really believe that we have to find ways to confront the problems. On the policing piece, just to come back to that, I do think that we need a broader conversation about public safety and the more we talk about this as just police, it almost personalizes it, in which police officers really see themselves so implicated by this but actually, this is a larger conversation about what’s our vision for public safety, in which police officers are a part, but maybe not even the biggest part. Right? So if I were going to create a public safety system from the ground up-

Josie: That was our next question. (Laughs)

Sherrilyn Ifill: (Laughs)

Darnell: You’re talking, I’m smiling, I’m like, yes!


Sherrilyn Ifill: If I was going to, this is what I would do, I would imagine and I think that there are many people in communities around the country, I know that there are in many of the communities where we work and we have wonderful organizers on our staff who are deeply engaged in these communities., imagine public safety that is expanded beyond thinking about just police officers. When you call the police, it should be for something very particular that we think police officers can do. You know, we now have a 3-1-1 number, in most places where like, because police officers got tired of 9-1-1 being called to, you know, get my cat out of the tree, right? So you call 3-1-1 and they know it’s not an emergency. And I think we need a whole bunch of numbers like that. I think if your child is having a mental health crisis, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to call 9-1-1, you should be calling 7-1-1. And members of the city mental health corps should come out and help you manage that encounter. If there are young kids who are outside, it’s midnight, they’re around your car, they’re leaning on the car, you told them to be quiet, it’s midnight and I gotta get up for work in the morning, they cussed you out why are you calling 9-1-1? You should be calling 6-1-1 and the Youth Services folks come out who know how to engage with young people and who do community conferencing and who have a set of skills that would allow them to engage. And the same will be true for the elderly and for things that you see on the street that you think, it’s not always that you need people locked and loaded with guns and tasers and batons to show up to solve whatever is your problem. So I think just expanding and police officers themselves say, ‘We’re not social workers, we don’t want to be doing all of this,’ you shouldn’t actually. You should be one part of the public safety corps. Some should be police officers, some should be mental health workers, some should be juvenile workers, some should be, right? And they should all be under the rubric of the Public Safety Department and that way think about the jobs that would be expanded for folks in the community who do know how to do youth engagement, who do know how to do mental health counseling, who do know how to do substance abuse counseling, who do know how to engage the homeless, why are you calling 9-1-1 because there’s someone homeless on the street, right? Think about all of the ways in which people who actually live in the community could have jobs that allow them to be part of this Public Safety Corps. And so I do think that like part of thinking about solutions, and part of dealing with this very challenging moment that we’re in is that it challenges us to think bigger than we were thinking before. Apparently, they were thinking bigger and we haven’t been thinking big enough to think about what real transformation looks like. So it’s nice to think about how you reform one police department and we should be doing that but we really have to be talking about the culture of policing, the systems of policing, but also more broadly about what does a public safety system look like that the community can trust?

Darnell: You are speaking the stuff of freedom dreams.

Josie: It is so good. 

Darnell: You’re talking, I’m just like, this is it.

Josie: This is the future. I would vote for you for president.

Darnell: Hands down. How can people get involved with LDF?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, first of all, I really think one of the things I try to do is to make sure that I’m providing information and we think that’s really important. So I really encourage people to go to our website, to follow LDF on Twitter, to follow me on Twitter, we try to give really good information. There’s so much going on. It’s not that there’s no information, there’s almost too much information and I understand that people need someone to curate it for them. And so we try to be a curator of information about criminal justice and about a whole variety of civil rights topics so that you are equipped to know what you’re talking about. We encourage you to sign up for our newsletters, we encourage you to follow our Thurgood Marshall Institute, which is our think tank where we’re producing papers and research. We encourage you to reach out to us when you uncover things that are happening, when you learn that there is some practice happening that you think is unconstitutional. You know in the voting rights field we really believe in this, you know, when you find out that polling places are being closed, when registration has been limited in some way, when you fear that people are being intimidated at the polls, this is what we do. We’re out on election day, every election day, not just for the presidential election and we’re there, you know, we’re filing the suit on behalf of Prairie View A&M students and Alabama A&M students who are suddenly on the inactive list. That’s what we do. So it’s really important that you reach out to the organization and regard us as a useful resource. We are not the NAACP, by the way, we are two entirely separate organizations and have been since 1957. So we’re the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the organization created by Thurgood Marshall, we’re the legal organization and we try as much as we can to do impact work, we try to take on cases that we think will have the largest impact and be transformational. 

Darnell: I must say you’re such an icon. It’s really an honor to be spending time with you and to learn from you. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you all so much. 

Josie: Thank you so much for coming. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you for having me. It was great.


