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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Keynote Remarks at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia’s Civil Rights Symposium


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, U.S. Attorney Ihlenfeld, for that warm introduction. I also want to thank you for your leadership and many years of dedication and service to people across the state of West Virginia. I am particularly delighted to speak at the invitation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia.

As I open my remarks today, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the role that West Virginia has played in our nation’s long march towards justice and equality. One person who figures prominently into this story is J.R. Clifford. Clifford was a journalist, a publisher of the state’s first Black newspaper, a Civil War Veteran, a teacher and school principal, a founding member of the Niagara Movement which gave rise to the NAACP, and the state’s very first Black attorney. In 1887, he was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. During that time period, he took on a case that became one of the very first cases in the nation challenging segregated public schools. In 1895, Clifford argued a case before the West Virginia State Supreme Court. The Fairfax District Board of Education in nearby Tucker County, instituted a rule that limited the Black schoolhouse located in Coketon to a school year of five months while allowing the white schools to maintain an eight-month school year. A Black teacher continued teaching for a full eight months, and submitted a bill for back pay to the district – a bill they refused to pay. Clifford took these facts to the court in a case that reached the highest court in the state. While he had some success along the way, the state Supreme Court ultimately rejected the challenge, holding that “social equality cannot be enforced by law.”

In another case heard in September of 1895 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Clifford argued for the right for Blacks to serve on juries. As Clifford presented his arguments in this case, it is reported that a prosecuting attorney U.S.G. Pitzer, picked up weights from the bench and struck Clifford several times until his blood ran in his shoes and he fell to the floor. Clifford went home, dressed his wounds, and returned to court to finish his arguments. Attorneys and advocates like J.R. Clifford faced violence and insurmountable challenges in their efforts to make our nation more just and whole. They laid the groundwork that helped give rise to the federal civil rights laws that we are tasked with enforcing here at the Justice Department.

Our job at the Civil Rights Division is to protect our most vital rights – the rights that make America a true democracy – the right to vote, the right to personal autonomy, the right to constitutional policing, the right to be free from discrimination and hate-motivated violence. These rights are being challenged, and it is a daunting time to protect them.

Today, I will discuss how we are meeting these challenges – our priorities, our accomplishments, and what we have yet to accomplish. We often do that work in partnership with dedicated AUSAs like all of you in the Northern District and in USAOs across the country. And sometimes, we get leads on information and potential civil rights violations from community members, private attorneys and other community advocates. At the Civil Rights Division, we are proud of all these collaborations. Now, more than ever, it is critical that we engage these partnerships, and others, as we continue our important work of protecting the civil rights of all people in the United States.

Given where we are in the country right now, I want to take a moment to highlight our efforts to prosecute hate crimes, promote police accountability, protect fair housing opportunity and defend the right to vote.

There is no denying the fact that we face an upsurge in hate crimes in this country. Black Americans, already the most targeted group, were targeted even more frequently during the pandemic. Anti-Asian violence has risen by over 70%. We have seen hate-driven violence on our streets, in our stores, our schools, and our houses of worship. These attacks on people because of their race, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation are unacceptable and have no place in our society.

The wages of hate are reflected in our grief for the 10 Black people gunned down in Buffalo, New York. Out of that grief, though, comes renewed determination to confront the real and present danger of white supremacist violence. In July, a federal grand jury returned a 27-count indictment against the defendant in Buffalo, charging violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and other federal laws for willfully causing the death of the victims because of their actual and perceived race and color. We are committed to seeking justice for those victims and the entire Buffalo community.

We also secured guilty verdicts on federal hate crime charges against the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. The evidence at trial revealed that the defendants had strongly held racist beliefs that led them to make assumptions and decisions about Mr. Arbery because he was a Black man. At trial, the evidence showed that one defendant had made deeply racist comments, including that he wished that Julian Bond, a former NAACP leader, “had been put in the ground years ago;” and a second defendant had expressed on social media and in text messages that he associated Black people with criminality and wanted to see them killed or harmed. The lead defendant, Travis McMichael, who fired the bullets that took Ahmaud Arbery’s life, was recently sentenced to life plus 10 years.

The Arbery case underscores why robust enforcement of hate crimes laws is essential. It broadcasts a powerful message that the people affected and their communities are valued, and that the department will not stand idly by when they are targeted.

But prosecutions alone will not rid us of hate crimes. That is why the Justice Department is also hard at work addressing non-criminal acts of bias that rear their ugly head inside our schools, workplaces and in our neighborhoods. We are also addressing the need for hate crime prevention through education and awareness. This multi-part strategy is critical to eliminating hate, root and branch.  

Turning to law enforcement accountability — we all know that every day, law enforcement officers across the country put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. In the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, the majority of those who police our communities do so with professionalism, respect, bravery and integrity. But we also know, because we have seen it, that when police departments engage in unconstitutional policing, it can severely undermine both community trust and public safety.

Therefore, another of the division’s highest priorities has been to ensure that local and state law enforcement is lawful, transparent and non-discriminatory. Our main tools to address these issues are criminal prosecutions of individual law enforcement officers for misconduct, and investigations into patterns or practices of misconduct by law enforcement agencies.

Since January 2021, the department has charged more than 50 defendants for willfully violating the constitutional rights of victims, and convicted more than 40. This number includes the convictions of all four police officers involved in the tragic killing of George Floyd. That case makes clear that we will hold accountable not only officers whose actions violate the law, but also those who fail to intervene to stop them.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the division prosecuted a former firefighter for using his position of authority to sexually assault a minor. Two weeks ago, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison and five years of supervised release. In mid-August, a grand jury in the North District of West Virginia indicted a former county Deputy Sheriff for beating and pepper-spraying a detainee who was handcuffed, and then writing a false report to cover it up. And in March, a federal jury convicted a Logan, New Jersey, Police Department officer for using excessive force after violently assaulting an arrestee – an assault that rendered the victim unconscious and left him with a broken shoulder, a broken nose and a cut to his head that required staples to close.