Josie: Thank you so much to our guest, Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It’s such an honor to have you on and we’re so glad you could join us. And I also want to thank you Darnell so much. I know this is your last episode of the season with us. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been an honor, a pleasure and you also moved across the country and started a new job as we were trying to make this work and you’ve really just been so wonderful and we’ve really enjoyed having you on. Thank you so much for your insight, for your brilliance, for being such a great part of the season.

Darnell: I’m so happy to have been involved. I learned so much and thank you for all the work that you do and everything that you’re doing at The Appeal. We want to thank you all too for listening to Justice in America.

Josie: For show notes and more resources on this issue, including to learn more about LDF please visit theappeal.org and don’t forget to check out Sherrilyn’s book bonus as well. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on theappeal.org

Darnell: I’m Darnell Moore.

Josie: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice.

Darnell: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts.

Josie: Justice and America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research assistance by Nawal Arjini. Location Recording by Phoebe Unter. Our conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill was recorded at Beat Street NYC, the engineer was Bobb Barito. Thanks so much everyone for listening and we’ll catch you next time.


Sherrilyn Ifill’s Book Recommendations:

Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice in America Book Bonus. 

I am here with Sherrilyn Ifill, she’s the President and Director Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I’m wondering if you can tell our listeners what you are reading.

Sherrilyn Ifill: So one I can tell you is actually I went back a few weeks ago to read some Achebe, some Chinua Achebe. And I literally sat on Saturday just sat and just read and it was fantastic.

Josie: That sounds like you can’t have many Saturdays like that.

Sherrilyn Ifill: No.


It was like a vacation but that’s my idea of a vacation. That’s how weird I am but that was my idea of a vacation; that was fantastic. What else have I read recently? So many of my book stack, goodness. The book I wanted to tell you about which I’m just still reading. It’s Martin Kilson. And the name of the book is Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880–2012 (by Martin Kilson and Henry Louis Gates Jr.)

Josie & Darnell: Wow.

Sherrilyn Ifill: And I’m reading this book, not because I’m that egg-headed, but I’m reading the book because you know after the election, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns (by Isabel Wilkerson) and I did a program together. And she argued that we are entering or in the Nadir. And I didn’t want to publicly say she was right, but I think she may be right. Anyway. So I’m curious about what were black people doing in the Nadir to get out of it because we were always fighting we were always struggling so I’m really interested in this period. So I’m kind of trying to read things that are about African American efforts and struggles, really, from around 1900 to the 1940s. I’m just curious to try to learn from that period.

Josie: I’m definitely gonna buy that book.

Darnell: Right? I’m like okay, I know what I need to read now.

Josie: Right. Exactly.

Sherrilyn Ifill: There’s a book about how the community has responded to the massacres in Charleston called Grace Will Lead Us Home (The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes), just started that book. Pretty powerful. And then Casey Gerald’s book.

Darnell: Yes. There Will Be No Miracles Here.

Sherrilyn Ifill: I just got into that one.

Darnell: That’s one of my good friends.

Sherrilyn Ifill: He’s amazing. I love his recent essay, it was awesome. What else is on my stack? I have so many on stack. You know what I just finished reading?

Josie: What?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Jean Theo Harris’s book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. It’s actually a quote of James Baldwin, right? That “America’s history is a more beautiful and terrible history than any has ever told.” And it’s about the misuses of civil rights history. And boy is this book so freaking essential. It’s unbelievable, taking you back through certainly for me events that I know a lot about, but that I didn’t know about. And so, really learning, for example, just more about the protests of people in the community in Los Angeles, in New York and other places around schools in the north. Because everybody just goes right to the Boston protests, but the real hard work that community groups were doing in that period, such an awesome book. And then Eve Ewing’s 1919, her book of poems.

Darnell: Yes.

Josie: Amazing. Huge Eve Ewing fans on this podcast.

Darnell: Yes we are.

Josie: We are.

Sherrilyn Ifill: There’s one passage I think I even have a picture of it in my phone. I may actually post it on Twitter later. 

Josie: You should.

Sherrilyn Ifill: It just blew like I had to set the book down, then I had to sit back. Then I had to make some tea then like collect myself because it was so amazing. But that’s one of the great things right now. People are just writing extraordinary things, trying to diagnose the moment and help us excavate history that we’ve lost. And I find this all essential to my work. I consider it part of my job, I could not do this work. I’m a student of civil rights history. And it really really helps me sometimes to know what to do and also to know what not to do.

Josie: Oh, that’s so good.

Darnell: Thank you so much.

Josie: Eve is gonna be so excited.

Darnell:  I literally just just texted Casey.


Sherrilyn Ifill: He’s amazing.

Darnell: I was like “Casey we just talked about your book.”

Josie: Thank you so very much for joining us.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you for having me.

Josie: Of course.

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