Also in August, the department charged four current and former Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Department officers with federal crimes related to Breonna’s Taylor’s death in 2020. Last month, one of the former officers confessed. She admitted that she conspired with a colleague to falsify an affidavit supporting a warrant to search Ms. Taylor’s home – leading to Ms. Taylor’s death when other officers executed the warrant in the middle of the night. This former officer also admitted that she and her colleague sought to cover up the false warrant by lying to criminal investigators after Breonna Taylor was killed. Breonna Taylor should be alive today, and we will leave no stone unturned in our quest for justice.  

The other tool we use against unconstitutional policing is pattern or practice investigations of law enforcement agencies. These investigations focus on systemic police practices and seek to prompt institutional change within law enforcement agencies. In these inquiries, we generally focus on the rights to be free from excessive force, unreasonable stops and searches, unjustified or retaliatory arrests, and discrimination.

Since January 2021, we have opened investigations of the Louisville, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Mount Vernon, New York, police departments; the New York City Police Department’s Special Victims Unit; and the Louisiana State Police.

This work will remain a priority of the division. Our goals are to advance a community- and problem-oriented policing strategy, promote bias-free policing, address unlawful use of force, improve community engagement, retrain officers, reform accountability systems and address the link between policing and other criminal justice and social systems. We are also leveraging federal grants through our Office of Justice Programs and other services provided by the Justice Department’s COPS office to ensure a holistic approach to this work.

Any discussion about our criminal justice system must address our jails and prisons. The United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world – almost two million people in a vast network of federal, state and prisons and jails, juvenile correctional facilities, immigration detention facilities and more. People of color are disproportionately represented among them.

By reason of their criminal conviction, each of these individuals has relinquished their freedom. But they have not relinquished their basic human rights, which we must respect. In 2020, at least 26 people died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide. Add to that the reports of violent assaults, including stabbings and beatings. Using the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, last summer, the Justice Department opened a statewide investigation of Georgia prisons. We are reviewing allegations of harm to prisoners resulting from staff-on-prisoner violence, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff, and severe understaffing.

In April 2022, we completed our investigation of the Parchman penitentiary in Mississippi, an institution that dates from 1901. Black people, who represent 37% of Mississippi’s population, make up 70% of Parchman’s inmates. Our investigation found uncontrolled violence between inmates, inadequate mental health treatment and suicide prevention measures, and over-reliance on solitary confinement in a manner that endangers physical and mental health. These conditions resulted in 10 homicides and 12 suicides since 2019.

While criminal enforcement is a critical part of our Civil Rights docket, our responsibilities extend much further. Let me discuss two examples. First, economic justice, in particular, redlining.

Redlining has long driven racial wealth disparities. Lenders frequently refuse to offer credit services or make loans to individuals in a neighborhood because of the race of its residents.

Decades of redlining have created devastating long-term consequences. Today, the median wealth of a Black family is approximately $24,000. The median wealth of a white family is nearly eight times that amount, approximately $188,000.  

Housing represents a significant portion of family wealth. White families are 30% more likely to own a home than Black families. The homeownership gap between Black and white families is larger today than it was in 1960, before the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

Faced with these grim statistics, the department launched a broad new initiative to investigate whether lenders are engaging in unlawful redlining. In July, we reached a settlement with Trident Mortgage Company regarding allegations that they denied communities of color in the Philadelphia metropolitan area equal access to residential mortgages, stripped them of the opportunity to build wealth, and devalued properties in their neighborhoods. Trident agreed to invest more than $20 million to increase credit opportunities in neighborhoods of color in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Turning to voting — the right the Supreme Court has said is “preservative of all other rights.” There is a boom market in voter suppression across the country. We’re seeing discriminatory, burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on access to the ballot. We’re seeing efforts to intimidate voting officials. And we’re seeing discriminatory redistricting plans that dilute the voting strength of Black and other voters of color. The Supreme Court, most notably in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, has constricted the department’s tools to counter this discrimination.

In the face of these challenges, Attorney General Garland has affirmed the department’s commitment to “ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information.” He pledged that, “The Department of Justice will never stop working to protect the democracy to which all Americans are entitled.”

This has been and will continue to be a foremost priority within the Civil Rights Division. We have filed multiple lawsuits across the country to protect voting rights for all Americans, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

  • In Texas, we sued to stop Senate Bill 1, which impairs the rights of Black and Latino voters to vote absentee and, when they vote in person, to receive help in the voting booth from their assistors of choice.
  • We also sued Galveston County, Texas, challenging redistricting plans that deny Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.
  • In Arizona, we sued to stop HB 2492, which imposes numerous unlawful restrictions on voter registration.
  • The division has also filed briefs in voting rights cases in Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota. Some of these briefs touch on very critical issues related to voting rights enforcement.

Many thousands of Americans fought and died to secure the right to vote. Civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens were attacked, brutalized, even lynched just for claiming this most basic right. We will not forsake the sacrifices of these heroes. We will not break faith with them by surrendering the progress we have made. We will fight to ensure that every eligible individual can exercise the constitutional right to vote.

As I said at the outset, in protecting civil rights, we face challenging issues and formidable barriers. Despite the extraordinary work of the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, progress is hard, and not necessarily linear. But, as Dr. King said, while “the arc of the universe is long, . . . it bends toward justice.” We will follow that arc and persevere in our work. We will meet the challenges and overcome the barriers. With fairness and fortitude, we will advance the cause of civil rights.

Thank you.

Voting and Elections
Civil Rights
Fair Housing
Hate Crimes
Updated September 12, 2022